The wages of centralised decision-making

The wages of centralised decision-making

Articles of Faith

Alok Prasanna Kumar argues that Harry Potter is science fiction and Star Wars is fantasy Alok.P.Kumar

The spread and impact of COVID-19 has not been uniform across the country. Take four contiguous states for instance: Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala -- all on the west coast and reasonably prosperous. While the first two account for nearly half of all cases in India, the latter two account for less than 4,000 cases. Gujarat and Karnataka have roughly the same population but have vastly different numbers of cases even though Gujarat detected its first cases a week after Karnataka did.

One answer to this lies in the responses of state governments. Kerala and, to an extent, Karnataka have been vigilant and effective about testing, contact tracing and isolating infected persons, but Maharashtra and Gujarat have been less so. But why should there be such a difference in outcomes in four states of reasonably comparable wealth? The answer may have to do with the large role given to state governments under our Constitution when it comes to public health and sanitation.

All law-making powers under the Constitution for Union and state governments are derived from the same two articles: Articles 245 and 246. As any civics student will tell you, certain powers are reserved for the Union (List I), certain for the states (List II) and certain are the responsibility of both (List III). However, is there an underlying logic to the way these subjects are separated in these three lists?

This is a question that arises particularly when tackling epidemic diseases. While “public health and sanitation” is in the exclusive domain of the state, both the Union and the state governments share powers when it comes to preventing the spread of infectious and contagious diseases from one state to another.

When you think about it, the framing is quite clear: Health and sanitation will be in the hands of the government closest to the people while the Centre always remains in the background to help if the situation gets out of hand, or threatens to go beyond state borders.

This was not uncontested in the Constituent Assembly and members did worry about the spread of epidemics, but not the epidemic we are thinking of. They were thinking of the “epidemic” of adulterated mustard oil which had spread disease and devastation across Eastern India and which, they felt, could only be tackled by centralising the power to manage disease and public health!

One particular member, Brajeshwar Prasad Mishra, who was against any sort of federalism, had this to say:

If the nation is to be saved from the scourge of disease and epidemics, all powers as far as this entry is concerned must be vested in the hands of the Centre. Of course, I fully appreciate the point that by wresting those important powers, provincial autonomy will be modified to a very large extent, but provincial autonomy is not an end in itself. It is only a means to an end -- the end being the economic, political and cultural advancement of the people of this country. Any movement of ideology that stands in the way of the economic, political and cultural advancement of the people of India must be liquidated and wiped out.

The bombast of this speech seems to have been an outlier in the Constituent Assembly and seems fairly ludicrous in hindsight -- federalism has kept India together even as neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka have splintered and fallen into civil war as they tried to impose a unitary identity on diverse peoples. The wisdom in creating a federal structure cannot be denied.

Needless to say, the rest of the Assembly did not agree with Mishra.

Coming back to COVID-19, states such as Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra did begin to impose their own lockdowns much prior to the Centre by exercising their powers under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. States pushed the Union to impose a full lockdown later because inter-state movement of persons was becoming difficult to handle.

Unfortunately, that is where the story of cooperative federalism ends. Since then, we see an unnecessary and confusing centralisation of decision-making. Decisions are made in Delhi with little coordination between states. There’s no framework for cooperation, resulting in states refusing to let workers leave or enter their boundaries.

Our Constitution-framers, almost all of them having lived through the Spanish influenza outbreak, if not the various plague outbreaks, knew that any effective response to an epidemic had to be led by the government closest to the people, with the Centre playing a supporting role. Unfortunately, we have forgotten these lessons and are paying a heavy price for it.

(Alok Prasanna Kumar argues that Harry Potter is science fiction and Star Wars is fantasy)

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