Recognise the centrality of states in defeating Covid-19, writes Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Updated on May 07, 2020 07:15 PM IST

Federalism has been at work in the best sense. The states have worked with limited resources and within constraints

A word here is needed on a state beyond states in India: Migrant workers. They form a floating Union Territory that requires full statehood, not territorially but civilisationally(AP)
A word here is needed on a state beyond states in India: Migrant workers. They form a floating Union Territory that requires full statehood, not territorially but civilisationally(AP)

“India that is Bharat shall be a Union of States.”

That is how our Constitution starts. Never has that line rung truer than now.

Parts of India that they have always been, the states today are more, much more. They are India. The India where life’s breath is now drawn with vigilance, where hands and fingers move with caution and frequently come together in prayer.

Facing the biggest challenge since Independence, the states and Union territories are grappling with the pandemic hour by hour, minute by minute. Speaking to chief ministers on April 27, the prime minister got it exactly right. He said that the states are better acquainted with ground realities about the pandemic. He has been a chief minister and he knows what ground realities mean.

The clarion call having been sounded by our prime minister, all chief ministers, their health ministers, chief secretaries, health secretaries and the district administration have been holding the virus by its invisible micro-horns. Their work done with such financial and human resources as they have, and under many constraints, can only be described as heroic.

Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s efforts in Kerala have been pioneering. His government took the first steps towards halting the virus in its tracks well before the rest of the country did. Odisha’s achievement in controlling the pandemic has been remarkable as has Goa’s record of being the first to have zero active cases. Tamil Nadu, by getting an early start in testing, has done well for itself. And Rajasthan, by setting up a framework for food supplies to the poor, and health access with a helpline, has factored care into the lockdown at a great financial cost.

Maharashtra and Mumbai being the most coronavirus disease (Covid-19)-challenged of all states and cities, chief minister Uddhav Thackeray’s great firmness has to be lauded. He has shown himself to be just the type of no-nonsense leader that his state needs. Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, has done likewise. The West Bengal chief minister’s determined outreach to her people is reassuring, though it makes us worry for her own protection.

Federalism has, thus, been at work in the best sense of that first line of our Constitution. Behind this lies a constitutional sanction. In fact, a constitutional imperative. In the Constitution’s division of prerogatives and duties as between the Union and the states, severally and in the Concurrent List, jointly, “public health and sanitation, hospitals and dispensaries” form an entry in the State List.

More relevantly “prevention of the extension from one State to another of infectious or contagious diseases or pests affecting men, animals or plants” is an entry in the Concurrent List which is binding on both the states and the Centre. These entries have a passivity to them in normal times. But in times we are facing now, they spring into life, federal life. They make the states of India, where we live, India.

A word here is needed on a state beyond states in India: Migrant workers. They form a floating Union Territory that requires full statehood, not territorially but civilisationally. One great responsibility that lies with the states is to ensure that during these relaxations, urban to rural migration is strictly contained, with the greatest sensitivity. Will a post-Covid-19 India give them that? If it does not, it cannot be expected to have what it takes to win the battle over Covid-19.

The virus is not going to leave us easily or soon. If India is to be safe from this and future death-dealing and death-distributing viruses, it must undertake a few urgent measures. One, seeing the zoonotic origins of this virus, end the suicidal neglect of basic hygiene procedures that lurk like a hidden Wuhan in every unsupervised meat and poultry chain, market and public lavatories. Two, demand an end to the callous and relentless spoliation of our natural resources in the name of industrialisation. Three, get over our passion for congregating en masse in places of worship and entertainment with our stubborn habit of spitting.

Emperor Asoka speaks in his edicts of his subjects’ fascination for “unnecessary assemblage”. Four, ask “Where do we get clean water?” if we are to “keep washing our hands”. Five, demand access to basic medical facilities within walkable distances.

If we can raise the age of marriage, have fewer children than our parents did, realise that untouchability is wrong, absurd and illegal, surely we can attempt these five.

Governments have to reset their priorities dramatically, investing massively
and immediately in clean water access
and on raising the doctors/nurses population ratio. And raise the status of nurses, hustled on duty and huddled in hostels off duty, from being taken-for-granted appurtenances to being major front-ranking players.

The Constitution asks India to feel its heart beating strong in the pulse of its states.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed are personal

    Gopalkrishna Gandhi read English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. A civil servant and diplomat, he was Governor of West Bengal, 2004-2009. He is currently Distinguished Professor of History and Politics at Ashoka University

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