India’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic reflects the power, problems and potential of federalism in the country’s polity.
In spite of the rather unilateral response in terms of imposing a nationwide lockdown, the Centre eventually chose to work carefully with the states. And, the most cynical of the chief ministers professed working with the Centre and other states to deal with a variety of challenges posed by the pandemic.
Srinivas Chokkakula, the MoJS Research Chair — Water Conflicts and Governance Centre for Policy Research, writes that “in the past few months, the country has witnessed an interesting and remarkably coordinated effort by the Centre and states in addressing a collective challenge”.
But how can such coordination be sustained on a long-term basis?
A typical response is to recommend shifting subjects to the Concurrent List to enable an active role for the Centre.
This is how the High-Level Group, constituted by the 15th Finance Commission, recommended shifting health from the State to the Concurrent List. A similar recommendation was made earlier by the Ashok Chawla Committee for water.
But is such shifting of subjects from the State to Concurrent List really feasible in these times of acute sub-nationalism, deep territorialisation and competitive federalism?
Will the aspired cooperative federalism get the states to agree to ceding powers and conceding space, particularly in their traditionally exclusive domains?
“The country’s response to the pandemic has shown that carving out roles through consensus can address new challenges to federal governance,” writes Chokkakula.
What should be an appropriate forum for this purpose?
“The experience of the GST Council may help here as well. The ongoing friction between the Centre and the states over GST reforms tells us that consensus-building is not a one-time exercise. It has to allow sustained dialogue and deliberation,” he states.
Is there an institutional space that offers the necessary resilience and credibility?
“Perhaps it is time to revisit the proposal for an elevated and empowered Inter-State Council,” he concludes.