The Narendra Modi led BJP government at India’s helm has turned the coronavirus pandemic into an opportunity to concentrate power and erode the very foundations of Parliamentary democracy and federalism on which India’s political system rests. Due to invocation of the Disaster Management Act (2005) and helped along by a pliant bureaucracy, and a compliant judiciary, the country is virtually being run by the Ministry of Home Affairs, led by Amit Shah, with the omnipresent Prime Minister’s Office as the sole and final dispensing authority.

This system has not only replaced the functioning and responsibilities of other central ministries but, more importantly, those of State Governments and lower levels of administration. State govternments, which are dependent on the Centre for much of their funds, are now being peremptorily told to adopt this or that policy, whether it be related to the pandemic or to other aspects like labour law changes. Since the people are at present preoccupied with the disease, most government policy too is directed towards that. And, this fight against the coronavirus has been severely compromised by the centralizing of power by the Modi-Shah duo. A one-size-fits-all strategy to contain the virus has been imposed on this vast and diverse country with bizarre results like districts with no or a few cases of COVID-19 infection observing a stringent lockdown along with those where cases were zooming up unchecked. Procurement of essential PPE’s and other medical equipment was seriously hampered and orders were placed as late as third week of March. An ill-thought out ‘strategy’ for fighting the disease conceived by bureaucrats and whiz-kids with no connection to the real India was rammed down the throats of Indians. Not only has it failed to curb the menace – as was promised – but it has forced destitution and starvation on millions.

Let us take a look at how exactly this centralization and usurpation of power has evolved in the past few months. But it is to be remembered that the disregard for federalism and democratic principles was the mentality with which the Modi led government has always worked, as seen in overthrowing of Opposition led state governments, discrimination in fund allocations, bypassing them in implementing various schemes or programmes, using Governors to undermine their functioning and so on. The imposition of GST was a mortal blow to the federal principles because it snatched away the right of state governments to levy most taxes, and made them beggars for funds from the Centre – which incidentally, is now being used to arm-twist them, even in these times of catastrophe.

But the pandemic has given a new impetus – and a fresh pretext – to this ongoing anti-democratic tendency. Now, everything is under the direct control of Amit Shah and Narendra Modi.

The Legal Sanction: Initial Fumbling

In the initial weeks after the first case of COVID-19 was found at the end of January, some states invoked the British era Epidemic Diseases Act (1897) to deal with the looming crisis, after the Modi govt. itself advised this. This Act, described by some experts as one of the most Draconian laws passed by a colonial administration, gives sweeping, over-riding powers to State Governments to deal with epidemics. These include unfettered powers to arrest people, isolate them, use force when felt, destroy property, etc. Regulations framed under this Act by states were issued and they went several steps further ahead in specifying what is permitted and what is not.

However, this initial period of state level responses was one when the Modi government was groping in the dark. It had invoked the Disaster Management Act (2005) but its potential as a power concentrating magic wand was perhaps still dawning on them. It was revealed as the true brahmastra only when Modi announced the countrywide lockdown on 24 March in his typical dramatic style – as he did for demonetization and surgical strikes. Giving a four hour notice to the country’s 1.5 billion people, India became a prison, with only essential services allowed, and social distancing became the new law of the land.

Disaster Management Act

This act came to the forefront after 24 March, with the central govt. issuing orders to all State Governments and local bodies that they were bound by this law to follow the directions of lockdown. In one fell swoop, all the powers to deal with the pandemic were swept up and concentrated into the one body that officially deals with national disasters – the ministry of home affairs.

The very origins of this act are rooted in a grey zone. The Constitution has no entry for ‘disaster management’. But after the 2004 Asian Tsunami, the then UPA 1 government passed the law as a central legislation by rather bizarrely arguing that it came under the Concurrent List entry (#23) of “social security and social insurance”. Such was the ambiguity about this that in 2006, the second Administrative Reforms Commission had to point out that to give this act legal sanctity, an entry on disaster management must be made in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. Needless to say that nobody paid any attention to this recommendation and the Act continues. With the dawn of Covid-19 pandemic, it has been put to use with alacrity and vigour by the Modi govt.

Here are some of the key provisions of the DMA. It provided for setting up a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) headed by the Prime Minister. This becomes the supreme body for implementing various policies under the act. Extensive power is given to the Central Government and NDMA. Sections 35, 62 and 72 provide that irrespective of any law in force (including any over-riding powers) the Central Government can issue any directions to any authority, anywhere in India, to facilitate or assist in disaster management. Various other sections (18, 24, 36, 38, 39) provide that any such directions issued by Central Government and NDMA must necessarily be followed by all the Union Ministries, State Governments and State Disaster Management Authorities.

Remember: the whole edifice is under the home ministry because they have administrative control over all ‘disaster management’. And, it is also provided [in Sec. 6(3)] that the prime minister can exercise all powers of NDMA. So, PM Modi and home minister Amit Shah, are now legally authorized to run the whole country – and woe on anybody who questions that.

One Step Forward….One Step Back

Lockdown 1.0 was imposed as per Order dated 24-03-2020 of NDMA ‘to take measures for ensuring social distancing so as to prevent the spread of COVID 19’. Detailed guidelines were then issued by the home ministry the same day.
Since then, about 80 orders have been issued by the home ministry. These range from various humdrum advisories to over a dozen clarifications, mostly in the nature of exemptions from the lockdown. For instance on 27 March, the clarification exempted agricultural operations from the lockdown. This had to be done because the valuable and crucial rabi harvest (wheat, mustard, etc.) was standing ready and ripe in the fields. Similarly, other exemptions were issued for fisherfolk, etc. All this is worth noting because it is following a typical pattern of how an overcentralized strategy stumbles and gropes its way if other stake holders (State governments, other ministries, local bodies) are not kept on board. It sounds bizarre but still, it’s true that the bureaucrats framing the orders under Shah and Modi’s guidance were not aware that: rabi crops need to be harvested; that lakhs of migrant workers will be stranded and want to go back home; etc. They locked down everything in a shock and awe style, only to retreat step by step. Thus was the fight against the pandemic compromised by the centralization

States Under Stress

The State Governments are feeling the pressure of these ham handed policies and erosion of their rights significantly. By banning the production and sale of alcohol in the lockdown, the Modi government effectively cut 30-40% of revenue that states used to get from their excise duties. There was no consultation about this, and recently state governments raised the issue of steeply falling revenues from own taxes. Reports suggest that total states revenue has fallen by as much as 80-90%, severely handicapping their efforts to fight the pandemic. They are not being allowed to raise loans, and even the possibility of raising some revenue through oil pricing was snatched away by the Central govt. hurriedly declaring duty hikes, crowding the states out.

There have been cases – notably Kerala – where the Central Government has shot off letters asking why the State government is not following lockdown procedures. This is with the only state in the country that has successfully tamed the pandemic!
But the biggest attack on states’ rights has been the withholding of the GST cess compensation that was supposed to be given to state governments. This has been continuously delayed by the Modi government in an attempt to hold on to their treasure chest, facing as they do a resource crunch of their own making. In fact, the Modi govt. has spent peanuts on fighting the pandemic, with most of the so called Rs.1.7 billion relief package consisting of previous commitments, and the newly announced one being mostly credit promises. Yet they have misused the power of money by being tight fisted with states, who are already facing a gigantic fiscal crisis. This is a prime example of how over-centralised functioning can make beggars out of equals.

Attack on Workers

The centralized power in the hands of PMO and home ministry has also been used to launch a naked offensive against workers’ rights. It has now come to light that the Central government sent advisories to state governments asking them to increase the working hours per day, and to keep in abeyance various other labour protection laws. This was implemented with enthusiasm by several state governments including UP, MP, Karnataka, HP, etc. (all BJP led state governments), but also by Congress led ones like in Rajasthan and Punjab, and by those led by regional parties like Maharashtra and Odisha.

Labour is on the concurrent list, which means both state and central governments can exercise powers on the matter. But the Modi government has forced the issue taking advantage of the economic slump caused by the pandemic. Because of the prohibition of protests, and strict enforcement by police of prevention of gatherings, effective protests are impossible, although CITU has still managed to successfully organize countrywide protests on 21 April and then again on 14 May.
All these developments bode ill for India’s federal and democratic principles, which in turn means that they will damage and destroy many rights of the people in general, and also cause economic misery. But, in the present times, its biggest harm will be in compromising the fight against the pandemic which is far from over in the country.

In the coming days, as the pandemic unfolds, the Left movement will be strengthening its fight against this disastrous handling of the pandemic, as also the centralization of power that is now a threat to India’s Constitution.