It is time for cooperation and not confrontation; passing the buck won’t solve the pandemic blues
The Centre, states, judiciary, and the people of India are all mutual watchdogs, not mutual admirers
There is a three-way confrontation going on amidst the raging Covid pandemic. The first is between the executive and judiciary, the second between the Union government and state governments. The third is between the authorities and the public.
As world-famous leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had realized, great power comes with great responsibility. It is the great charge of a leader to shoulder responsibility for making decisions practically every day that will have profound implications for many. Covid control is one such issue. Their natural inclination is to pass the buck (unpleasant decisions) to someone else.
Machiavelli, the great strategist once advised. “Princes should delegate to others the enactment of unpopular measures and keep in their own hands the means of winning favours.”
Look at what is happening on such an important issue like containing the pandemic. Last year the public stayed indoors during the national lockdown, but come 2021, with elections to the five states, politics came to the fore. The Prime Minister left it to the states to decide when to impose lockdown at the state level. Soon, the states faced issues like shortage of hospital beds, oxygen and COVID vaccines.
Indeed, the second wave, which hit the country when least expected in March, has plunged it into panic as the country was simply not prepared.
Chief ministers like Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal went to court for more oxygen supply by the Centre. A victorious West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee too attacked the Centre for shirking its responsibility to make vaccines available to the people.
A major row has broken out between the Centre and states over the differential pricing that has been fixed for the purchase of vaccines.
DMK leader MK Stalin tweeted calling it “discriminatory”. Maharashtra, the worst-hit state in the second wave, had also decided to make its own plans to counter the increasing vaccine shortage in the state.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan urged the Centre to provide the vaccines free to the states since they were already reeling under the financial impact of the pandemic.
Chhattisgarh, which had announced free vaccines to all adults above the age of 18, demanded that the Centre should roll back this decision which made states compete with each other.
In all these confrontations the federal cooperation expected between the Centre and the states has broken down. The states have involved the courts, including the apex court, for redressal of their grievances.
The judiciary enters the picture when the executive fails the people. Since the early 1990s, the courts have stepped in on matters ranging from governance to legislative matters to political and policy matters. Therefore, courts are not only ensuring administrative compliance but also enforcing federal cohesion to ensure executive stability. Politicians, however, argue that frequent judicial interventions tend to weaken the functioning of the other two branches, executive and legislature.
The Centre told the apex court on May 9 that “though it is duty-bound to fully assist the Honourable court…...the policy strategy and steps taken by the executive based on the expert medical advice have to be appreciated in the context of medical crisis” and said, “any overzealous, though well-meaning judicial intervention, may lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences”.
The Union and the states as well as the public, all share the responsibility to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. The Epidemic Diseases Act (EDA), the law which many affected states such as Delhi and Maharashtra put into operation before the Centre invoked the NDMA, provides them almost unfettered powers to quell the virus within their state limits.
States are now at the frontlines. Many states have been quick to respond and also innovate. Some like Punjab and Odisha have stuck to their own preparations apart from those made by the Centre, which has benefitted them so far.
What is needed at this time of crisis is cooperation and coordination between the states and the Centre, the judiciary and the Centre as well as the people of India and the authorities in containing the pandemic.
(Views are personal)