R Srinivasan

Covid and the collapse of federalism

R Srinivasan | Updated on May 12, 2021

Oxygen care Courts had to mediate between the Centre and States   -  DEEPAK KR

The Centre and States need to realise that they are fighting a common enemy

One of the more extraordinary stories I have read recently was a report in a Mumbai newspaper about vaccine shortages in that city. The report quoted the resident of Chembur, a Mumbai suburb, complaining bitterly about the residents of Mulund — another Mumbai suburb several stations down the Central Railway suburban line — who, she said, were coming to Chembur and “taking away our (presumably referring to Chembur residents as a collective) vaccines.” Such is the fear and panic triggered by the pandemic that the usual parochial instincts have become hyper-tuned to the suburban level.

It is funny when this is restricted to the odd misguided individual. It is deeply worrying when states and elected governments start thinking the same way.

As the Central government floundered and blundered in handling the Covid crisis, moving from draconian centralised control to a sudden abdication of responsibility as the deadly second wave surged, the fissures in the relationships between the Centre and the States, as well as between the States, have cracked wide open.

During the first wave, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had provoked outrage by ordering hospitals not to admit patients from outside the national capital territory. During the first, brutal nation-wide lockdown in 2020, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister ruthlessly sealed his borders to prevent “coronavirus carriers” from entering the State, stranding lakhs of migrant labour, from UP as well as further east, at the State’s borders.

That act, too, provoked widespread condemnation. In the south, Karnataka police in Mangaluru not only refused entry to vehicles and people from Kerala’s bordering Kasargod district, but at one point dug trenches across the national and State highways to prevent vehicular access. That barrier was lifted after the courts intervened.

Rising barriers

Now, as hospital systems around the country collapse under an ever rising number of cases, many other States are following suit. Telangana police are stopping ambulances with critically ill patients from Andhra Pradesh seeking treatment in Hyderabad’s modern (and private sector) hospitals from entering the State. Identity requirements have been imposed in Uttar Pradesh for accessing treatment.

In Delhi, with dozens of patients reportedly dying from a shortage of oxygen, the courts saw vitriolic exchanges between the Centre and the State. While Delhi accused the Centre of starving the State of oxygen, the Centre accused the State of overstating its oxygen demand and misusing supplies, besides having failed to have created the infrastructure it should have to deal with the crisis. Meanwhile, several States have accused others of “hijacking” oxygen supplies meant for them, even as the Supreme Court asked the Centre to come up with a workable plan for equitable oxygen distribution across the country.

The Centre’s move to open up the vaccination programme to the 18-plus age group, for which States will have to procure vaccines on their own, as well as lifting of pricing and procurement curbs on vaccine manufacturers, has thrown a further spanner into the works. It is not clear, for instance how manufacturers are supposed to prioritise deliveries — Centre (lowest price), States (higher price), private sector (even higher price) or exports (highest realisation).

It is also not clear how supplies will be allocated among States, who are all paying the same price — will it be on scale of order, which will favour populous States, or on time of order, which will favour more organised ones, or payment terms, which will favour the fiscally better off States?

On top of this, this paper reported on Wednesday that as many as four States are already in the process of finalising floating of global tenders for supply of vaccines, since the Centre has approved the use of all vaccines approved for use by the health authorities of other nations. The imminent internecine war for vaccines is just about to go global.

The consequences of an unrestricted free-for-all between the Centre and the States as well as between the States, is disastrous. We are already suffering the consequences of an uncoordinated, fragmented and piecemeal approach to fighting the pandemic. For instance, while the Centre invoked the Disaster Management Act to impose nationwide rules and regulations (from travel restrictions to oxygen and vaccine allocations), several States had also invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act, which empowers the States with sweeping powers but limits the role of the Centre. Fortunately, nobody has tested which Act will prevail over which – yet. But it could happen.

Political pitch

Politics, as usual, has made a bad situation only worse. The acrimonious blame game in West Bengal, Kerala and Maharashtra between the opposition party-ruled State government and the Centre had escalated to serious charges of political bias and deliberate denial of vitally required supplies to these States. The recent elections in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu also saw plenty of blame being flung around between regional parties and the BJP.

The pandemic has imposed extraordinary stress on India’s federal structure. Unfortunately, the response to this – from both the Centre and the States – has only made the situation worse. It’s a short walk from forcibly diverting crucial supplies meant for others to outright conflict.

The Centre needs to step up and take leadership of the fight against Covid. Simply washing ones hands off – in the name of providing more autonomy – isn’t going to solve the problem. It must ensure that scarce resources are used efficiently, that the economic burden of the pandemic dues not unduly hit the weaker States, that all citizens of the country get a reasonable shot at vaccination and healthcare. It is all very well for the Centre to ask the Supreme Court to “trust us” – it also has to ensure that it bridges the trust deficit with States.

It is high time that we realise as a nation that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s warning to the world that “no one is safe until all are safe” applies as much to the country as it does to the world. A beggar-my-neighbour approach to fighting the pandemic will only leave all of us destitute in the end.

The writer is former Editor, BusinessLine

Published on May 12, 2021

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