India’s federal balance collapsed in the second wave - Hindustan Times

India’s federal balance collapsed in the second wave

ByNiranjan Sahoo and Ambar Kumar Ghosh
Jul 09, 2021 05:24 PM IST

While there were a set of complex reasons for such a weak response, a contributory factor was also the breakdown of Centre-state cooperation. While this cooperation was instrumental to the successes in first wave, as infections exploded, the Centre and the states blamed each other

In the early days of the pandemic, federalism, with its decentralised approach, was considered an obstacle in the battle against Covid-19. Instead, a swift and centralised response was seen as key to defeating the virus.

Representational image. (PTI)
Representational image. (PTI)

Many took to this view when the pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of the United States (US), a large federal country, despite its advanced health care system. A segment of political analysts warned the US government to abandon the rigid dual federal system where health is an exclusive domain of states and local governments. They cited China’s swift response in Wuhan as proof of the efficacy of a centralised response.

Among large federal systems, in early 2020, India was projected to be staring at a tsunami of infections and deaths. Yet, India proved the prophecies wrong. While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union government led from the front, state governments, including states ruled by non-BJP forces, notwithstanding the temporary loss of power and autonomy, joined hands with the Centre.

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While the pandemic overwhelmed many well-endowed nations in Europe and large federal countries such as the US and Brazil, India proved a global outlier in the early phase. Unlike its federal peers that witnessed bitter acrimonies among key constituent units, India saw relatively healthy cooperation on key areas of pandemic management.

Importantly, the federal leadership under Prime Minister Narendra Modi (unlike the US under President Donald Trump and Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro) largely heeded to science and experts. While many states faced a challenging situation, purposeful and coordinated support from the federal government contained the outbreak. What was more striking was that in record time, India was able to overcome the acute shortages of PPE kits, health infrastructure and essential drugs, which the country also generously supplied to all over the world. India also emerged as an early mover in producing vaccines. By the end of 2020, India appeared to be in control of pandemic.

A few months later, the entire edifice of India’s Covid management turned upside down as a new and more contagious variant began spreading. A combination of triumphalism, complacency, and a top political leadership focused on assembly elections, led to a raging second wave that sent shock waves among key institutions tasked to manage pandemic. Many states and big urban centres such as Delhi were completely overwhelmed, with health systems barely withstanding to mounting infections. In short, India’s reputation of having better managed the initial wave of pandemic came to tatters.

While there were a set of complex reasons for such a weak response, a contributory factor was also the breakdown of Centre-state cooperation. While this cooperation was instrumental to the successes in first wave, as infections exploded and overwhelmed the health care apparatus and associated support systems, the Centre and the states scurried for cover by blaming each other. As the public outcry mounted against the federal government and its leadership, the latter conveniently put the onus on the states, citing health as a state subject. States hit back, accusing the Centre for vacillating on vaccine procurement and for its discriminatory approach.

Yet, the single biggest reason for the dramatic failure in the second wave was an absentee federal leadership that played a decisive role in the first wave. A wavering federal leadership led to chaos as states fought with each other, and with the Centre, over supply of oxygen and medicines,forcing the Supreme Court to supervise the matter.

Nowhere did the central leadership come across as more vacillating than the vaccination policy. As the country faced acute vaccine shortages, some states demanded autonomy to procure vaccines on their own. The Centre quickly acceded to the demand, which analysts called impractical given the cut-throat global competition for vaccines. This, along with differential pricing of vaccines, became a major bone of contention in India’s federal structure as the Centre and states accused each other for the slowdown in India’s vaccination drive.

Again, it required the highest court’s intervention to end the deadlock. While the impasse finally ended with Centre taking back the ownership on vaccination, it hugely damaged the trust and cooperation that had been built among the two pivotal stakeholders of federalism in the first wave.

Of course, India is not alone in witnessing a strain in its federal system. The pandemic has tested the limits of federal systems across the world. Established federal countries such as the US, Germany, and Canada, too, struggled in the initial waves. In particular, the US, with its highly diffused and decentralised responses, largely accentuated by the vacillating federal leadership under Donald Trump’s presidency, struggled to control the surge of infections. After assuming office in January, the Joe Biden has shown what difference a purposeful federal leadership can make.

Thus, most of the federal countries learned their lessons quickly and put up more effective responses in the subsequent waves of pandemic. India, which excelled so well in first wave, went the other way and forgot the lessons of the first wave. Both the Centre and the states let their guards down and allowed the pandemic to overwhelm the health system.

Still, it is not too late for do the necessary course-correction. From global examples, it is clear that the onus clearly lies with the federal government. In a national emergency, it has to win the trust of states and lead from the front all the time.

Niranjan Sahoo and Ambar Kumar Ghosh are with Observer Research Foundation

The views expressed are personal

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