States need to be heard for ‘Team India’ to win COVID-19 challenge

This hour of crisis again brings to the fore the importance of states in the functioning of the country

Shah and Modi
The pandemic has ensured that the struggle for an economic recovery is all but lost | PTI File

When Narendra Modi first came to power, he had promised that the prime minister and the chief ministers would together constitute “Team India,” underscoring the importance of states in shaping the future of the country.

Six years down the line, since Modi’s coronation as the ‘chief executive’ of the country, the “Team India” looks more as an ever-squabbling Pakistan cricket squad than a cohesive unit, thanks to the central government’s repeated attempts to shove its unilateral decisions down the throat of the states.

The Centre-State relation has almost come to a breaking point over the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Population Register (NPR) with many states deciding not to implement them within their territorial jurisdiction.

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Amid the tussle, India suddenly encountered the biggest crisis since its partition that sparked a colossal wave of migration. The scene on New Delhi’s roads, that of several migrant workers trying to walk their way to safety of their home states match the partition horror.

This hour of crisis again brings to the fore the importance of states in the functioning of India.

Even when the Centre was initially caught napping, the states were already combating the viral attacks on their own, literally.

The first COVID-19 positive case in India was reported on January 30 while the first time the Centre was seen taking notice of the seriousness of the crisis was not before March 19, the day Modi addressed the nation. But even his speech stressed more on symbolism than concrete action.

During his speech on March 19, the prime minister sought support of the fellow citizens for “people’s curfew” on March 22, stating it “will be a symbol of our effort, of our self-restraint, and our resolve to fulfil our duty in service of the nation.”

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He also sought people’s support on “one more matter.”  On Sunday (March 22), he urged the “fellow citizens”, to stand at the doors, balconies, windows of their homes and give a five-minute standing ovation to “lakhs of our people” who have been working day and night in our hospitals and airports, almost in an imitation of the salutation by Italian to their doctors, nurses and emergency response team.

“We clap our hands, beat our plates, ring our bells to boost their morale, salute their service,” the prime minister told the nation. (It was a different story that the whole exercise on that chosen day turned into a complete farce with hoards people thronging streets in a celebratory mood, banging whatever utensil they got hold of, least bothered about the necessary social distancing.)

His nearly 30-minute address had no mention about the government’s mitigation plan, except for a vague assurance that “keeping in mind economic challenges arising out of coronavirus pandemic, the government has decided to constitute a COVID-19 economic response task force led by the finance minister.”

Even before the prime minister addressed the nation, states such as Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan, West Bengal and many others were already off the blocks, enforcing their respective action plan to deal with the challenge.

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The day Modi addressed the nation, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced a slew of financial packages to tide over the crisis. His government’s multi-crore package include ₹500 crore towards health services, ₹2,000 crore towards loans and free ration, ₹1,000 crore towards rural employment guarantee programmes, and ₹1,320 crore towards social-security pension. He also earmarked ₹100 crore to provide ₹1,000 to those individuals below poverty line not covered by the social-security pension.

Three days earlier, West Bengal government too had announced a ₹200-crore fund to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, and closure of all educational institutions, theatres and restricted mass gatherings.

The Mamata Banerjee government also offered an insurance package of ₹5 lakh for 10 lakh people, including doctors, nurses, sanitation workers and security personnel working in health hazard areas, three days ahead of prime minister’s call to the nation to applaud their efforts banging utensil and clapping.

On the day of nationwide “public curfew,” when the COVID-19 positive cases in the state rose to four, the West Bengal government went ahead to announce a complete lockdown of Kolkata and other major towns till March 31, taking a clue from states like Rajasthan, Punjab, Delhi,  Uttarakhand, Nagaland, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and others. While declaring the lockdown, Chief Minister Banerjee also announced her government would provide free food grain for six months to the state’s 75 million ration card holders.

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Following the footsteps of early-bird states, the prime minister, in yet another TV address in the evening of March 24, announced the nationwide 21-day lockdown from midnight. But perhaps, the Union government would have done well had it prepared the nation for it well in advance.

Realising that unorganised workers would be the worst hit by the nationwide lockdown, a few states declared financial aids for them. West Bengal announced a one-time grant of ₹1,000 to people working in the unorganised sectors.

The Centre, under pressure from state governments and opposition parties for a special economic package to cushion the fallout of the world’s largest lockdown, on March 26 announced ₹1.70 lakh crore relief package, describing it as Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana to give it an unmistaken stamp of a centrally-sponsored dole.

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The mass exodus of migrants from the national capital and other urban centres clearly showed how unplanned the nationwide lockdown was, prompting many to draw a parallel between Modi’s current “desh-bandi” and the “note-bandi (demonetisation)” he had abruptly announced on November 8, 2016, which ultimately proved to be a futile exercise.

The government, anticipating the hardship migrant workers would face by such a sudden and prolonged shutdown, should have made arrangements to take these stranded people home, as many states, including West Bengal, did to facilitate intra-state movement of migrants during lockdown period.

The mass migration should serve as an eye-opener for the Union government to take immediate measures to smoothen inter-state movement of essential commodities by coordinating with all state governments to avoid any possible food riots. To do that, the key interface between the Centre and the states — the Union home minister — needs to be more proactive and also accommodative towards the state governments. Only that can stave off a bigger crisis.

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