In the battle against COVID-19, in which survival depends on a unity of purpose, governments can ill afford to play up differences and divisions on the smaller details, or allow them to take centrestage. Among the points of difference, and contention, between New Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram over the relaxation of controls in the second phase of the lockdown, is the wisdom of opening up barbershops, restaurants, bookstores. The Ministry of Home Affairs had written to the government of Kerala on April 19, protesting that the permissions announced by it for April 20 were at variance with the central order, issued under the Disaster Management Act. State Tourism Minister Kadakampally Surendran, who looks after the interests of the sector hit worst by the novel coronavirus, admitted that unlocking was a novel exercise and attributed the incident to a “misunderstanding”. So far, so good.
The first difference of opinion between the Centre and the states on containment strategy does not necessarily represent conflict. It is a learning process, and an opportunity to reaffirm the federal spirit. But what is gleaned subsequently depends on the manner in which the problem is addressed. While the prime minister made a visible effort to marshal the states against the coronavirus — holding extensive consultations with all chief ministers ahead of the extension of the nation-wide lockdown — the Centre has constituted six inter-ministerial teams which will assess the situation on the ground in West Bengal, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. This can be read as a lack of faith in the state administrations. Both the Centre and the states need to appreciate what is at stake, and to understand that any points scored off each other may come to nothing — the final political reckoning will only count the lives and livelihoods lost. In a battle that is being waged on multiple fronts, by various strategies, the question of legal jurisdiction must not be overemphasised or allowed to come in the way.
COVID-19 presents different realities according to geography. What is good for Kerala is not necessarily good for Maharashtra, and vice versa. Each state has its own disease map and its own scatterplot of the resources that can be mobilised against it, whether it is respirators or self-help groups, and the value of local knowledge cannot be stressed enough. The prime minister had himself acknowledged that states should have the elbow room to craft their own exit strategies, but, at the same time, it is also clear that stakeholders must agree on a common minimum programme. Let it consist of goals and broad guidelines. The details may be left to the states.
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