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The paradox of centralised federalism

Articles of Faith
Last Updated : 01 May 2021, 21:53 IST
Last Updated : 01 May 2021, 21:53 IST

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One of the defining features of the gross mismanagement of the second wave of Covid-19 by the Indian government has been the flawed centralisation and decentralisation of efforts. Somehow, against all odds, the Union Government has both centralised and decentralised badly, botching the fight against the pandemic and leaving India’s citizens gasping for oxygen amid the cruelty of Covid-19.

Going back to 2020, when the disease was limited to a few cities, the Centre imposed a nationwide lockdown that caused immense misery and destroyed the livelihoods of millions, apart from ending up spreading the disease to different parts of the country as panicked migrant workers left. Instead of helping local efforts to manage the outbreaks, the Union Government centralised everything, costing lakhs of lives.

Now the same mistakes are being repeated, this time in the context of vaccines. The sensible route would have been to centralise the procurement of vaccines, distribute them to states according to population and let them figure out local distribution and prioritisation based on supplies and local situation. Instead, the Centre has a muddled procurement process that seems to change every week, with prices that change every other day and vaccine supplies that run out every day. This confused and confounding approach has cost lives and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The sad part of this really is that this was eminently foreseeable. In fact this precise issue, in the exact context of an epidemic and public health, was discussed in the Constituent Assembly.

In the debate which happened on 5th November, 1948, after the Draft Constitution was first placed before the Assembly, an interesting and vigorous debate took place on larger questions of federalism and centralisation. Some members felt that the Centre was not powerful enough and others that it was far too powerful under the Constitution. In the specific context of public health, Frank Antony and T T Krishnamachari were among those who believed that public health as a subject should be the domain of the Centre since diseases know no boundaries, or at least shared between the Centre and the states.

Reading through the speeches which call for a strong Centre, it is not hard to miss the underlying subtext - partition. However, members also remembered the flaws of such overt centralisation under the Government of India Act, 1935.

In specific, the post of the Governor and its use to control Provincial Legislatures which had elected Indian representation. This tension — to seek a strong Centre to preserve the Union but also liberate the states to make their own policy choices — is one that comes through the discussions many a time.

This tension ensured that the Indian constitution cannot be ever fit into a strict mould of “federal” or “unitary”. Even the term “quasi-federal” used by some academics in this context does not accurately describe it. Academics and scholars have expended much ink in trying to fit the Constitution into preconceived ideas of federalism but the genius of the text evades such simple classification.

The Constitution tries to draw a careful balance between ensuring a strong central government which can manage national needs and giving states enough leeway in coming up with their own policies, catering to local needs.

The larger point is this: “centralisation” and “decentralisation” are not ends in themselves. They cannot become definitive mantras for governance. The Constitution itself came in at a time when a strong Centre was needed to address the needs of a poor, diverse and divided nation. As India became more stable and state capacity improved, the trend was to decentralise and let local concerns be handled locally. The story of Indian governance can be told entirely through the constant tension between centralising and decentralising tendencies.

That said, a twisted notion of a “strong central government” has gotten us to this mess. The belief that Delhi knows best and is the only repository of “national interest” has been shown up to be a gigantic lie. It’s time for the Centre to show some humility in the matter, set aside institutional ego and learn to listen. The lives of millions depend upon it.

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Published 01 May 2021, 19:02 IST

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