Towards consolidating pragmatic federalism in India in the face of Covid-19

Mainspring of grappling the blues of pandemic can be manifested in meticulous alliance of central and state governments



Neha Tiwari


The constitution makers of India have assiduously paved the way of cooperative federalism for governance of such a vast and diverse land. Constitution lays out a detailed scheme for the separation of powers between the Centre and states by delienating Union list, State list and Concurrent list. Although the residuary powers lie with the Union government, giving a ‘unitary tilt’ to Indian federalism but the State list provides exclusive powers of legislation to states. Since the adoption of Constitution, Indian federalism has come a long way despite several hiccups from time to time.


Recently, there has been a hue and cry about eroding federalism in India. As the country is going through a difficult time due to the onslaught of contagious Corona virus, several steps have been taken by the Union government in a top-down manner, namely, announcing nationwide lock down by invoking Disaster Management Act, 2005.


This brought economic activity to a grinding halt in the country, resulting in huge financial losses to the states. The state exchequer were burdened because two major sources of revenue were strangled: ban on liquor sale and decreased consumption of petroleum products due to reduced mobility. This has led to feeling of paranoia among states.


The states are also fighting the pandemic effectively at their level. Several states such as Kerala, Orissa, Goa, etc. initiated a lock down even before the central government’s announcement using Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. As mandated by the constitution, in Schedule 7- public health and sanitation; hospital and dispensaries fall within the domain of state governments; Panchayat and Nagarpalika are also given the similar role in Schedule 11 and 12. It was largely argued that state must be left with the daunting task of dealing with the pandemic on its own. They wanted upper hand in formulating guidelines of lock down and also labeling the affected areas as red, orange and green zones. One of the major demands is greater autonomy in laying down the regulations to tackle the situation and also iterated financial independence.


States like West Bengal have strongly opposed the top-down guidelines issued by Centre, saying that the unilateral move was not consistent with the ‘spirit of federalism.’ There is a tussle between Union and States regarding the management of medical supplies, management of lock down, work plan for lifting up restrictions to return to normalcy and grant of financial resources. According to them, Centre tried to make sure that states follow its diktats.


However, the Prime Minister himself accepted the fact that states must be given wiggle room to craft their own strategies. The Centre ensured inter-ministerial meetings with the states at various stages to formulate the guidelines. It is imperative therefore that both the stakeholders come on a mutual ground to achieve the desired goal.


The aforementioned fact can be substantiated by the precedent of Delhi, where collaboration between Union and local government became handy in curbing the surge of infection. Delhi government openly accepted that partnership of both the governments is the key to take the pandemic head on. Several other states like Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Haryana exemplified that working as per and in alliance with Union government is the most practical way of dealing with this teething trouble. Even local administration of Agra and Bhilwara acting in coherence with national guidelines excelled in containing the infections. Unity of agencies and politics of welfare are cornerstone of cooperative federalism.


The tough situation put forth by rampant pandemic - which is multi-dimensional in its reach - necessitates seamless coordination between the Centre and state governments. Along with mediocre health facilities, inconducive economic environment and chaotic social order, there is much more to get grips on. It involves international engagement and also deals with security dimensions. To tackle these issues the Union government must take the stage.


Even states are at avery crucial position, as Chief Ministers of state have to play signalling role via policies that address direct and local concerns. The supply chain management of essential goods and services is also a mammoth task that need greater collaboration among States. Educating people about merits of social distancing, pressure of migrant labourers from across India, providing shelter and food to them, sustained campaigns to promote sanitation and cleanliness etc. Every State is trying to evol ve its own response model. But dissemination of Covid-19 cannot be solely handled by State governments.


States are also in a very crucial position, as chief ministers of state have to play signalling role via policies that address direct and local concerns. The supply chain management of essential goods and services is also a mammoth task that need greater collaboration among states. Educating people about merits of social distancing, pressure of migrant labourers from across India, providing shelter and food to them, sustained campaigns to promote sanitation and cleanliness etc. Every state is trying to evolve its own response model. But containment of Covid-19 cannot be handled by state governments alone.


The Union government has tried to adhere to the demand of finances by the states by providing relief packages and announcing welfare schemes from time to time to contain Corona virus. Sates have also reciprocated positively, highlighting the nature of Indian federalism.


The outbreak of Covid-19 has caused disruptions globally. It can be tackled only by implementing far reaching reforms. And this can be done by systematic and sincere symbiosis between Centre and state. Though the continuous demand of greater autonomy by the federal units and rise in paradiplomatic activities of sub-national government can be considered as quantum leap for regional development.


Nevertheless, it is time to recalibrate and re-imagine genuine consultative mechanism for better federal governance. As Granville Austin remarked that the progress of the Republic rests on active cooperation between the Union and states. Inter state council must be rejuvenated as a dynamic platform to discuss policies, strengthen the Centre-State relations and act as a bridge to plug any trust deficit.


The Covid-19 challenge must be addressed with a responsiveness administration nationwide. Multi-dimensionality of the crisis compels a national perspective and coherent delineation of responsibilities of various contributors. As underlined in the constitution, in a state of emergency the Union must take command of the situation and ensure restoration of normalcy in the country. The woes of ordinary populace should be rectified earliest. Therefore, it is imperative on the part of Union government to take up the role of leader and pave the way for States to emerge from this menace.


The contours of this relationship have changed manifold in recent times. It demands consolidated and fortified dispersal of federal powers in the country and emergence of ‘Team India’. The key at this point lies in bracing the ethos of cooperative federalism and setting aside competitive federalism to present a unified armor to country in the face of a raging pandemic.

(Neha Tiwari is an Intern with Academics4Nation. She is a Research Scholar, Department of Political Science, University of Allahabad.)


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