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Democratic governance, central to the idea of India, undermined: Covid governance

Rahul Mukherji, Jai Prasad and Seyed Hossein Zarhani of Heidelberg University, Germany, argue in this article, published in Identities Journal, that COVID-19 management has undermined democratic governance central to the idea of India and close to the heart of founders of modern India. These values were undermined in a number of ways. First, sub-national states and politicians were not adequately consulted before the lockdown on 24 March 2020, even though Kerala’s spectacular performance was well known.
Moreover, it is the states that would have to deal with issues such as health, migration and general wellbeing. The imperial and sudden lockdown impacted migrant workers from the oppressed classes and castes most severely. Second, the lockdown of 24 March need not have been sudden since opposition politicians had raised this issue in the Parliament since mid-February. Democratic values were undermined during the lockdown to the detriment of the Indian citizen. 
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The idea of India, however imperfectly practised, is about using opposition politics and the federal framework effectively, to unite the country towards a particular goal. To give just one example, the economic reforms of 1991 were furiously debated in the Parliament at a time of a severe economic crisis. These reforms empowered the states. And, it was the coalition governments of P V Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee who successfully guided the idea of rapid economic growth. Subsequently coalition Congress governments under Manmohan Singh ushered in the rights-based approach to deal with persistent inequities that had spurred Maoism in the country. Contrary to conservative Indian thinking favouring centralisation to the exclusion of social actors, India succeeded to the greatest extent when opposition parties under coalition governments and powerful sub-national states played a significant role in governance. The messy politics of coalitions, powerful sub-national actors and deliberation between the politician and technocrats and powerful social actors has become part of the India governance model – distinct in many ways from the more authoritarian models that have also produced rapid economic growth.
Has the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis paid respect to the federal and democratic charter of the Indian constitution enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the Directive Principles of State Policy? Indian society was ridden with caste and social inequalities, and needed to reform from within. This is the reason why reformers ranging from Swami Vivekananda to Mohandas Gandhi and Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar worried about the plight of the most oppressed. Vivekananda called the poorest – Daridranarayana (God in the form of the poor), Gandhi – Harijan (children of God) and Jyotibha Phule viewed the most oppressed as Dalits. The term Dalit was popularised by Dr Ambedkar – who chaired the drafting committee of the Indian constitution. There were serious differences among the reformers but all understood the need to alleviate the plight of the most oppressed. It is for these reasons that reservation in jobs and subsequently citizenship rights such as the right to work, the right to access privileged government information and the right of forest dwellers to access the forests, seemed to be moving Indian democracy, however gradually, in the direction of citizen equality before the law.
The management of the COVID-19 crisis seems to drag India’s institutions away from recognising the rights of its poor citizens. First, the government paid scant regard both to the rights of every Indian citizen, and the norm of equality before the law. This is all the more puzzling because it is well known that poor citizens vote in greater numbers than the rich. Second, COVID-19 is being deployed as a way to restrict the states from accessing precious resources, even though the management of COVID-19 ultimately lies with the states rather than the central government in Delhi. Finally, there was no need for a sudden lockdown considering the information and COVID-19 management experience available in India since 27 January 2020. The lockdown of 24 March could have occurred after consultation around the same time.

Migrant workers

The COVID-19 crisis could have furthered the cause of equalising India’s social consciousness. This was necessary both for citizen wellbeing and economic revival. However, migrant workers were the new outcastes in the COVID-19 story – the majority of the middle class and the rich are praising India for its quick lock down, whereas poor migrants were seen running, cycling, walking and hitch-hiking their way back, when they could not even access trains, buses or resources to survive the lock down. Train and road accidents martyred numerous workers. The prime minister’s repeated proclamations drawing the attention of the nation, and the finance minister’s packages seemed to care the least for migrant workers, while stressing the importance of agriculture, and small and medium industry.
Where were the migrant workers – the backbone of India’s manufacturing and construction industry – in this story? Like the old outcastes who performed all the necessary and menial work but were not treated with dignity, the new outcastes who power India’s economic engine seem to have little or no social protection. They have neither trade unions nor industry associations voicing their interests. According to one estimate, 19.3 million persons left agricultural work from the states of UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to find jobs in richer states between 2005 and 2018. It was these workers who found it difficult to physically survive the lockdown.
The rescue package of mid-May 2020 finally came when migrant labour had either returned or was homebound. They had rarely experienced such cruelty in their lives. It was only around mid-May 2020, when migrant workers were returning home that the free food arrangement through ration cards was made. Earlier the Cabinet Minister in-charge of Food Distribution and himself a dalit – Mr Rambilas Paswan remarked on NDTV that there would be no free food distribution because of the costs involved. Mid-May was also the time when the government announced a generous loan package for small and medium industry to jump-start the economy. How would small and medium enterprises renew their production when most migrant workers had found a way to return home?
There was very little for migrant workers in the INR 20 trillion loan package that was announced in mid-May 2020. Critics have argued that repackaging of old programs and finances given as collateral for loans of small and medium businesses dominated the package, rather than any significant direct transfer to the poor. In a welcome move, the government increased allocations and access to food-grains and pulses through the public distribution system, as well as, contributions to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Both the provisions seemed too little allocation granted rather too late. Distribution of food grains occurred paradoxically after migrant labor had left for their homes. And, the increased MGNREGS allocation was insufficient to feed the growing number of migrant workers whose incomes will now need to be substituted by MGNREGS wages in their home states. Finally, critics are unanimous that the government’s package in real terms amounts to INR 2 trillion (1% of GDP) rather than the professed INR 20 trillion (10% of GDP).
Consider the benefits of a more generous rescue package during or within the week of the lockdown. Labourers would have been able to afford food and shelter. Could the government have not used Jan Dhan accounts to transfer Rupees 5000 rather than Rupees 500 into the hands of all the workers who needed the resources to stay away from home? Most economists would agree that the country needed a spending spree, even before the lockdown, when economic growth, spending and employment had all declined. This would have brought in the necessary cash for migrants to sustain the lockdown, and inspired them to resume work after the government offered a package.

Centralisation of the Indian Federal Structure

The federal structure of Indian democracy was undermined during the COVID-19 crisis. Seeking the needs of the states would have helped COVID-19 patients in the various states. It would also have enabled the states to find resources for migrants in distress when jobs were not forthcoming. Sub-national states are critical for governing the COVID-19 crisis for three reasons. First, state governments are responsible for governing public health, since health is a state subject in the Indian constitution. States are responsible for testing, providing masks and ensuring that there are enough hospital beds and facilities for intensive hospital care. One can praise, for example, the initiatives made by Kerala and Punjab because of their success in flattening the curve. Second, states need to deal with migrant workers and discourage them from returning home. Finally, it is the states that have to implement contact tracing and decide which parts of the geography are dangerously infected. They then have to enforce lockdowns with the help of security personnel to stop the virus from spreading.
The central government is systematically undermining the fiscal capacity of the states. Revenue sources of the states, stamp duties on property transactions, alcohol sales, State Goods and Services Tax (SGST) are most affected by the shutdown, and Goods and Services Tax compensations to states for the previous quarter are still due from the centre. Revenue-strapped even in normal times, most of the states are now having to compete with each other to wrest resources from the centre to be able to respond to pressures from citizens – for day to day functioning as well as disaster management. This change from ‘cooperative federalism’ to what former Union Finance and Economic Affairs secretary Subhash Garg calls ‘competitive unionism’, will have serious political consequences for opposition political parties and subnational states. Whether the ‘economic stimuli’ packages announced as yet by the centre, including the economic nationalistic INR 20 trillion, create growth or not, they are certainly geared towards economic centrism. The latest, trumpeted in a vocabulary tailored for the Hindu nationalist agenda, is dominated by central credit-guarantees down to small businesses, direct transfers, and increased layouts for centrally sponsored schemes (CSSs), the new package has further tied welfare and disaster management capacity of subnational states to central direction (read Modi’s benevolence).
The case of PMCARES (The Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund) is another glaring example of how managing the COVID-19 has occasioned a decided move towards coercive centralisation. A public trust chaired by the prime minister was created on 28 March 2020 to receive national and international donations for the coronavirus crisis. This fund was created overnight, without parliamentary oversight, despite the pre-existing PM NRF (National Relief Fund) endowed with nearly INR 3800 crore in March 2019. Many questions about this fund have remained unanswered. To date, the PMO has made no declarations on why a separate fund was created, why contributions to this fund are allowed Corporate Social Responsibility status under the Indian Companies Act 2013, and not to the Chief Ministers’ Relief Funds that operate at the state level. Moreover, there has been no clarity on just how much fund has been accumulated in this trust, or whether the deed of registration of this trust is available in the public domain. Transparency of the fund remains in question as it will not be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) but by independent auditors appointed by the trustees themselves.
A right to information (RTI) application regarding PMCARES was also summarily rejected on 29 May 2020. The application had requested digital copies of the trust deed, government orders, notifications and circulars related to the creation and operation of PMCARES. In reply, the government stated that PM was not a fund under the ambit of Section 2(h) of the RTI act (2005).
Not surprisingly, PMCARES has become the government’s preferred receptacle! For example, on 16 April, a former Member of Parliament and five others were granted bail by the Jharkhand High Court on the condition that they show proof of paying INR 35,000 each into the PM CARES Fund. The Resident Doctors Association (RDA) of AIIMS alleged diversion of INR 5 million to the PMCARES Fund by the AIIMS administration which was earmarked for procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) opposed the unilateral decision by Delhi University administration, on the recommendation of the University Grants Commission, to deposit INR 40 million to the PM-Cares fund originally collected in the name of PMNRF (Maharashtra, 2020).

Sudden and undemocratic lockdown

Finally, it is a myth that the lockdown needed to be sudden. The central government did not consult opposition parties and the states until the lock-down on 24 March. Kerala had been suffering from the COVID-19 crisis since 27 January 2020, and opposition politicians such as Rahul Gandhi had called the attention of the Parliament even in mid-February. Kerala’s experience was well known at the time of the lockdown. The central government declined both parliamentary deliberation and state-level consultation until the sudden lockdown on 24 March, when migrant workers were forced to return from their respective bus and train stations under curfew-like orders. This was reminiscent of the national emergency proclaimed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1975, when the rights of ordinary Indian citizens had been suddenly and summarily dismissed.
One of the myths about the sudden lockdown was that it had to be sudden because of the nature of the national emergency. The pandemic is portrayed as a war-like situation where the National Disaster Management Act needed to be invoked as a quick centralising response. Why would the lockdown have to be sudden when opposition ruled states and politicians had already begun dealing with COVID-19 after considering the plight of the poor in Kerala and in Rajasthan. These states had drawn the attention of the central government even before it had woken up to COVID-19. The centre needed to give direction after taking a diversity of views to coordinate a coherent federal level response. After all, the states would deal with migrant labour, health infrastructure, as well as the withdrawal of lockdown. They needed to be consulted and had the experience not available with the central government at that time. Moreover, Kerala’s success in dealing with COVID-19 had surpassed that of many advanced industrialised countries. Suddenness then was a centralising and undemocratic directive. And, it was migrant labour working largely in the unorganized sector that would be impacted the most.
In stark contrast to Kerala, institutional response at the central level was rather slow and certainly lacked the punch. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) constituted a 21-member technical task force only on 18 March, a week after the WHO declared a pandemic. The task force, headed by NITI Ayog member Dr VK Paul, had little representation from states, and few experts who had credible experience of handling or modelling trajectories of similar outbreaks.
A ‘total lockdown’ was imposed on 24 March 2020, without preparatory consultations with the states and their chief ministers, without a clear understanding of how the pandemic might develop in Indian circumstances, and without any standard operating procedures in place. Touted as the most effective nation-level disease-containment strategy, the National Disaster Management Act 2005 was invoked, which centralizes the nation’s response to the crisis, but also mandates consultation and planning with the states. Centralization was enforced but this was devoid of federal level consultation.
Much of the decision-making revolved around the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Eleven empowered groups consisting of 79 handpicked members, mostly bureaucrats from the cabinet secretariat and the PMO, were created on 29 March, five days after the national lockdown was in place. States had meagre representation in these groups. Even the inter-state council, which should have been a forum for federal level preparatory decisions remained non-functional.
The government’s sudden and centralising initiative was largely a failure for a variety of reasons. First, the lockdown was a failure because migrant workers who did not bring COVID-19 to India but who could well be carrying it, could not be held back after the infections had multiplied manifold. India is 7th most (1 June 2020) infected country in the world with a rising number of infections. Migrant labourers are carrying infections back to their villages, to states and rural settings with little or no infrastructure to deal with COVID-19. Unable to hold back migrant workers, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackerey in Maharashtra was pleading the central government to send trains for migrant workers in the third week of April. Some trains began running around 12 May. Workers had to borrow money after the lock down to simply return home. 1.4 million workers were transported back to their homes between just between 12 and 15 May 2020.

In sum

What does this augur for governance within India’s democratic frame? COVID-19 has given the Indian state an excuse for centralising decision-making in a manner that undermines both the democracy and federalism. Indian democracy gives every citizen the right to life and of movement within the country. The sudden lockdown impeded both. First, the suddenness of the 24 March lockdown threatened the lives of the poor and marginal migrant workers because their means of livelihood were suspended with no alternatives available to them. Moreover, they were imprisoned under conditions where they could only reach home by defying the law and with no available means of public transport. Second, the lockdown was an excuse to centralize decision-making by invoking the Disaster Management Act. The centre was seen in all the action – be it the INR 20 trillion financial package or PMCARES, with very little fiscal space granted to the sub-national states that would ultimately govern COVID-19 management. The suspension of democratic rights and the drive towards centralisation will only make it easier for the virus to consolidate its presence for a longer duration – something that is evident from India’s rise in the comity of nations as one of the most COVID-infected countries in the world. There seems to be a relationship between the old idea of India represented in Kerala’s democratic and successful response, and the central government’s ability to deal with the virus.
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Rahul Mukherji is Professor and Head of Department of Political Science, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University. Jai Prasad is a doctoral candidate and a Marie Curie Fellow at South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, and part of the Global India Programme of the European Training Network. Seyed Hossein Zarhani is Lecturer and Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University

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