Federalism and decentralisation have got a new lease of life in India with the COVID-19 outbreak. If there is one positive that the Indian polity can take away from the crisis, it is the renewed focus on these two tenets.
Essential for a democratic nation, both have been enshrined in our Constitution. That is why we have distinct lists earmarking subjects to states and the Centre separately. But time and again, both have taken a backseat, getting overwhelmed by a powerful Centre.
This has, however, changed — at least for the time being. Public health, as a subject, falls under the State List of the Indian Constitution. And by utilising its full potential, several states have shot to the centre of attention along with the escalating medical emergency.
By responding in a timely and organised manner, these states have set precedents for others. Amid the air of gloom, their dogged fight against the virus brings a ray of hope. Some of the recent developments from these states illustrate that.
Till 7 pm today, the total number of cases in the country stood at 933. This included 20 deaths.
Take, for example, Kerala. The southern state announced an economic package of Rs 20,000 crore on March 19, being the first state to do so in the country. This was a week before the Centre announced the Rs 1.7 lakh crore financial package to help people during the crisis. Kerala’s announcement was significant because it came at a time when the state had little money in its coffers.
“We are mindful of the acute shortage of resources. But that should not prevent the government from bringing relief to the people. This was the principle on which we announced the Rs 20,000 crore package,” said chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan in an interview to the .
The relief package included health measures, loan assistance, free food grains, advance payment of welfare pensions, more allocation for MGNREGS, subsidised meals, tax relief, and more.
Migrant labourers have suffered great hardships across the country ever since the nationwide lockdown was enforced. Visuals of men, women and children undertaking days-long walks to reach home have raised questions about the Centre’s preparedness before the announcement. The poor have been left behind, at their own peril. The Centre is yet to come up with any policy to help the thousands of people on the roads.
Vijayan, whose state hosts a great number of migrant workers, tried to uplift them in Kerala. To begin with, “guest labourers” is the term that is being used in official circles to denote the migrants — a term Vijayan recently coined. Apart from offering dignity, the state government on Friday announced the setting up of 4,603 camps for the wellbeing of the labourers stranded in the state.
Officials said that about 1, 44,000 "guest labourers" are temporarily living in the camps. Another 35 camps were opened for 1,545 homeless and destitute people. In addition to food and accommodation, preventive measures like sanitisers, soaps and masks are provided at the camps. Educational institutions are likely to be converted into such camps to create more space.
Kerala was the first state in the country to report a positive case of the novel coronavirus in late January. Ever since, it has assumed a proactive role to battle against the disease. Chief minister Vijayan told the media that the state has drawn a protocol by taking lessons from the Nipah virus outbreak in 2018.
One of the unique measures adopted is helpline numbers to assist home-quarantined people with mental health issues. A state-wide network has been put in place. Till March 26, it attended more than 35,000 calls.
Vijayan and his health minister, KK Shailaja, have led the fight from the front. They regularly engage with the media to take questions and give the latest updates. Shailaja has personally visited many patients in isolation wards.
Amid the efforts, the state recorded its first death today with the total number of cases standing at 176, the highest among states, till 7 pm today.
When Uddhav Thackeray took oath as the chief minister of an unlikely political coalition, many dismissed him as a possible puppet in the hands of Sharad Pawar. But that was five months ago. With the spread of the novel coronavirus, Thackeray’s influence and stature have only increased, both in the state and nationally.
Maharashtra has reported the second highest number of cases in the country. Till 7 pm today, the figure stood at 162, including five deaths. Right from the beginning of the crisis, Thackeray and his team have jumped into action in emergency mode.
The state government yesterday sought the help of the Indian army to deal with the deteriorating situation in the state. Officials in the chief minister’s office said the government was in touch with the Pune-based Southern Command headquarters to seek support for the free movement of essential goods and additional medical infrastructure.
Monitoring the spike in cases, the Maharashtra government has kept several facilities ready for service. Mumbai’s guardian minister, Aslam Sheikh, they were prepared to tackle any emergency.
“If the number of positive patients goes up, we can start isolation wards immediately at Bombay Exhibition Centre in Goregaon, then another ground at Worli and the Convention Centre at Bandra Kurla Complex. We have extra 500 beds in JJ Hospital, GT hospital and St George hospital,” Sheikh said.
On Thursday, Thackeray granted permission to all stores dealing in essential commodities, like groceries and medicines, to remain open day and night. The order came as a relief amid uncertainties over supplies of goods to the people. The order strictly asked the shops to adhere to norms of social distancing and sanitisation.
On Friday, deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar permitted all hotels to keep their kitchen open and for food to be delivered to homes.
Maharashtra has a sizable farming population. Offering relief to them, fruits like mangoes from Konkan, grapes from Nashik, and oranges from Nagpur can be sold in the market along with others. Further, all activities associated with farming, like the transportation of seeds and fertiliser, have been exempted from the 21-day lockdown.
Plans have been devised to continue the freight of agricultural produce between Mumbai, Pune and Nashik. District officials have been asked to issue permits and ensure the movement of these vehicles in view of the curfew in the state, state agricultural minister Dadaji Bhuse .
Delhi had 45 cases till an hour back. One person has died from COVID-19 in the national capital so far. Like Kerala and Maharashtra, Delhi has been dealing with the outbreak on a war-footing.
The Delhi government recently announced a dedicated number, 1031, through which people engaged in essential services can avail an e-pass to move around.
Starting today, the state government began providing free food to nearly four lakh people from weaker sections. Till yesterday, the number of people covered was 20,000. Hundreds of schools have been converted into camps, to ramp up and strengthen the number of shelter camps..
Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, addressing a digital press conference, said his government has set up a team of five doctors to chalk out a strategy for possible adverse situations. The team differentiated the action plan into three stages-: first, what can be done if there are 100 new cases every day; second, what can be done if there are 500 new cases every day; and third, what can be done if there are 1,000 new cases every day.
“If we get 100 new cases every day, the current healthcare system that we have is enough to treat the surge. For that, a detailed plan has been created to see how many isolation beds, ventilators, ICU beds, testing mechanisms and strength, ambulances, medical staff such as doctors and nurses, are under each head of 100, 500, and 1,000 new cases every day. But I hope that we never reach this stage,” Kejriwal .
The same day, Kejriwal announced some financial relief for Delhi residents. Rs 5,000 each had been transferred to eight lakh beneficiaries under schemes covering widows, the disabled, and the elderly. A similar announcement was made on Wednesday for more than 45,000 construction workers registered with the Delhi Labour Welfare Board.
To fight COVID-19 together, Kejriwal has engaged with different stakeholders to learn and share ideas. Yesterday, he joined leaders from dozens of cities around the globe in a video conference organised by C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. In a rare gesture, he asked journalists to keep a check on his government’s work and point out if they found any mistakes.
For a state that is yet to be affected by COVID-19, Assam has been remarkably alert and active. For almost two weeks now, the state has taken a range of initiatives to prepare its medical infrastructure. Unlike in most other states, the man in charge in Assam is the state’s long-time health minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma. Sarma has announced a slew of measures already and is constantly monitoring the situation.
Beginning from today, the two hospitals in government medical colleges in Guwahati and Dibrugarh have been specially earmarked for suspected coronavirus patients. Only patients requiring emergency care, like maternity, cardiology and cancer, will be admitted in these hospitals. To help patients with other diseases, the government has roped in dozens of private hospitals. Treatment will be provided free of cost through cashless transactions. The government will reimburse all the expenses of the private establishments.
Yesterday, to increase the pool of healthcare personnel, Sarma announced that all final-year medical and nursing students will be trained to deal with COVID-19 patients. They will be deployed across six medical colleges in the state. The government will take care of their food and lodging.
The state is also working to increase the availability of hospital beds. “We are planning five pre-fabricated hospitals in collaboration with private companies to meet this emergency situation. The project might cost around Rs 40-45 crore, which shall be met with the help of donations from government agencies, MPs, and public and state resources,” Sarma said yesterday.
Earlier, a 30-bed Intensive Care Unit was made ready within a few days in the Guwahati Medical College hospital. The facility has been kept reserved exclusively for coronavirus patients in the state capital. Additionally, a huge quarantine centre is being built in the Sarusajai athletic stadium in Guwahati. It will accommodate up to 700 people.
Chhattisgarh is among a handful of states that has managed to keep the case statistic below 10. The state has six confirmed COVID-19 cases as of this evening. Before the number can shoot up, the state government has launched awareness campaigns and is ramping up its medical facilities.
Today, chief minister Bhupesh Baghel announced that his government will set up 100 beds in each of the state’s 28 districts. Further, all six medical colleges in the state have been asked to make special arrangements for treating infected people. Baghel took the decisions in a cabinet meeting last evening. The chief minister also took stock of the availability of testing kits and masks at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and Jagdalpur Medical College in the state capital of Raipur.
The government has strengthened its surveillance mechanism to prevent any spread of the virus. “Teams of the health department have initiated community monitoring in all the 28 districts of the state so that the person suspected to have been exposed to the virus could be immediately identified and placed under treatment,” Taran Sinha, a government spokesperson, told .
The state government is also set to initiate a drive to fly drones to spray disinfectants in areas prone to the spread of coronavirus. Such areas include the vicinity of hospitals, and marketplaces which have a concentration of stores selling food, medicines and other essential commodities.
To raise public awareness, banners with Baghel’s photo have been installed across the state. These banners, which read “Return home”, are aimed at urging people to stay at home during the lockdown.
There are many stories about people battling the outbreak, and they’re coming in from all corners of the country. But states can act only to the extent they are allowed to. The relationship between the states and the Centre is complementary, with the Centre having the upper hand. The aid and advice of a responsible Centre is, therefore, vital in this journey.
In the face of this, the central government has continued its own measures. It recently widened the testing criteria for the virus and has allowed some private labs to conduct them. Interventions have been made in the economic sector to alleviate the growing public concerns.
But there are key areas where work still remains to be done. Healthcare professionals have been struggling to get adequate personal protective equipment like masks, hazmat suits, and gloves. The sudden dearth of PPE indicates that early signals were ignored by the centre. Thus, it raises questions about the centre's strategy to fight the disease. In addition, testing has been very low in the country so far, despite a faster growth of cases with each passing day. This is largely due to the insufficient number of kits available at the moment.
Such limitations fall in the domain of the Centre and they merit urgent attention. But as the crisis has shown, the states have taken things in their own hands where they can. In many cases, their actions have predated similar moves by the Centre. In terms of announcing relief measures or declaring lockdowns, initiatives taken by the states reaffirm the importance of a strong federal structure for effective governance.
As a self-declared believer in “cooperative federalism”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should definitely empower the states going ahead. In the interest of the vast nation, he may as well take a leaf out of their books once in a while.