The Corona Pandemic and Atrophy of India’s Federalism
The NDA government lacks an idea of cooperative federalism, harmonious relations between centre-states, empowering states, and a constructive approach to deal with the health emergency.
In this unprecedented crisis of the Corona pandemic, the last two and the half months have been quite tough for West Bengal, not merely because of the pandemic and the massive landfall of Amphan cyclone but also due to the constant intervention and violation of the cooperative federalism by the central government and the office of the Governor. The problem between the centre and state government started with the Prime Minister’s sudden announcement of a nationwide lockdown on 24 March 2020 without consulting the states and resorting to completely centralised decision making by invoking the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and the Disaster Management Act, 2005.
The first challenge faced by the Bengal government was to fight against the pandemic along with a financial crunch because of a two-month-long lockdown. The lockdown completely dried up all sources of revenue for the state from fuel, excise, alcohol stamp duty, etc. Even the promised GST compassion due and the entire sum of revenue deficit grant of 5,013 crores which was provided by the 15th Finance Commission to West Bengal have not been transferred, despite the constant appeals of the Chief Minister and Finance Minister of West Bengal to the union government. The West Bengal government even wrote to the Prime Minister for sanction grants of Rs. 25000 crores and asked for the relaxation in the state’s fiscal deficit along with increase the FRBM limit from 3 per cent to 5 per cent. However, the central government did not pay heed to the state’s demand. In this situation, considering the poor fiscal strength of the state, the union government should have empowered them fiscally to fight the pandemic effectively. But the central government has completely centralised the decision making and used the state’s distress to force them to adopt its economic and institutional agenda.
Meanwhile, against the background of increased fund requirements to deal with the pandemic, the Prime Minister formed the PM-CARES fund and the contributions to this fund would be considered as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) under the Companies Act, 2013. However, donations to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund (CMRF) were excluded from CSR. This rule became the point of contention between the centre and Bengal and Mamata Banerjee publicly called it an attack on the country’s federal structure. TMC’s MP Mahua Moitra moved the Supreme Court against this dichotomy. The state has spent its most resources to ramp up public health infrastructure, deal with the humanitarian crisis of migrant labour, and to protect the vulnerable sections facing adversity during the lockdown, but failed to prevent avoidable hardship and misery to millions of vulnerable people due to lack of support of the union government.
The confrontation between the governor and West Bengal government took a new turn when the Governor’s office publicly blamed the Bengal Government for stopping the BJP MPs from distributing relief material and also accused the government of PDS scam, not implementing PMGKAY and minority appeasement, and asked the state government ‘to synergistically work with the central government’. The continuous allegations by the Governor pushed Mamata Banerjee to reminded him of his ‘nominated post” and accused him of transgressing the ‘constitutional dharma’ and norm of decency. Mamata Banerjee’s comment on ‘nominated’ vs ‘elected post’ escalated the rift between Governor and Chief minister. In a letter to Mamata Banerjee, the Governor accused her street fighting approach and communication skills as a “part of ‘alibi strategy’ emanates from a script that seeks to cover up monumental failures in these challenging times by series of blunders.” To this allegation, Mamata Banerjee became vocal about the usage of inappropriate words by Governor office against the CM and identified the Governor’s behaviour as unconstitutional. However, the verbal accusations between the governor and the Chief Ministers became a new normal in West Bengal. The governor interfered in the functioning of elected government on several occasions, including on the appointment of interim KMC board, overruling the West Bengal State Higher Education Department recommendation on the appointment of pro-vice-chancellor to Burdwan University and dictating all the vice-chancellors of state universities to follow his order and report him directly. Lastly, the Governor had a truce on the education issue with Bengal’s CM on 4 June 2020; however, the verbal accusation continued on the other issues.
Along with Bengal, many other states like Maharashtra, Kerala and Puducherry also complained about the Governor’s interference in the functioning of the elected government. This uncooperative attitude of the governors’ office indicated that the union government is using the governors to destabilise the state governments. In the last six years of NDA rule, the use of the governor’s office for unconstitutional practices by the union government became new normal, and it escalated further in the lockdown period.
The central government’s two inter-ministerial central teams (IMCT) visited West Bengal to assess the COVID-19 situation with thirty minutes prior notice which again paved the way for a confrontation between the centre and state. It was expected that the central government, in a moment of crisis, would help the state government by providing financial supports and extending cooperation. However, in the case of Bengal, the IMCT blamed the state’s health care system for hiding the COVID patients data and violation of lockdown rules without extending medical and financial support. Following this accusation of IMCT, Bengal Chief minister accused Central officers of holding video-conferences with the state officials without keeping her government in the loop during the meeting with PM. Besides, Mamata Banerjee also became vocal about the violation of the federal structure by the centre in this meeting and commented that the states were not the bondage labour of the centre.
The present relations between the centre and states is a result of the violation of the basic tenets of federal structure which led India into coercive federalism. To understand the harmonious relationship between the union and state governments and basic principles of Indian federalism, we need to revisit the Nehruvian idea of cooperative federalism. Jawaharlal Nehru, on 8 June 1962, wrote a letter to the chief ministers which reflects his visions and path for strengthening the idea of cooperative federalism and harmonious relations during the crisis of epidemic of smallpox which claimed thousands of lives in India. In this backdrop, keeping the idea of cooperative federalism in minds and practice, Jawaharlal Nehru writes to the chief ministers;
8 June 1962
My dear Chief Minister,
I am writing you about a matter which may perhaps appear to you unimportant, as it is not political, but which is I think of essential importance. This is the eradication of smallpox, a perfectly preventable disease. It has indeed been eradicated from many countries of the world. Unfortunately, our country as well as Pakistan are considered to be important foci in the world from which there is danger of importation of disease to other countries.
Our Ministry of Health is making an effort to put an end to this disease in India and to remove this national stigma. They have formulated a National Smallpox Eradication Programme for covering the entire country with mass smallpox vaccination. The Planning Commission has provided a sum of Rs. 688.98 lakhs during the third Five years Plan for this scheme.
The Government of the U.S.S.R has made a gift of 250 million doses of this vaccine to us. It is highly desirable and indeed essential for us to take advantage of this gift and of the resources that are now available to carry through this campaign. I hope that not only your health department but all other Departments in the state will extend their cooperation to this campaign. I also trust that you will take a personal interest in this matter. It will be a great thing for us to rid our country of this scourge which has caused so much sorrow and suffering to our people.
This letter highlights three significant aspects of Indian federalism: first, cooperative relations between state and a central and taking states in confidence on the matters which are in the state’s list. Second, a union government’s harmonious approach to the state and mutual obligations to deal with any epidemics and save human life apolitically without blaming the state governments. Third, empowering the state governments with enough financial assistance to combat any health emergency. In the smallpox epidemic, Nehru’s vision of cooperative federalism strengthened the centre-state relations and protected its citizens and led the path to eradicate the smallpox epidemic in India.
The NDA government lacks an idea of cooperative federalism, harmonious relations between centre-states, empowering states, and a constructive approach to deal with the health emergency. Therefore, the restoration of the Indian cooperative federal structure, with sensitivity, humanity and cooperation is necessary to combat the pandemic. The Indian constitution has provisions defining and regulating the centre-states and their mutual obligations. Further, since independence, India has developed certain institutions for promoting cooperation, understanding and harmonious relations between the centre and the states. These harmonious relations are only possible when the institutions created under and inspired by the Constitution for this purpose enjoy complete trust and respect of all parties concerned. Whatever differences or occasional conflicts arise, the governments should endeavour for mitigation and resolution, not as two different Governments but as two entities of the same system.
Dr. Amrita Mondal has received PhD from JNU, New Delhi and teaches modern & contemporary history in North Bengal University, West Bengal.