It is a view now universally acknowledged that in India, the ‘cure’ for coronavirus in the form of the stringent lockdown has been worse than the disease. But is the lockdown also a cover for the Centre to take over powers in the domain of the states and is the basic federal structure promised in our Constitution under threat? Notions of fair play in sharing of resources with states have been given short shrift during the pandemic. Consequently, it is not a theoretical or ideological problem, but a real crisis that is looming.
For, the states are broke and many are uncertain about how long they can sustain even paying the salaries of government employees, let alone the additional expenses the crisis has created. Two simple reasons for the financial disaster are: first, the Centre not releasing the states’ shares of the GST dues and second, doing so even as the states’ own sources of raising revenue — through excise on alcohol sales, for instance — have been badly hit during the lockdown.
Many states had, therefore, pinned hopes on the Centre relaxing borrowing limits from 3 to 5 per cent under the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act (FRBMA). Those hopes have now been dashed in one of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s serialised press briefings. What she has announced is a 0.5 per cent increase in the borrowing cap for states that would be unconditional, taking it to 3.5 per cent. The states can borrow over that up to 5 per cent, but to do so, they must fulfill conditions that include promoting one nation, one ration card, ease of doing business, bringing reforms to make state-owned power companies more profitable (that would involve doing away with free power subsidies) and increasing revenues of urban local bodies.
In other words, the states would have to jump through hoops that are not possible for many to jump through. The simple question is how on earth are states supposed to improve on a qualification, such as ‘ease of doing business’ when most business has stopped? What’s been offered, therefore, non-BJP states argue, is another instance of the Centre simultaneously disabling them and them asking them to perform. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, for instance, says the conditions are against federalism. Other states have also protested.
Throughout most of the lockdown/pandemic phase, the Centre has, in any case, determined rules and procedures — what to shut, what cannot be sold — in spheres that are the domain of the states. The decision to suspend the MPLADS scheme for two years and put the money into the Consolidated Fund of India can also be seen as being against the spirit of cooperative federalism. Non-BJP ruled states, therefore, argue that the lockdown has become an excuse for the Centre to threaten their fiscal autonomy.
If that is happening according to a plan and a vision of centralising authority, what has been done with the Railways is just plain irrational. On March 21, the entire railway network of India was brought to a halt and three days later, at 8 pm on March 24, the Prime Minister announced a national lockdown in four hours, without consulting the states.
Subsequently, we have seen a calamity beyond anything that independent India has known. Workers have died in accidents or of hunger, and thousands still remain marooned on roads. Then, on May 1, after 40 days, the Centre announced it would allow special trains called Shramik (labour) trains. Bizarrely, the Centre is now packing off people to hinterland states when it had disallowed them just 40 days earlier; that is when workers had their strength and dignity intact. Now, when the Centre’s own data shows that the coronavirus spread is peaking, the Shramik trains will run.
Meanwhile, the matter of the trains remains circuitous. They run when both the state of origin and the destination have agreed. Workers have to endure an agonising process to get on. I witnessed the long queues for screening at a South Delhi school which involved waiting for some hours after labourers headed for Bihar had waited for over six weeks. After the screening, they were loaded on buses, then onward to the railway station. On arrival, further checks and screenings await the workers.
Simultaneously, the states are also now stopping buses on their borders. On May 18, the UP police stopped 1,000 buses from Rajasthan and 40 from Haryana. Karnataka has announced it would not allow people from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. As state turns against state, imagine the agony being inflicted on the passengers. The rules, boundaries and tortuous bureaucratese being imposed on the poor are Orwellian in scope. If you jump through the ring of fire, you may be dead; if you do not jump, you could still be dead.
It can be argued that the Centre is handing over disaster management to the states after creating the disaster. Traditional wisdom has it that the BJP calculates it can get away with bad decisions and worse implementation because the Prime Minister is popular, the national opposition is weak and all other parties, including those in the states, would have been pauperised by the time this crisis passes.
Although the Centre has shown scant regard for the states, it is Left Front-ruled Kerala that has actually given India the model for containing coronavirus. The home state of the top leadership of the BJP, Gujarat, meanwhile, has utterly failed in managing both the disease and the consequences of the lockdown. There are lessons to be learnt from the states. Just encroaching on their independence is also against the spirit of the Constitution.
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