India’s lockdown is the most wide-ranging and harshest coronavirus containment measure in the world. To execute it effectively, the Indian state and all its organs should smoothly working together. Instead, there is significant friction between the states and the Union government. Some of this is a result of the lack of coordination between the entities involved. But this is also driven by an attempt by the Union government to centralise power.

The problem became evident almost as soon as Prime Minster Modi announced a 21-day country-wide lockdown last Tuesday, prompting hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to set out for their home villages on foot. The prime minister had not laid out plans for how India’s vast migrant labour population were to access food, as their jobs disappeared.

Part of the reason for this fiasco can be pinned on the lack of federal communication. When Modi announced the lockdown, it neglected to take the states into confidence. This was a significant oversight, given that it was the states – which are responsible for law and order as well as health – that would actually execute the measure on the ground.

At lease one state – Chhattisgarh – has explicitly criticised New Delhi for this unilateral action. “Who is to implement the lockdown?” asked the chief minister, Bhupesh Baghel. “Can the Union government on its own do so? The answer is no. Ultimately, it’s the state government’s job to implement it. Did the prime minister talk to any of the state governments before unilaterally announcing it? No.”

This isn’t the only act of centralisation that has resulted in India’s lockdown so chaotic. The Union government has ensured that it controls the finances to fight Covid-19 remain rather than hand over money to the states – which are actually executing all measures to fight the pandemic. “Rather than the the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojna, it would have been far more helpful to provide a stimulus package as an united block grant to the states,” explained Yamini Aiyar, president and chief executive of the Delhi-based thinktank Centre for Policy Research. “The needs of each state in this crisis are different, so rather than impose spending patterns, the states need to be allowed to spend as they see fit given they are on the frontlines.”

This centralisation is so detailed that even something as minor as testing kits are now being controlled by the Union government. Even as Kerala – a state widely praised for its response to Covid-19 – announced that it would add a new, rapid testing method to its approach, the Union government-controlled Indian Council of Medical Research said that Kerala should be barred from doing so since this does not have New Delhi’s approval.

Lose-lose situation

Notably, while the Union government’s centralisation efforts have had a number of negative fallouts, there seem to be few positives so far. On Tuesday, the Union government issued an order under the Disaster Management Act by which it tried to place itself above the states. This, it argued, was necessary to ensure that the lockdown proceeded in uniform fashion through the country.

A week from then, it is clear that the use of a law has not been very successful – probably because there is no penal provision for non-compliance. In the case of migrant workers, for example, it was clear that the shutdown of economic activity would have caused significant exoduses from cities. The only place where the Union government could actually have taken action to prevent this was in Delhi, where – because the Capital does not have full statehood powers – the bureaucrats who run it are controlled by the Centre. However, the Disaster Management Act gave the Union no other special powers to manage this humanitarian disaster except to issue a strongly-worded advisory.

This was even reflected by a small order by West Bengal on Monday exempting sweet shops from the lockdown, the only state to do so. In Karnataka, private vehicles are banned from the roads, even though the March 24 Union government order makes no mention of such a ban. States are therefore free to fashion lockdowns as they see fit, no matter the Union’s directions.

It seems clear that on the lockdown, the Union government would be much better of working with the states, ironing out problems through consultation rather than trying diktats that have little force of law.

Lack of state coordination

However, centralisation isn’t the only problem the Indian Union is facing as it battles this pandemic. There is also a lack of coordination between states.

For example, the worker migration has angered states that were receiving these workers – given that it would have meant further exposing themselves to Covid-19. “Migrants being allowed to leave Delhi and other towns is like launching a health war against Bihar,” said the Janata Dal (United) spokesperson KC Tyagi. “When the PM stressed on community distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus infections, it should have been adhered to. How come Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath promised to arrange 1,000 buses? If migrants had to return, it should have been planned and well coordinated between Bihar and Centre and also Bihar and other states.”

The Janata Dal (United) heads the ruling coalition in Bihar, a state that is miffed with Delhi and Uttar Pradesh allowing movement of migrants being allowed even after the Centre’s lockdown order.

This same phenomenon sparked off a three-way tussle between Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and the Union government. Uttar Pradesh accused Delhi of trying to get the migrants to leave the Capital by cutting off water and electricity connections and even spreading rumours that there were buses on the border waiting to transport them. The Delhi government denied this charge.

Migrant workers walk towards a bus station in Ghaziabad on the outskirts of Delhi. Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Sealing state borders

As part of this same restriction on the movement of people, state borders have also been sealed.

This is unprecedented in the history of the Indian Union. India’s Centre-heavy federalism gives states little power to regulate inter-state commutation or restrict the movement of Indians through them. In fact, subject to the “interests of the general public” the right to “move freely throughout the territory of India” is a part of the Indian Constitution.

Moreover, the legal framework that states are using to seal borders is unclear. While the Union government has asked states to seal borders as part of informal communication, its actual March 24 order has no such directive.

In one case, this has been challenged legally. Kerala has objected to Karnataka sealing its borders, arguing that emergency medical patients from Kasargod need to access healthcare facilities in nearby Mangaluru. “We are not India and Pakistan,” Kerala told the Supreme Court, arguing that Karnataka’s act of sealing its borders went against the Constitution’s right to move freely throughout any state in the Indian Union.

Working together

However, as states take the extreme step of sealing their borders, there is also a silver lining when it comes to state-to-state coordination. In the absence of any way for states to interact, many of them are using informal ways as a way to manage the complexities of a multi-state lockdown.

In one case, for example, West Bengal rang Maharashtra, requesting them to take care of 800 Bengali workers stuck in the western state. In another case, Odisha took to Twitter to request other states to take care of Odiya workers promising to bear the costs: unique not only for the medium used but also for proposing a horizontal state-to-state financial transactions of this nature. A third case saw Punjab and Maharashtra tag each other on tweets in order to take care of Punjabi devotees stranded in Nanded.