Under the Indian Constitution, health is a subject under the remit of the states. However, by expansively invoking the Disaster Management Act, the Union government has given itself vast powers in handling the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of this centralisation was required – India’s harsh lockdown would only have had a shot at success if there was at least some measure of uniformity in what states were doing. However, in many cases, New Delhi went significantly beyond simply aiming for uniformity, working often to completely sideline states.

India’s draconian lockdown, for example, was announced without consulting the states – even though it was the states who would implement it. New Delhi has also used the revenue shortage in the states to push through policies that belong firmly under the state list. This overreach by the Centre is at least one reason why many experts consider India’s lockdown to have failed.

However, what has mostly been missed is that the emergency situations precipitated by Covid-19 have also seen the states take up an expanded role too.

Dehli dur ast

On June 7, for example, the Delhi government passed a drastic order reserving the vast majority of hospital beds in Delhi for the residents of the state. The chief minister, Arvind Keriwal made it clear that in an emergency situation like Covid-19, his government was responsible first for the health of the residents of Delhi – not Indians from other states. “Corona cases are now rising alarmingly in the city,” argued Kerjiwal. “In a situation like this, if hospitals are open to people from all states, where will the people of Delhi go?”

While the order was soon superseded by the Union-government appointed Lieutenant Governor, the move was not opposed very loudly by the Bharatiya Janata Party, pointing to the fact that the policy did have political support within Delhi. Soon after the order was superseded, the Aam Aadmi Party claimed that it would be the BJP who would have to take responsibility should Delhi face a shortage of beds and Delhi residents die as a result.

What the Aam Aadmi Party had attempted to do was legally unsound – and would probably have been struck down should it have been challenged in court. However, the gambit illustrated how the Covid-19 emergency had led to the sharpening of the concept of a state domicile. Throughout the crisis, state governments have acted in ways that show that they would primarily care for their own permanent residents. Moreover, this was a two way street: domiciles have also looked primarily to their own state governments in order to provide relief and welfare during this time of crisis.

An ambulance outside the coronavirus ward at the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash hospital in New Delhi. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

Abandoning the worker

The most obvious example of this, of course, was the crisis of inter-state migrants. Given that India’s lockdown was announced without any warning, this left millions of working class migrants stranded in cities hundreds of kilometres away from their homes.

In theory, host states were supposed to care for these workers. On March 29, for example, during the first week of India’s 11-week lockdown, the chief minister of Maharashtra assured migrants that the state government would run welfare services for them and provide workers with food, no matter their state of domicile. Similarly, the chief minister of Delhi said, “the migrant labourers living in Delhi are our responsibility”.

The reality, however, was very different. While in normal times, host states depended on cheap migrant labour to run their industries, during the lockdown they largely abandoned them. One survey showed that almost no migrant worker (96%) received food rations from his or her host state.

What was instead observed that migrant workers looked to their home states to help them. West Bengal, for example, launched a cash transfer scheme to send Rs 1,000 to 1 lakh Bengali migrant. And in April, it was Uttar Pradesh that took the responsibility of getting back its students from Rajasthan, sending a fleet of 250 buses, mimicking the rescue efforts of the Government of India for Indians stranded abroad. It was only later in May, that the Union government got involved in discharging its primary duty of inter-state transport, beginning to run trains to transport migrants back to their home states.

Labour regulation

The most drastic version of this was the Uttar Pradesh chief minister’s proposal to regulate inter-state movement of workers domiciled in the state in order to save them from poor conditions of work in other states. “The state government will stand by them wherever they work, whether in Uttar Pradesh, other states or other countries,” Adityanath said while announcing the setting up of a Migration Commission.

As per the Indian Constitution, this is illegal, since no government – not even the Union government – can stop movement of people across state borders. This is what might have led Uttar Pradesh to rethink its stand and news reports quoting anonymous sources in the government have said that the clause might be dropped from the commission’s remit.

While unusual in an Indian domestic context, like the rescue of migrants, UP’s actions find resonance when it comes to international movement. Nepal’s Foreign Employment Act, for example, seeks to regulate the movement of migrant labour in order to protect them from abusive work conditions in places such as West Asia. Currently, Nepal bans women from working as domestic workers in West Asia, arguing that such a structure prevents exploitation and trafficking.

The same domicile politics saw Jharkhand government successfully negotiate with the Union’s government’s Border Roads Organisation in order to secure better working conditions for Jharkhandi workers. The negotiations between Jharkhand and the Union government were sparked off by the Centre requesting Jharkhandi workers for military projects in Ladakh on May 22. While UP had only made a claim of regulating movement of domiciled workers, in this instance, Jharkhand managed to actually pull it off.

Haryana policemen remove barricades from a road at Delhi- Gurugram border after government guidelines, during the Covid-19 lockdown. Credit: PTI

Another outcome of this domicile politics has seen states scramble to close borders. In the National Capital Region, suburbs of Delhi have – even after inter-state movement was allowed by the Centre – continued to stop movement from the capital, wary of the high case load in Delhi being transmitted to their residents. In one case, as Karnataka tried to block movement from Kerala, the case even reached the Supreme Court, with New Delhi eventually mediating between the two states to persuade Karnataka to relax its border controls.

Like in the case of Delhi, Karnataka justified its decision on the basis of the health needs of its own citizens – even though the closure of the state border was blocking the access of Malayalis in the border district of Kasargod from accessing critical healthcare in Karnataka.

Expanded state role

In an interview to the Wire, political scientist Partha Chatterjee has argued that the coronavirus emergency has brought to the fore some “hidden features of the Indian federal system” that illustrated that states were the primary nodes of governance in the Indian Union:

Suddenly, states have become hyper-conscious of their borders. They are sealing “their” borders to traffic from neighbouring states, negotiating with other states about the return of “their” migrant labourers, reserving hospital beds for “their” residents, demanding that they be given the freedom to have “their” own lockdown, quarantine and unlock policies, insisting that rail and air traffic must be regulated according to “their” priorities.

When was the last time you saw such a general assertion of the claim that the primary task of looking after the lives of ordinary people was performed by the states and not the central government?

States taking on a bigger governance role is not a new trend. In 2008-’09, the Centre spent more than all states combined. Within a decade, this ratio had seen a dramatic reversal. For 2019-’20, estimates show that combined state spending will be 64% more than New Delhi.

The sudden salience of domicile politics might end up turbocharging this trend of a growing governance role for states in the Indian Union.