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Covid has raised urgent questions about Centre-state relationship

The democratic capability of the Indian state will be tested with each new wave of the pandemic. Collaborative federalism that chooses to ignore asymmetries in power will only strengthen the democratic choices for better governance.

New Delhi |
May 3, 2021 11:25:25 pm

Written by Anita Tagore

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of our existence as a species. It has unleashed unprecedented health and economic hardships and has laid bare the systemic fault lines in the global socio-economic context that have reinforced multi-axial inequalities. It has demonstrated the fundamental failures of the state in responding to the needs of its citizens during a natural disaster.

In India, the fall-out between the Centre and states is a cautionary tale about the systematic breakdown of cooperative federalism. Now, it is a case of competitive federalism. The federal-state relations show the sharp asymmetries fuelled by power tussles for control over jurisdiction.

The second wave has been devastating worldwide. India is no exception. The claims of flattening the curve have fallen flat on our faces. The daily record spikes in new COVID cases across the country shows the extent of its spread.

In the last few days, the oxygen supply crisis in Delhi’s hospitals has demonstrated the breakdown of the healthcare system on the one hand and the decaying Centre-state relationship in disaster management on the other hand. The failure of the apathetic state to respond promptly led to a deepening of the public health crisis. The ensuing chaos is reflective of the public agony and collective distress. Delhi’s is a heart-wrenching tale of despair.

The COVID surge has hastened the acute shortage of relevant medicines, oxygen cylinders, hospital beds and crematorium spaces, indicating the near-absolute collapse of the welfare state in India. The fishing of pharmaceutical companies in troubled waters is deplorable with the restrictive supply of medicines and market-induced scarcity.

The unpreparedness in the governments’ response has heightened the vulnerabilities of the disadvantaged segments of society. With the rise in black-marketing of medicines, the poor have been exposed to the gravest forms of prejudices that jeopardise their lives. The critical infrastructure for pandemic management has to be steered towards focused objectives, operational effectiveness, and appropriate resourcing. Building the effective resilient capabilities of health should be the primary duty of the state.

Delhi sets new records in COVID-positive cases every day and has a spiralling death toll. Amidst this, the relationship between the Centre and Delhi has been extraordinarily politicised. The political parties ruling the Centre and the state seek to engage with the voters by pulling each other down. The recent legislation that clips the powers of the Delhi government in day-to-day administration is a case in point.

With the GNCT Act having come into force on April 27, the long-standing demand for statehood by the AAP government in Delhi has become more or less redundant. Instead of collaborative restructuring of institutions, there is more and more antagonism between different units of government at the local, state and central levels.

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The forced migration of the poor from the city has been the most tragic example of how the three constituent units of government have failed to provide adequate relief during the pandemic. Last year, with a dwindling economy and lurking unemployment in Delhi, disadvantaged migrants decided to go back to their home states. They walked thousands of kilometres to reach the safety of their homes. Many died on their way. The state showed almost no mercy in the form of assistance with resources.

The contentious engagement of these three levels has shown the trust deficit that provokes internal contradictions. At the local level, the BJP-led MCD had shown initial reluctance to convert the hospitals under its administration for COVID care. At the state level, the inter-state conflict is evident as the oxygen supply crisis in the capital city got intensified with the stopping of vehicles carrying oxygen supply from neighbouring states like Haryana.

Finally, the Centre’s alleged disaffection towards Delhi shows in the latter getting just 480 MT of oxygen against a demand of 700 MT, while states with lower requirements have been provided larger supplies. Even the Delhi High Court has chided the government over the lack of public accountability in state COVID management strategies that have risked the lives of thousands.

Another instance of dissension has been in the politics of vaccination. The administration of vaccines has been restricted by age and the presence of comorbidities. The current COVID surge presents the urgency of equitable access to vaccines for the entire population without any qualifying conditions.

The AAP government has time and again campaigned for an urgent vaccination drive for all. High-level meetings with densely affected states convinced the Centre to concede to the demand for disaster mitigation and make vaccines equally accessible for all adults. The points of disagreement will perhaps dissolve once vaccines are available as over-the-counter medicines that do not require registration after the initial streamlining drive. The registration process may be less inclusive in many ways.

The saving grace in this chaos and panic is how citizens have rallied to help each other. The COVID-19 situation has shown how active citizenship has boosted democratic vitality. The social participation of good Samaritans has been instrumental in building mutual trust and commitment. Civil society organisations, along with netizens via social media platforms, have blended social capital with solidarity.

Durable networks of more or less institutionalised relationships based on mutual recognition of resources have helped common people in distress. There is a lesson here for power-hungry governments, who have invested more time in election rallies than providing citizens with good healthcare facilities.

The democratic capability of the Indian state will be tested with each new wave of the pandemic. A responsive and responsible government is fundamental to any success story of pandemic management. Collaborative federalism that chooses to ignore asymmetries will only strengthen democratic choices for better governance.

The writer is an associate professor at the department of political science, Kalindi College, University of Delhi and a socio-legal researcher.

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