By Dr S Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
Prime Minister Modi’s meetings with Chief Ministers of States and UTs on June 16 and 17 regarding the state of COVID-19 is the sixth such PM-CMs meeting on the pandemic and will be extremely significant in view of rising cases of coronavirus across the country despite four lockdown periods with fifth running. Measures taken for containing the disease and results of easing the lockdown are being discussed continuously between Union and State governments, among ministers, officials, medical and other experts. Never before had we gone through this much of strain to bring about Centre-State coordinated decision and action. It can be termed “COVID-19 Effect”.
Meanwhile, after a review by Modi with ministers, concern over spiraling cases in some States particularly Delhi has grown and anxiety to act immediately is on everybody’s mind. It is reported that the PM observed it was important to have the capital back on track and devise a plan to control the spike.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Health Minister Harsh Vardhan held an emergency meeting on 14 June with Delhi Lt-Governor Anil Baijal and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in the presence of senior officials of Delhi government and municipal corporations to draw up a plan for coordinated and comprehensive response to handle the challenges posed by the pandemic.
In the background is Supreme Court’s sharp criticism of deteriorating conditions in Delhi. Indeed, the worsening of the situation in Delhi has been allowed too long to deserve any excuse. Coordinated as well as joint action of the Union and Delhi Government which should have been the starting point is receiving attention as the last resort to save the Capital.
The Union Government has been initiating multiple interventions to help States manage the situation efficiently and promptly. Both have their role and responsibilities in public health matters particularly in dealing with epidemics and pandemics. That does not mean independent policy and plan.
Union Government has set up an expert group at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences – a Central institute – to provide clinical advice to States to manage cases. States are also asked to set up similar expert groups for clinical management at State level. The need for expert groups to assess the situation and provide advice is acknowledged by the Centre and States which enlarges scope for participation and coordination between political and non-political leaders.
Needless to mention that the fight against COVID-19 pandemic is not a political matter, but a national health crisis affecting all States, and the entire population without distinction as to race, religion, language, caste or political persuasions. For the first time in the history of Indian democracy, we witness continuous deliberations between Union and State Governments, frequent consultations with experts on technical issues, and reviews and assessment of developments on almost daily basis. All State Governments must be pleased with this, whatever they may say to stick to their political stand.
The first PM-CMs meeting was held on 20 March 2020, a week after WHO declared the disease a pandemic and before announcing Lockdown-1 to “ensure coordinated approach to fight COVID-19”; the second on 2 April to exchange views on extension of the Lockdown; the third on 27 April discussed further lockdown plans after several CMs announced relaxations of restrictions; at the fourth such interaction, the PM highlighted the importance of following the guidelines of lockdown and stressed that everyone’s aim must be rapid response.
In the fifth video-conference held on 11 May, Modi called for “balanced strategy” and sought inputs from the States. As the toll had crossed 70,000 at that time, the importance of coordinated action received wide support. But West Bengal resented Central instructions, supervision and survey. The question of State autonomy came up when the situation was practically out of control of individual States.
Delhi Government’s decision at one point to restrict COVID-19 treatment in Delhi hospitals to bonafide Delhi residents seems unreasonable for the simple fact that every Indian citizen can move into and reside in any State and there is no special status as “state citizens” to claim special rights in a State. The LG overruled the decision on the basis that Right to Health is an integral part of Right to Life. Delhi particularly is a cosmopolitan city having large proportion of floating population.
With the return of “migrant labour” to their home-States and many to their villages, we are now facing the risk of epidemic escalation into rural areas and absolutely need Centre-State coordinated planning and action. Modi had to remind the States that our biggest challenge would be to ensure that COVID-19 is prevented from spreading to rural areas. To harp on the theme of State autonomy and State subject when the pandemic has affected over three lakh people in the country seems to be a political compulsion.
Pandemics, like war, have to be fought under one leadership with pooling of resources, expertise, and manpower from all parts of the country with a single over-all policy and coordinated planning and action strategies with due consideration for differential local conditions. The pandemic is expected to peak at different times in different places. It should be possible to share equipments like ventilators between States by proper coordination and timely cooperation. Central teams have to be deployed in States for assessment of the situation and provision of required medical assistance. All these are possible provided we consciously cultivate mutual trust and cooperation between Centre and States and between States.
Union Home Ministry has asked State Governments not to dilute the restrictions given in lockdown guidelines. Since the powers of the States under the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 are not adequate to fight the pandemic, Union Government has to use the Disaster Management Act in the case of COVID-19.
States do have an important national role and cannot afford to remain self-centred. They have to enlarge their horizon to think of India and people of India even though their power is limited to their respective States. The attitudes manifested by some States in dealing with the crisis created by loss of employment of migrant labour and in making arrangements for their return to home-States are typical specimens of lowest level of the spirit of cooperation and inability and unwillingness for coordination in our federal democracy.
The problems emerged in the pandemic period are stupendous and too serious to be viewed from narrow party politics or with worn out ideas and irrelevant considerations like State Autonomy. The need of the hour is cooperation towards a common goal and coordination of action in national interest.
The sixth video-conference of PM-CMs devoted to review the country’s response to the pandemic with special attention to the most-affected States is expected to take care of material requirements like hospitals, beds, and medical equipments at State and district levels.
Whether it is fighting the virus or dealing with the exodus of migrants or determining economic stimulus package to revive the economy, success depends on COVID-19 Effect in awakening our spirit of cooperation. — INFA