Coronavirus Outbreak: Suspension of MPLADS could hurt local govts at a time when state-Centre synergy is vital

Suhit K Sen

After India became independent and the Constitution was written, the political class, within and outside the Congress, consciously chose a weak form of federalism, in which the Union government had preponderant powers which not only overshadowed those of the constituent units, but could often override them.

This was largely a historically contingent choice, driven mainly by the uncertainties and chaos caused by Partition, and also because of the 'need' to integrate into the nation-state still in the making regions at that point imperfectly assimilated €" the North East and princely states, for example.

At some critical junctures, such as war, it could be necessary to further centralise governmental authority €" and such, indeed, has been the case €" through the invocation of various forms of 'emergency' provisions. At some junctures, however, decentralisation and devolution of powers, de facto if necessary, is a better idea. The COVID-19 crisis presents precisely such an extended moment in the history of the nation-state. The current debate over the discontinuation of the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) shines a light on the issue of devolution. We shall discuss this in a bit.

It is clearly not possible for the Union government to tackle the current emergency from the ramparts of the North Block. State governments will have to bear the brunt of containing the transmission of the novel coronavirus, and, in fact, are doing so. Similarly, as a matter of fact, state governments will have to devolve power to district authorities and allow them the elbow room to exercise discretion, because local conditions and contingencies often require bespoke solutions. The fact that one size cannot fit all is hardly in the realm of advanced astrophysics.

Take the case of Bhilwara district in Rajasthan. Faced with a crisis occasioned by the infection of a doctor from unknown sources, the district health authorities were sufficiently alarmed to launch a 'customised' and thorough campaign of containment, which included a kind of 'zero-tolerance' implementation of a lockdown, accompanied by the sealing of the district's borders. This was followed by identification of potential clusters and extensive mapping of contacts, isolation of high-risk individuals and collection of samples for rapid testing. Finally, not sequentially, however, there was a blanket screening exercise to identify people exhibiting symptoms of influenza.

Following Bhilwara's success to date, it has been reported that the Centre is pondering using this model as a template for every district in India. It's a no-brainer that, if possible, these measures should be followed everywhere. The problem is that India probably does not have the resources to replicate this model in every district. Most states would struggle, and probably fail, to put in place the necessary infrastructure and deploy the necessary personnel to emulate Bhilwara. Even Rajasthan would probably not be able to do it. It must be pointed out, though, that the fact that Bhilwara had the autonomy to chart its own course says a lot about the flexibility available in India's federal structure.

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The point is that it is probably not necessary or useful for every district in India to try to follow Bhilwara, because their problems will almost always be dissimilar. Resources must be used with discretion, even though, as a rule of thumb, all states must try their utmost to amplify testing. Extensive testing is the only basis for sequestration and treatment. And, to what extent and how the current lockdown can be modified is a decision that can be taken by the Central government only on the basis of extensive testing, because that will provide both localised cartographies and the overall picture.

It goes without saying, practically, that if some form of modification or relaxation is considered the desirable option, the details of the decision cannot be taken by the Central government. It must allow state governments to decide how and where to relax the lockdown. At the very least, it must allow itself to be led unreservedly by the advice tendered and decisions taken by state governments, which, in turn, must be led by local authorities.

With the issue of considering the lockdown afresh and the equally important issue of the distribution of resources paramount at this point, such lack of coordination can be disastrous. Thus, all important decisions must be taken by the Central government in consultation with state governments. While the convening of an all-party meeting, scheduled for 8 April, is important, it is also necessary for Delhi to have, if necessary, numerous meetings with the states, possibly in the shape of chief ministers. It is in this context that the suspension of the MPLADS is relevant. The decision taken on Monday could have been preceded by such consultations. It is arguable that for the interim, instead of suspending the scheme, the central government could have directed MPs to spend their corpus only on programmes related to containing the pandemic. This would have made available at constituency-level authorities, meaning district downwards, the funds and flexibility to run their operations, obviously in consultation and coordination with 'higher' authorities.

At the same time, it needs to be noted that funds and physical resources €" equipment €" need to be disbursed and supplied quickly and fairly. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, for instance, asked the Central government last Wednesday to release funds already due €" to the tune of at least Rs. 25,000 crore €" to help the state in its campaign to contain the coronavirus. In the context of the suspension of the MPLADS, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, while questioning the centralisation of resources, has also complained that 'the Centre has allocated Rs. 157 crore to Kerala, which has 314 COVID-19 cases, while Gujarat, with only 122 cases, gets Rs. 622 crore'.

The specific merits of these two cases cannot easily be adjudicated. It could well be argued, in the first case, that the sum Banerjee has asked for cannot be disbursed in one tranche because other states, too, need funds, while, in the second case, it can be argued that Gujarat is several times larger and more populous. But at the same time, Banerjee's demand is not preposterous, neither is Tharoor's statement completely off the mark.

The point, therefore, is precisely that competing claims must be met fairly, and must be seen to be met fairly. The only way for that to happen is continuous engagement and consultation not only between the Centre and the states, but between states as well, as the migrant problem has tragically underlined.

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