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Will the Centre and states stop their tug-of-war?

The sanctity of the federal structure is one thing, but if the lethargy of the states and the reluctance of the Centre magnify the impact of a tragedy, then it is a hole in the wall that urgently needs to be fixed, writes Neelesh Misra. How can you help| Full coverage

india Updated: Sep 15, 2008 11:49 IST
Neelesh Misra

The Constitution needs to be changed; death must be put on the Concurrent List. Whether it is a natural tragedy, a terrorist attack or the murder of a teenager in Noida, a Centre-state turf war ensues at the first opportunity, with disastrous consequences.

The Army and Navy rescuers cannot go to the spot of the tragedy until being called to save lives; the Central Bureau of Investigation cannot take up a terrorism case like the Malegaon blasts until it is asked to do so by the state — and even when that happens, the paperwork takes two to three days, in which time all forensic evidence could be lost.

In the aftermath of the Kosi tragedy in Bihar, another round of this tussle has started — this time over aid money. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a relief package of Rs 1,000 crore, which Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has (justifiably) said is not enough, and has asked for about eight times more for long-term reconstruction.

But much before the cash, it was about lives. As the river tore through a concrete spur at Kushaha in Nepal, flooding areas on the Nepalese side and a massive swath of Indian territory, the responses from the two governments were very different.

The Nepalese army pressed three helicopters into service within hours and rescued not just its own citizens, but a few thousand Indians as well. And, how many helicopters did India send? Two, even though New Delhi had a much larger crisis to deal with, with 2.5 million people affected, compared to about 70,000 people in Nepal.

As the state machinery crumbled under the huge scale of the tragedy, the Union government did nothing over the next ten days to handle the crisis. On August 29, the PM flew to Bihar, calling the tragedy a national calamity. That evening, seven helicopters were added to the rescue effort and by September 1, a total of 13 were deployed. The only silver lining in the story was the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF)’s quick action. It responded on its own without being asked by any government, as is its mandate and saved more than 100,000 lives. But they had only 700-odd men.

By the time the Army and Navy got over the Centre-state requisition muddle, the worst part was over. Had they been brought in earlier, they would have been able to help far more people than they did.

A similar paperwork hurdle plays out after nearly every terrorist attack. After the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota), fighting terrorism is the responsibility of the state government, which uses a decade-old law to do so. Policemen, already short-staffed and overworked, have little capability to deal with a terrorism investigation. Even local forensic units goof up on forensic probes. But a central agency cannot step in until asked to — by which time all is lost.

When it comes to people’s lives, there is an urgent need to revisit how the Centre-state bottlenecks play out in a crisis. The sanctity of the federal structure is one thing, but if the lethargy of the states and the reluctance of the Centre magnify the impact of a tragedy, then it is a hole in the wall that urgently needs to be fixed.