The Covid-19 challenge to Indian federalism
In the past year-and-a-half, the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the strengths and weaknesses of all forms of political systems and structures: Democratic and authoritarian; unitary and federal; and every model in-between. This paper focuses on federalism. Given the diffused and decentralised overall pathway followed by a federal structure of government, there were legitimate concerns over how countries with such a system could handle a rapidly spreading pandemic of a highly infectious disease.
It acquired a serious tone when the pandemic began exposing the vulnerabilities of the United States (US), a federal country that has what is generally presumed to be an advanced health care system that will be able to withstand such an emergency. Analysts raised concerns about what they said were the inherent disadvantages of a federal political system against a pandemic that requires rapid and unitary response. Indeed, political analysts in the US started calling on the government to abandon the rigid dual federal system where health is an exclusive domain of states and local governments.
Observers contrasted the US’s early experience against China’s swift response in Wuhan, as proof of the efficacy of a centralised response.
India, with its diffused democratic federal system, has often been contrasted with the authoritarian centralised system of China. The desire for decisive, unequivocal leadership at the top of a unified hierarchy as an established response to the threats has guided the comparison. It needs to be reiterated that historically, emergency and disaster management has required a command-and-control approach to civil defence to protect the population in case of armed aggression.
Against these assumptions, where does India stand as far as pandemic response is concerned? How has a large federal country—saddled with multi-level authorities and horizontal structures resting on inter-agency and cross-sector collaborations between a multitude of actors and institutions—managed the pandemic? This paper evaluates India’s response since the outbreak in 2020. It looks at the key legal and institutional mechanisms that the federal and state governments have embraced, and identifies the challenges facing the federal system and its processes. The paper offers specific recommendations to strengthen the federal response to crises of similar proportions.
(The study has been authored by Niranjan Sahoo and Ambar Kumar Ghosh)