Covid-19 crisis is a litmus test for collaborative federalism: How has India fared so far?

Updated: Aug 25

The Disaster Management Act enables both the Centre and states to take adequate measures in order to deal with the crisis



Susmita Debnath


In the wake of Covid-19, the world is dealing with an emergency situation of a magnitude no less than a third world war. The pandemic has not only shaken the world economy, but also the administration and governance of countries across the world. Be it a developed nation like United States or a developing country like India, each has its share of challenges. In India, where a partial lock down has been in place for over 150 days, coordination between the Centre and states has emerged as the fulcrum for management of the Covid-19 situation.


Part XI (Articles 245-263) of the Constitution of India provides for a federal structure of government. Here powers stand divided between the Centre and states. However, due to the centralising tendency of the Indian federalism, KC Wheare termed it to be ‘quasi – federal’. In this light, Covid-19 emerges as a litmus test of the Indian federal structure. In the context of who shall be responsible for making laws in the face of a pandemic, former Lok Sabha secretary-general Subhash Kashyap says, “Infectious diseases come in the concurrent list. In such matters, both the Union and the states can make laws. If there is a conflict, then Union law prevails according to Constitution.” Former home secretary GK Pillai further elaborates that since MHA’s powers are in lieu with the Disaster Management Act 2005, a central legislation, the Centre would have greater powers than the states.


The central government had invoked the Disaster Management Act, 2005 in order to issue “complete lock down” in the country to curb the spread of the virus. Chapter 3 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 provides for the establishment of an authority known as the National Disaster Management Authority. The Act further states Prime Minister shall be the chairman of this authority. The National Authority may lay down policies on disaster management and guidelines to be followed by the State Authorities in drawing up a state plan. It may recommend provision of funds, approve the national plan and plans prepared by the Ministries or Departments of the Government of India in accordance with the national plan.


The central government invoked the Disaster Management Act, 2005 to issue “complete lockdown” in the country to curb the spread of virus. This sudden declaration received strong opposition from the states, especially from those ruled by Opposition parties, like West Bengal. The central government classified the districts into ‘red’, ‘orange’ and ‘green’ zones. The Union health ministry released a list of 130 ‘Red Zones’ across India. This zonal classification again prompted sharp criticism from states. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee alleged that the process was “erroneous” claiming that there were only four Corona virus “Red Zones” in West Bengal as against 10 districts enumerated in the Centre’s list. The Disaster Management Act 2005, under section 11 states that the Centre may formulate a National Plan and may issue such guidelines which will be binding on the States under Section 6(2). However, section 11(2) of the Act, adds that the Centre needs to take recommendations from the states. Based on this provision, the states have demanded more autonomy.


One of the most disruptive outcomes of the lock down has been loss of jobs for poor migrant labourers who were left without home and food. Some states like Maharashtra demanded the Centre should run special trains to take the migrants home, which was refused by Centre at that time. The migrants had to eventually travel in buses. Meanwhile, states such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh assisted the return of migrants, even though the Centre had not issued any guidelines. This mounted public pressure on governments of the states like Bihar and Odisha that requested for proper MHA guidelines in this regard.


Uttar Pradesh brought back the highest number of migrants. However, the Centre commenced the operation of bringing migrants to their home states by starting the Shramik Special trains from May 1. The Centre also started the Vande Bharat Mission to bring back the Indian nationals from abroad. The Ministry of External Affairs said in one of its statements that nearly 9.5 lakh Indians had returned home under the Vande Bharat Mission. The Centre also directed the States/UTs to ensure adequate arrangements of temporary shelters and provision of food etc. for the poor and needy, including migrant labourers, stranded due to lockdown measures. It asked the states to provide quarantine facilities and screening for a minimum period of 14 days. It also asked employers to pay wages and directed that landlords should not demand payment of rent for a period of one month. Any landlord forcing labourers and students to vacate their premises, was made liable for action under the Disaster Management Act.


PM Narendra Modi launched Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyaan, an employment scheme with an outlay of Rs 50,000 crore for migrant workers who had returned to their home states due to the lock down. This scheme is applicable to the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Odisha. State governments have also launched schemes to provide for migrant workers. The West Bengal government said that they plan to restart the 100-day work scheme in the non-containment areas. PM Narendra Modi also launched the Atma Nirbhar Uttar Pradesh Rozgar Abhiyan to promote local entrepreneurship and create partnership with the industries, to provide employment to 1.25 crore migrant workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic.


The Centre has widened the sphere of testing and has urged the private labs to conduct tests. In a recent video conference with the chief ministers, PM Narendra Modi, spoke about the 72-hour formula under which all contacts of a person diagnosed Covid positive must be traced and tested within three days. The states have also complained of irregular supply of essential medical equipment. Bihar CM Nitish Kumar requested the Centre to help with critical health equipment including 5000 oxygen concentrators and two Covas-800 in order to increase testing facilities in his state. Earlier, the Bengal government had also blamed the Centre for not sending enough test kits.


For it's part, the central government announced a financial package of $22.6 billion. This package included free foodgrains and cooking fuel for the poor for three months and cash doles for women and poor senior citizens for the same period. This financial package would be a means to meet problems like lack of funds, irregular supply of essential medical equipment etc. Kerala, was the first state to announce an economic support package of Rs 200 billion.


States earn a major share of revenue from the sale of alcohol, stamp duty from property transactions and the sale of petroleum products. Tamil Nadu, for example, earns almost Rs 30,000 crore every year from the sale of alcohol. Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh recently said that the state would lose Rs 6,000 crore because of the ban on alcohol.


The Centre has also allocated Rs 15000 crore for upgradation of health infrastructure in India. In a recent video conference with the PM, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee reminded the Centre that it has to pay Rs 53000 crore and also raised an issue to disburse the GST collections. The setting of a limit by FRBM Act, the PM-Cares Relief Fund being put under the ambit of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) contributions, suspension of MPLADS and diversion of the funds to the Consolidated Fund of India have made the states fully dependent on the Centre for finances. The Centre has however released Rs 17287 crore as the states sought funds to fight Covid 19.


The pandemic has put a strain on Centre-State relations but it is cricial for them to stay on the same page in order to contain the spread of the virus and properly manage the scenario. Collaborative federalism is important for good governance. The Constituent Assembly had argued that a ‘strong Centre’ does not presume weak states. This spirit of collaborative federalism needs to be the guiding light in this phase of unprecedented crisis.


(Susmita Debnath is an Intern with Academics4Nation. She is a research scholar at Ravenshaw University, Cuttack.)

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