India's attempt to combat the Novel Coronavirus pandemic with an unprecedented total lockdown of the country has witnessed a major setback as millions of economically disadvantaged people, chiefly the daily wage earners in big cities are being forced to return to their ancestral places and hometowns, most of which are located in different states. They are helpless in this respect, as it's a matter of survival for them. Although a slew of initiatives have been announced by the Central and multiple State Governments to alleviate the suffering of the financially destitute class during the lockdown, this mass migration shows that collaborative efforts of the Union and the State governments have either not been orchestrated in sync or have not been implemented properly.
Feeble Collaborative Effort
The Union Health Minister Mr. Harsh Vardhan on 9 March 2020 stated that the Government is prepared to deal with the Novel Coronavirus and his Ministry is sending directives, including guidelines to all the states. These directions were issued under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 (EDA) and the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (DMA). The Government perhaps believed that these two laws suitably vested sufficient powers in it, and that there was no necessity to fall back on the "emergency provisions" of the Constitution. There is no question on the competence of the Union Government as even during normal times the Centre can issue directions to States and as a result, the executive power of the states shall be exercised in a manner that does not "impede or prejudice" the Union Executive directives ( See Article 256 & 257). Similarly, the State Governments too started their independent efforts by issuing workplace advisories based on the restraint plan prepared by the Health Ministry to tackle the Novel Coronavirus pandemic. Needless to say that some state governments like Odisha were prompt and active but a few others sluggish and passive in their response.
Unfortunately, no sincere and strategic coordination between Union and State Governments were made to give full-fledged effect to the national lockdown and its possible implications on people's lives. An inter-state coordination meeting of all Chief Ministers and Chief Secretaries should have been called at an initial stage (ideally in the first week of March 2020) in order to make a strategic plan on various preventive measures including the national lockdown and its possible repercussions. In a bid to ensure a smooth national lockdown of three weeks, a joint intensive advisory along with logistic-support arrangements could have been issued appealing to the people to avoid leaving their homes unless there being an acute emergency. The success of Janata Curfew demonstrated that people are willing to abide by Government advisories and especially the appeal made by our beloved Prime Minister. But a 21 day national lockdown on a four hours' notice, suddenly put millions of life at risk, leaving many struggling with basic requirements of food and medicines. They were left with choice between the dreaded Novel Coronavirus infection and starvation. Hunger is the more desperate, deadly, and immediate of the two alternatives and hence it prevailed. The Union and State Governments urged employers not to deduct wages for the period of the lockdown and provide some other relief measures. But without a guaranteed wage it was realistically hard to win the confidence of the people that the State will guarantee their fundamental right to life and livelihood. It is imperative to note that this is not charity but rather a Constitutional obligation under Article 39 (a) and (e) which mandates the Government to take steps to ensure that the citizens have a right to adequate means of livelihood, and are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuitable for them.
The Essence of Collaborative Federalism
The Constitutional vision ideates that both the Central and the State Governments must embrace a collaborative federal architecture by displaying harmonious coexistence and interdependence. Acceptance of pragmatic federalism and achieving federal balance is a necessity. It requires disciplined wisdom on the part of the Union and the State Governments to demonstrate a pragmatic orientation. As opposed to centralism, a balanced federal structure mandates that the Union Government will work in coordination with State Governments at all times. This crisis is an extraordinary situation which required extraordinary coordination. Our best chance of curbing the pandemic lies only in joint synchronised effort and not in isolated endeavours.
As most of the cases reported so far have been from cities, this unprecedented mass migration may have adverse repercussions in rural parts too. Some asymptomatic carriers of the virus might unwittingly infect people in those areas. Consequently, they will be forced to defy the lockdown again and travel to cities to seek medical relief considering India's grossly underdeveloped medical infrastructure in remote areas. This would create a vicious cycle, thereby defeating the very purpose of the current lockdown.
A similar situation was perceived in Italy, where people from the initially-affected Northern Italy fled to their respective hometowns thereby spreading the virus across the entire nation. The present condition of Italy is a direct result of faulty lockdown and a spectacle which we must avoid at all costs. To achieve this, we must deal with the issue of migration expeditiously.
What is to be Done?