After infecting more than 2.3 crore Indians and killing more than 2.5 lakh of them, the novel coronavirus is eating away the innards of our federalism. Here’s how.
Last week, Tamil Nadu made a forceful case of discrimination in distribution of vaccines. As on May 11, when Rajasthan, with a population of 7.9 crore, was allotted close to 1.5 crore doses of vaccines, Tamil Nadu with 7.6 crore people and almost double the number of infections in Rajasthan, was given a little more than 76 lakh doses. Gujarat, with a lesser population and half the number of infections than Tamil Nadu’s got close to 1.5 crore doses. Perhaps the skew is solely because of a formula which gives weightage to utilisation of existing stock, but if there is a perception of bias then it needs to be addressed for the fight to be successful.
A more bitter fight between states has been over medical oxygen. Tamil Nadu last week complained that it was allotted only 220 tonnes of oxygen against its requirement of 470 tonnes, while it was sending oxygen produced in Chennai to Andhra Pradesh. The virus respects no borders and Tamil Nadu has no right to stop supply of oxygen produced in the state to another. The tussle for the live-saving gas raises questions about Centre’s allocation of crucial resources, underscoring the need for it to act in a transparent and unbiased manner and for the states to behave as partners in the fight rather than rivals.
As per the central committee on oxygen pool, Tamil Nadu has been getting 40 tonnes from the Inox Air Products plant in Kerala’s border district of Palakkad. On May 10, Kerala chief minister defied the Centre and said it would not allow movement of oxygen out of the state. Karnataka blocked roads to prevent movement of people from the Kerala side. Telangana sealed its borders with its just-separated sister Andhra Pradesh, preventing ambulances from carrying Covid-19 patients in distress to hospitals in Telangana. Odisha closed its borders with Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
Matters aren’t better in the northern states. The Uttar Pradesh government said that it would not vaccinate people who did not have a proof of residence in the state (it later rescinded the order), and that included a large number of people from the National Capital Region. For his part, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had asked hospitals not to take in patients from outside NCR. After testing the resilience of India’s healthcare delivery system, the pandemic is now challenging the robustness of the relationship between the states and that between the Centre and the states. And an allegedly partisan Centre dealing with states that are at war with each other during a pandemic can be a recipe for a bigger disaster.
As a result, the judiciary in many states had to step in. Hearing a public interest litigation on the Covid-19 situation on May 11, the Uttarakhand high court asked why Uttarakhand was being forced by the Union government to procure oxygen from other states when it has three oxygen production units.
“We have called for an explanation from the central government. The state government has submitted that it is helpless and its hands are tied as the control is with the central government,” said the division bench of Chief Justice RS Chauhan and Justice Alok Kumar Verma.
It’s not that we don’t have laws and guidelines to prevent this anarchy. The Epidemic Diseases Act, enacted in 1897 to deal with the bubonic plague in Bombay, gives special powers to the states and the Centre, but the veto lies with Parliament. Ironically, states threaten to invoke the state rules under the Act to deny medical supplies to others. This is where the Disaster Management Act of 2005 should take precedence, and the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) should play the role of a strict and fair referee, which, at present, it is not.
Article 256, which deals with ‘obligation of states and the Union’, is unambiguous: “The executive power of every state shall be so exercised as to ensure compliance with the laws made by Parliament and any existing laws which apply in that state, and the executive power of the Union shall extend to the giving of such directions to a state as may appear to the Government of India to be necessary for that purpose.” Article 257 makes it clear that the states can exercise their executive power only in a way that will not impede or prejudice the power of the Union.
And then, the Centre has to be unbiased while exercising its powers. Article 39 directs the state that ownership and control of material resources of the community should be “distributed as best to subserve the common good”. This is where the Centre has faltered. To ensure optimal and judicious distribution of resources during such a pandemic, the Centre should be immune to political considerations and pressure groups.
While NDMA, headed by the prime minister, should continue to play a pivotal role in formulating national plans and strategies, micromanagement should be left to the states and the district authorities. Allocation of oxygen, antiviral drugs, steroids, testing kits and vaccines should be based on a scientific algorithm that takes as inputs daily cases, test positivity rate, case fatality rate and doubling period. The Centre has to invoke all the powers it can to ensure states play ball. And the Centre has to be seen to play fair.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
END OF ARTICLE