India’s ‘Atmanirbhar’ States: Things Fall Apart, Centre Can’t Hold
With the COVID pandemic going south — cases & death tolls rapidly rising — the states have been left in the lurch.
PM Modi, in his address to the nation on 20 April 2021, had told the states to consider lockdown as only a last resort, in their efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. The Union Home Minister, in an interview, had already clarified that decision — that is, the onus to go for lockdown or not would lie with the states.
The states, naturally, were in a fix over the PM’s advice, as, in many cases, lockdown seemed to be the only way out, and not really a matter of choice — as COVID cases and death toll continued to climb.
The question now is: why is it that, when the ‘war’ against COVID has reached such a critical stage, the Centre is ‘abdicating’ its role and asking the states to ‘act on their own’?
This attitude is further reflected in the case of vaccine and oxygen supply as well. Is the Centre giving up on its role and responsibility at a time when COVID is more dangerous and lethal than ever?
The States Must Bell the Cat — That Too During a ‘National Emergency’
The PM has chosen to advise states to ‘avoid’ lockdown at a time when states are scrambling to announce curfews or mini-lockdowns to curb the rapid rise in COVID cases. While Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal announced a weeklong lockdown on 19 April —which has now been further extended till 3 May — Jharkhand declared a lockdown on 20 April.
Even BJP-ruled states like UP and Karnataka decided to implement weekend lockdowns and night curfews respectively.
States like Maharashtra, Bihar and Rajasthan have already imposed lockdown-like restrictions. Schools, malls, gyms, and parks have shut shop again, for the time being. Examinations have been put on hold. It is obvious that state governments felt the desperate need to stop certain activities to impede the march of COVID-19. This need to lockdown in some form or the other is being felt across state governments, irrespective of parties that have formed governments there.
Indeed, it is the states that have to bell the cat today.
Such was the harrowing experience of the 2020 nation-wide lockdown, especially in its economic impact and that on the livelihoods of millions, that no part of the country would like to suffer it again.
Amid such a general feeling, any decision to impose lockdown can have potential political implications.
The Centre has clearly steered clear of political risks and put the ball in the states’ court. And, to further distance itself from the issue, the PM has advised against lockdown. This seemingly ‘unpopular’ decision has been left to the states to make and bear the brunt. The Home Minister argued that each state has a different context and situation which is why individual states are the best judge — whether to lockdown or not. But were the conditions very different in 2020?
States’ ‘Accountability’ Amid Vaccine Shortage
Railways Minister Piyush Goyal had already made it clear that controlling the spread of COVID was the responsibility of the states. When the daily cases were around 20,000-30,000, and active cases were low, the central government shouldered the onus.
However, as the cases increased, and daily cases shot above the 3 lakh mark, and active cases climbed to 20 lakhs+, the onus was shifted to the states.
The vaccination campaign began with much pomp and promise. It received its share of glory on national television as well. But it failed to deliver, as we weren’t able to come up with sufficient doses of vaccine for the eligible population. When the clamour for vaccines grew, it was decided that the states must procure half of the total production from domestic vaccine manufacturers at the price fixed by the companies, while the Centre would continue to have its share of the other half at the previous prices.
Now the states have been unfairly asked to ‘race against time’ to vaccinate its respective people, so that the blame can be pinned on them.
The question is: how did the situation even reach this point, when the Centre itself was in charge of all decisions — approvals, how much to order and at what price — everything. Who will explain the reasons behind delayed responses?
It’s only in the past week that the Centre has decided to approve foreign vaccines on a fast-track basis and even given a fillip to domestic vaccine-manufacturing companies amid acute shortage.
States like Odisha have been requesting for ages, but it’s only now that the Centre has allowed the states to order directly from vaccine-manufacturing companies. The Maharashtra government had, for months, requested the Centre to allow vaccine production in the government-owned Haffkine Institute, but the Centre chose to sit on this. And only when the situation spiralled out of control was this demand met.
‘Creating’ Shortage and Blaming the States?
The issue of oxygen shortage was denied at first. Later, some decisions were taken in this regard in the review meeting under the PM. In the mean time, many lives have been potentially lost due to lack of timely and adequate oxygen supply. It is only now that the Centre has decided to use the PM-CARES funds to approve 551 dedicated Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) medical oxygen generation plants, to be set up in identified government hospitals in district headquarters across the country.
The policy that the Centre has now adopted — to stop exports, slash prices and increase production of vaccines — should have been done earlier when there was still time.
The Way Forward
Despite all this, even if the states muster the courage to act, how will they manage finances? Trade and commerce have as it is come to a halt. The government owes the states Rs 63,000 crores as GST compensation since last year; this has caused the states to bleed further.
Funds going in the name of disaster to the PM-CARES fund will be utilised by the Centre only. Further, crediting of portions of CSR into the CM Relief Fund and State Relief Fund have also been prevented. Lastly, the MPLAD too has been directed to COVID fund for two years.
The states have been asked to take the driver’s seat when everything is going south. How far — and in what direction — they’ll manage to drive, is anybody’s guess.
(Disclaimer: This piece was originally published on Quint Hindi, and has been translated to English by Virat Vibhu Sharma, and republished with permission The translator can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The original can be read here.)
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