9 examples of federalism power in this crisis

The COVID-19 crisis is a genuine national crisis. Why do I use the adjective “genuine”? This is because most “national” crises in our country emotionally affect all of India but physically or tangibly affect only a part of it. A case in point could be a cyclone, an earthquake, an insurgency or even a war. The COVID-19 pandemic is different. It has affected every single state. From Kashmir to Kerala, the Northeast to the western coast, every local administration has been galvanised.

An epidemic gives certain policy powers to the central government, but the health infrastructure that delivers services on the ground is that of the states. The specific problems of each state too are different. As such, in this crisis, states have improvised and taken a variety of approaches. They have also learnt from each other. India’s federalism has been in full bloom. Admittedly my examples are limited by my knowledge, and influenced by my deep engagement with efforts in Bengal. Nevertheless, here are nine case studies. Why nine? Well, let’s just say it’s a popular number.

1. Health Insurance | Pathfinder: Bengal

As we stay home during the lockdown, frontline warriors against COVID-19 are out there risking their lives every day. We have a duty to ensure the well-being of these health, emergency and essential services professionals. Bengal was the first state to provide additional health insurance for such brave men and women and their families.

This cover – initially Rs 5 lakh but now doubled to Rs 10 lakh – is provided to doctors, nurses, other healthcare workers, sanitation staff, ASHAs, police personnel. They could belong to the state government, the central government or the private sector, but they must be serving in Bengal.

2. Access To Healthcare | Pathfinders: Chhattisgarh and Bengal

COVID-19 has been slowly spreading to rural areas. It is not practical for people from smaller towns and villages to travel to big cities for treatment. The lockdown and fear of spreading infection pose barriers.

To overcome these, Chhattisgarh has provided 100 beds in hospitals in each of its 28 districts for COVID-19 cases. This is creditable given the state is so rural with such vast distances. In Bengal, one hospital in each of the 22 districts has been set aside for exclusive use by COVID-19 patients. Private hospitals are partnering in this initiative. 

3. Care For the Marginalised | Pathfinders: Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Bengal

For so many of our people, getting three square meals a day is a challenge. For daily wagers and those in the informal sector, the lockdown has meant a complete loss of income. To help them, rice for the month of April and May is being given in a lumpsum, free of cost, to ration card-holders in Chhattisgarh. Delhi is providing free lunch and dinner at government shelters.

In Bengal, rations are being given free of cost to 78 million people for six months and mid-day meals are being home-delivered to school-children (this is happening in Kerala as well). Food is being provided even to those without ration cards including migrant workers and the homeless.

4. Safety Net for the Welfare-Dependent | Pathfinders: Karnataka, Bengal, Odisha and Delhi

How do people with inadequate or no income survive beyond just meals and food rations? Karnataka and Bengal have given two months’ advance allowance to beneficiaries of various social security schemes. Odisha is paying social security pension for three months in advance. Delhi has doubled the pension for widows, the differently-abled and elderly citizens. 

5. Keeping the Wheels Going | Pathfinder: Delhi

Autorickshaw, e-rickshaw and taxi drivers are often owners of vehicles they drive. They depend on daily earnings to support families and pay EMIs. In our big cities, this cohort is critical to public commutes and economic life re-starting quickly post-lockdown. The Delhi government has given grants of Rs 5,000 to each of these drivers.

6. Caring For Those in the Informal/Unorganised Sector | Pathfinders: Rajasthan, Odisha and Bengal

People in the unorganised sector – such as daily wage labourers – do not have a safety net, no pensions and no provident funds. The lockdown is taking a massive toll on them. Odisha is allocating Rs 1,500 each to 2.2 million construction workers. Rajasthan is transferring Rs 1,000 to families below the poverty line. In Bengal, under a new scheme called Prochesta, Rs 1,000 is being given to workers in the unorganised sector.

7. Guest Worker First Responders | Pathfinders: Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu

The first 48 hours after the lockdown announcement were confusing. Many systems had not been set up. States like Bengal, which contribute migrant workers, reached out on phones and even social media to host states. Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu were the fastest to respond, taking charge of guest workers. In Tamil Nadu, not just the state government but even opposition DMK workers got into action. Odisha reached out to Bengal and sought help for Odiya workers in Bengal, promising to take care of Bengali workers in Odisha. It was touching.

8. Ensuring Flow of Essential Goods | Pathfinders: Kerala, Maharashtra and Bengal

In Kerala, essential commodity kits worth Rs 1,000 each are being home-delivered to families in quarantine. Maharashtra has permitted shops selling essential goods, groceries and medicines to remain open 24×7 (Delhi has a similar provision). In Bengal, cells headed by senior IAS officers are ensuring long-distance transport of essential goods. Locally, the police is monitoring supplies of essentials, including medicines, to citizens and particularly the elderly. 

9. Raising Awareness | Pathfinders: Too many to list 

Almost all states have issued detailed advisories and lists of “Do’s and Don’ts” to combat COVID-19. Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has led by example. She has been communicative, holding press conferences almost daily and highlighting simple preventive measures. She has been on the ground, visiting markets and hospitals and speaking to people. At one market, she drew circles on the street with a white chalk, to indicate how far apart shoppers should stand – a telling demonstration of social distancing. The video went viral.

Best practices of various state governments showcase our federalism and establish the real strength of India. It is for the centre to study them and scale up and roll out those that deserve to go national. This is not the time for chest-thumping; every state is trying its best and we are all in this fight together.

[This article appeared on NDTV.com | Wednesday, April 08, 2020]