The COVID-19 pandemic triggered the debate upon the dilemma of health crisis and an economic crisis. However, a more concealed crisis that the pandemic also unleashed was the grim political crisis in India. Whether financial, social or health, any problem demands the robustness of the government in power and the rule of law in place. The pandemic pushed some of the most developed countries into a miserable catastrophe. India has faced calamity with a subsequent economic and political mess, ultimately leading to a humanitarian and social crisis.
While the system is interpreted to be federal under the Constitution, the word itself has not been added because of the preferred flexibility of the federal-unitary nature that the Constitution makers adopted. India has a dual polity, distinct division of power, intense centre and single Constitution that makes it a quasi-federal state. India has been optimistic about this quasi-federal approach, but it is in times of crisis when the viability of a system is under scrutiny. In this case, this scrutiny has led to highly harsh outcomes that impacted the political nature of things and created severe humanitarian concerns. The Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 and the Disaster Management Act 2005 allow the central government to make the decisions for the states under exceptional circumstances.
The Constitution of India lays down an explicit and comprehensible division of powers between the centre and the states, distinctly segregated into legislative (Article 245-255), administrative (Article 256-263) and financial relations (Article 264-293). The legislative distribution of power between the centre and the states is listed in Part XI of the Constitution. In contrast, the financial allocation of powers is written in Part XII of the Indian Constitution. However, various instances of scuffles exist between the centre and the states under different governments. The crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has untethered multiple cases of such tussles between the two entities. These tussles started right in the first wave of the pandemic and have continued in numerous instances after that.
In March 2020, the central government declared a nationwide lockdown, the first of its kind, when the COVID-19 hit multiple regions in India. The number of cases started to rise rapidly every day. This decision faced colossal backlash due to various reasons. One of the reasons this decision of the Government of India was criticised was that the nationwide lockdown was imposed without consultation with the State governments.
The consequences of this unprecedented lockdown drew more criticism from the states. One of the most dreadful consequences was the migration of labourers. The crisis was also a result of the unpreparedness of the states. Due to the miscommunication and lack of planning between the centre and the states. Many state governments alleged that they were not consulted about the imposition of lockdown, which could have helped them do the necessary and avoid the panic created among the migrant workers. They also blamed the centre for not informing the states about the arrival of these migrant workers. This information deficit between the centre and the states raises serious questions about the functioning of their relations and the resulting consequences. The people of India are the primary stakeholders.
This political crisis also created financial tensions between the centre and the states. The pandemic in India advanced so that different regions witnessed peaks of the outbreak at different times. When the hospitals started flooding with the patients, the alarming situation in states demanded a huge and immediate inflow of finances to the states. The state revenues were collapsing. While they received the funds from the state, it took much time, considering people's lives were at stake. Another aspect of financial relations includes the state governments demanding the union government for ease in Goods and Services Tax and other taxes levied by the central government upon the states.
This phase of the pandemic in India witnessed a more centralised approach than what was needed and what could have helped make the crisis smoother for the state governments. However, another incident of centre-state scuffles during the pandemic witnessed altercations due to the allocation of vaccines. Initially, the process of vaccination started with highly centralised allocation and decision-making. The centre itself determined the number of vaccines that each state gets. However, this has changed after the Government of India opened vaccines to Indian markets, and the state governments could purchase the vaccine doses all by themselves. The process has been decentralised to a point where the state governments are now free to negotiate with the international vaccine manufacturers and distributors and purchase the jabs for the people. This sudden decentralised approach of the centre has been criticised because the state governments will have to compete with other states as well as the international demand for these vaccines. The disparities among the states of India in terms of demography gives scope to contentions among those states because the highest bidder gets the higher number of doses.
In conclusion, the pandemic has brought many fluctuations in the centre-state relations in India. The approach has been selectively moving from high centralisation to minimum centralisation according to the convenience of the situation. These variations amidst a devastating crisis have left people questioning the authority and viability of both these entities and created uncertainties among analysts about India's "cooperative federalism with a strong centre."