By Dr. Shamsuddin, Advocate
India’s federal structure has come under severe strain following the coronavirus pandemic. The nationwide lockdown announced on March 24, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent handling of the crisis by the Centre has impaired India’s federal values and ethos.
The Prime Minister’s sudden announcement caught millions in the country completely unaware and left them with very little time to prepare for a long lockdown. States were not consulted beforehand and much confusion remained over what was permitted and what was not permitted.
An unprecedented crisis such as this meant that the Centre-State relationship, irrespective of which of these States are BJP governed or not, should have been strengthened. While the Modi-led Government announced a financial relief package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore on March 26, calling it the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, and giving it the stamp of a centre-sponsored package, many States had already put into place financial aid for its people. Pinarayi Vijayan, CM of Kerala State, in fact, announced several financial relief packages for the State, including rural employment guarantee programmes and social-security pension. In fact, even before the nationwide lockdown was announced, the
Kerala Government had announced a Rs 20,000 crores package to handle the outbreak. Towards the end of March and early April, several States such as Rajasthan, West Bengal and Maharashtra were facing a severe financial crunch, in addition to the huge humanitarian crisis of migrant workers moving back to their home States and villages, on foot. Several States sought funds due under the 15th Finance Commission, a stimulus package and clearing of dues under the MGNREGA Scheme. States like Punjab wrote to the Centre seeking clearance of pending GST dues. Several States had to bear the financial burden on their own, without any assistance from the Centre. States like Telangana had to cut salaries of the Government employees drastically i.e. up to 75 per cent.
PM-CARES: what about the States ?
The suspension of the Member of Parliament Local Area Development (MPLAD) funds for two years also raised eyebrows. A circular from the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOPSI) said that MPs would be allowed to contribute to the national cause through a Central pool as decided by the Central Government for COVid-19 management. This allowed for MPs to contribute to the PM-CARES fund and not to the respective State relief funds. This seriously harms the federal structure as States have been bypassed and the power vested with MPs to contribute to their own States is taken away from them.
Too much centralisation
Even in procurement of personal protection equipment (PPE), there was an attempt at centralisation. On April 2, there was a Notification from the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare asking principal Secretaries of State health Departments not to procure PPEs, ventilators and N-95 masks on their own. The said Notification empowered the Centre to procure and distribute to the States. This caused an outcry as there would be a natural bias between the BJP governed and the non BJP governed States.
Whither cooperative federalism?
The latest blow to the federal nature of India’s governance comes by way of the Centre’s decision to increase borrowing limits for States on a conditional basis. This was announced as part of the Centre’s fourth set of measures under the Rs 20 lakh crore economic package. Although the Centre increased the limit of borrowing to 5 per cent of GSDP or gross State domestic product from the earlier 3 per cent, this comes with specific conditions including a universal ‘One Nation-One Ration Card’ reforms in the power sector. This has raised the hackles of states. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, E Palaniswami, said these are borrowings and have to be repaid by the State from tax revenues earned in future. He pointed out that they are not grants and that the imposition of these conditions at a time when there was no consensus is not “in keeping with the spirit of cooperative federalism.”
Other spokespersons from States too have reacted, from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamanta Banerjee to Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac and Telangana CM K Chandrashekar Rao. The Centre would need to hold States that are responding well as an example to others and encourage States, whether they are BJP-governed or not, to learn from them. Instead of sending inter-ministerial teams to certain States without first consulting with the Chief Ministers creates an atmosphere of mistrust.
States need assistance and empowerment and not micro management. The Centre pulled up Kerala for not complying MHA guidelines and sought compliance. Kerala had included books as essential items because of the State’s high literacy rate and it is best left to the State Government to understand the ethos of the State rather than be dictated by the Centre.
The States, especially those not governed by the party in power at the Centre, should be allowed to use their discretion. It is only a spirit of consensus building, consultation and cooperation that the country can win the biggest crisis the nation has faced.