Dear PM Modi, This is How BR Ambedkar Would Have ‘Unlocked’ India

“COVID-19 is not a calamity that any individual state has created for itself. It’s a national crisis”: Raghav Bahl 

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Image of Raghav Bahl, Founder-Editor, The Quint, and Dr BR Ambedkar, used for representational purposes.
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Nobody quite knows how to dismount a tiger, especially one that is wounded and hungry. A similar challenge confronted Prime Minister Modi last week, at the end of Lockdown 4.0.

India’s crippled economy – which, in fact, was even more crippled than thought earlier since the government itself wrote down previous quarters’ declared growth by an unprecedented quantum of basis points – was wounded, hungry, and angry, very angry. So the Modi government swiftly leaped off the beast, hoping to stun it with speed and distract it with new prey (aka state governments).

Unlock 1.0: Govt Appears ‘Keen’ to Shed the Painful Memory of Lockdown

Virtually everything was opened up in a single shot. Inter-state traffic, intra-district movement, factories, shops, malls, restaurants, rail and domestic airlines – an unbelieving nation, dulled by staying indoors for nine weeks, was taken aback at the pace and audacity (almost desperation) with which commerce was being prised open.

But the government’s nervousness was clear from the prosaic choice of words, labelling such a sweeping action as Unlock 1.0. In keeping with past form, one would have expected the Modi government to make it a grand gesture with an even grander nomenclature. I can never be as good as them in coining aspirational slogans, but perhaps something like Navnirmaan (Economic Renaissance) 1.0 or some such.

But really, why such a plain phrase, Unlock 1.0? It seemed the government was keen to shed the painful memory of the four lockdowns.  It also seemed even more keen to shed the tag of unilateralism by passing the baton to the states, simultaneously invoking the morality of constitutionalism. “See, you accused us of unilateral action on 24 March 2020, when no chief minister had a clue that his or her state was being shut. And you accused us again when we tried to micro-manage from Delhi, riding roughshod over the domain of the states. Here, let’s show you how completely, genuinely we believe in Federalism as an article of faith. From now on, each state shall take all the calls”.

India’s COVID Fight: From Federalism to ‘Whimsical-ism’

Unfortunately, this ‘spirit of federalism’ quickly descended into ‘whimsical-ism’. Freed from the Centre’s yolk, every chief minister took off on his own trip… the result was CHAOS, in capital letters. The National Capital Region (NCR), which is at the tri-section of three states, and therefore at the whims and fancies of three chief ministers, saw a bizarre spectacle. Before the opening up, Arvind Kejriwal’s Delhi pushed for a liberal order, while Haryana and Uttar Pradesh were votaries of clamping down and closing borders.

Suddenly, when Haryana opened up after Lockdown 4.0, Delhi snapped shut. But in another about-turn, first Delhi said no incoming rail or air passenger would be quarantined, only to flip days later and stipulate a 7-day incarceration. The capital’s vicissitudes did not end here. Earlier, it wanted shops to open alternately on odd and even days; but now it wanted everybody, including barber shops and salons, to open on all days. Passenger cars, autos and e-rickshaws could carry an unlimited load. The u-turns were dizzy and surreal.

But before you think only Delhi was having fun playing ‘I, me, myself’, check out Mumbai and Kolkata. Shops could open, but not restaurants and malls. Film shoots could start, but places of worship had to stay shut. Private offices could work with 100 percent staff, while government offices were capped at 70 percent (Why? Why?).

I’ve given above a tiny snapshot of the miasma of rules, orders and u-turns, all of which have left the economy virtually at standstill, despite the much vaunted Unlock 1.0. Okay, it’s not as bad as during the lockdown, but neither is it anywhere near ‘open’ too.

‘Re-Opening 1.0’, The Ambedkar Way

This begs the question: Having failed to open up after Lockdown 4.0, how should we conduct Re-Opening 1.0? Must we abandon the principles of federalism/decentralisation, and revert to command and control? Is there no other way?

Yes, there is, but first, all governments – central, state, and local – should take a deep breath, step back from the chaos of conflicting rules, and pick up Constitution 1.0 from Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s original manuscript. In there, federalism is codified in three buckets: a central list where the union government’s writ is supreme; a concurrent list which asks the union and state governments to put their heads together to manufacture a consensus; and finally, a state list that gives complete authority to the provincial government to make laws.

Now, the secret to a successful, clean, un-conflicted re-opening of the economy – that is, the precarious dismounting off a wounded, hungry, angry tiger – lies in this constitutional mandate so delicately crafted by Ambedkar. All opening up actions, or what we are christening as Re-Opening 1.0, should be broken up into these three lists unambiguously, without any confusion or overlapping jurisdiction.
  • Central list: Inter-state movement must squarely belong to this list. Once the Centre has ordered ‘free movement’, then no state should be allowed to arbitrarily seal its borders – just as no state can say that trains won’t ply through or flights cannot overfly ‘my territory’! Also, once the central government creates a negative list of economic activities, then everything outside of that should be open, without the spectacle of alcohol stores being open here but not there, barber shops being closed although malls are open, electrical stores can open on odd but book stores on even days, etc. There should be no further arguments, tweaking, or ambiguity – subject only to overriding restrictions in containment zones.
  • Concurrent list: Here, the central and state governments must come to a consensus on the rules for the safe conduct of businesses. For example, the number of shoppers permitted per square feet, how many riders per passenger vehicle, etc.
  • State list: This is where the states shall enjoy complete autonomy. For example, in deciding on containment/vulnerable zones with severely curtailed activity. There should be no interference or backseat-driving by the central government here.

A Constitutional Commission for ‘COVID-19 Eradication Fund’

Finally, we need to settle the issue which is at the heart of constitutionalism, namely, the sharing of resources and costs. COVID-19 is not a calamity that any individual state has created for itself. It’s a national crisis which is manifesting itself in different states as per their density of population and economic success/accessibility.

If Mumbai and Delhi have the maximum cases, it’s not because these metros have been individually complicit or negligent. Being the engines of governance, economic activity, and investments, they attract the highest number of migrants in search of jobs, and are ports of entry for visitors. It’s also not their fault that they are ruled by non-BJP governments. So they cannot be left to fend for themselves, or be starved of additional resources to fight the pandemic.

It’s critical to create a national pool or fund – say, the COVID-19 Eradication Fund – which should then be allocated according to the threat that each state is battling. A constitutional authority, along the lines of the GST Council or Finance Commission, should be created as a neutral arbiter. That should ensure constitutional fair-play and overcome the current suspicion about political bias in the allocation of central aid.

This is how Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, the ultimate compiler/author of India’s Constitution, would have done it.

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