Indian Federalism Amidst COVID 19

COVID 19 pandemic is testing the resilience and administrative capabilities of both developed and developing nations. Countries with democratic-federal setup find it even more difficult to counter the menace of COVID 19 virus as it demands co-operation amongst units (provinces/states) and at the same time requires transparency, accountability and authenticity in government’s action. COVID 19’s propensity to spread quickly and without knowing borders makes it essential that the fight against the virus be carried on in a similar fashion – without recognising state borders and in a rapid and united manner.

  • Reports of federal units quarrelling in securing medical equipment and testing kits in world’s oldest democracy (U.S.A.) brings about a question as to how world’s largest democracy’s (India) federal structure of governance is dealing with the problem.

Indian Federalism

  • Federalism is duality of government. Indian federalism is mostly described to be quasi-federal as the constitution is centrally biased (unitary form of governance in emergencies showing tilt towards central government). This has caused friction multiple times on reasons mostly – Role of Governor in State, All India Services Personnel, use of Article 356 to impose President’s rule, etc.
  • Plus, COVID 19 being a health emergency (probably the biggest health emergency post-independence) and health (Public health and sanitation) being state subject, these are testing times for this quasi-federal arrangement. The performance so far has been following:


  • Mature Politics: The bittering party politics which have seen new low in the Delhi assembly election seems to have taken a back seat. Politicians across political lines seem to be co-ordinating, following central government’s lead and taking pro-active initiatives to counter COVID 19.
  • Co-ordination: Several states like Punjab, Kerala, Odisha have imposed and extended lockdowns on their own prerogative. Also, there have been multiple revisions in state directives based on central government’s advice like opening of liquor shops in Punjab and opening of restaurants in Kerala being cancelled.
  • Legislation Ensuring Adequate Autonomy: The broad architecture and flexibility of twin acts (The Epidemics Diseases Act (1897) and National Disaster Management Act (2005) have allowed both Centre and states to address pandemic in diverse ways. While the Centre and its key ministries such as Home and Health have taken the lead in developing protocols and advisories, states are autonomous enough to act in their own ways. For instance, Kerala has developed its own model, so also Odisha and Rajasthan. Even district administration in Agra and Bhilwara has done well to contain the infection within the broad federal framework.


The primary responsibility to deal with heath exigencies is of state government and to effectively deal with COVID 19 it requires adequate funds and administrative autonomy. Few roadblocks in this smooth sailing are as follows:

  • Insufficient funds: The financial condition of state government is precarious. The foremost reasons for such condition include:
    • Nationwide Lockdown: It has impacted the tax revenues of the state governments. Important revenue sources like duties on fuel and real estate transactions are halted due to less/no economic activity.
    • Alcohol Tussle: Taxes on Alcohol and breweries form an important part of state revenue. The imposition of ban on alcohol sale has hit the states hard. This has resulted in several states (like Punjab, Kerala) demanding compensation or uplifting ban on alcohol sales to augment revenue.
    • PM Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situation Fund (PMCARES): A central fund with provisions of exemptions under Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSR) obligations has caused distress amongst states. State disaster management fund or Chief Minister Relief Fund has not been provided similar exemptions which have caused diversion in corporate donations thereby severely jolting state’s finances.
    • Delay in Tax Devolution: The nationwide lockdown has impacted central government’s treasury too. The
    • ban on economic activity has resulted in low tax collections, which have resulted in delayed fund disbursal to states.
  • Autonomy Issues:State governments have been complaining of administrative interference from central government. The prominent reasons include:
    • Centralised Procurement: Medical equipments and testing kits for tackling COVID-19 are procured by central government and then distributed amongst states. This has limited the capacity of states to procure directly from international open market. It has also led to low devolution of medical resources than requirement which have hampered state’s response in tackling COVID-19.
    • Centralized Decision Making: The first lockdown was imposed without consulting state governments and varied directives were issued without taking their views into consideration.
    • Migrant Labour Issue: The stranded migrant labours added to woes of state governments via defying lockdowns and added to additional resource burden. Multiple requests from state governments to central government for allowing inter-state movements of these workers fell on deaf ears. However, this issue is now being assuaged through transporting migrants via railways to their native homes.


Smooth co-operation between federal units is must to tackle COVID 19 effectively. Few measures to ensure same are following:

  • Augmenting Resources: Most of the federal disputes are monetary. This could be solved via enhancing revenue and central government can enhance its revenue via,
  • Relaxing FRBM target: Under FRBM obligation, central and state governments have to limit their fiscal deficit as per prescribed targets. Central government must use the escape clause and pump money in the system to better address financial issues.
  • Allowing Alcohol Sale: Alcohol not under GST could enhance state revenue. Central government thus must allow alcohol sale provided proper social distancing norms are followed.
  • CSR Exemptions to State Funds: Similar CSR exemptions like PMCARES must be provided to state disaster relief fund or Chief Minister Relief Fund to enhance state governments’ revenue.
  • Timely and Proper Disbursal of Funds: State’s share in central revenue must be quickly dispatched.
  • Participative Decision Making: While health remains a state subject (providing states major responsibilities for health service delivery), infectious disease control is in the Concurrent List requiring federal government’s leadership and strategic and resource support. Hence, participative decision making must be promoted.
  • Effective Democratic Decentralization: Democratic Decentralization must be adopted in true spirit. More administrative autonomy must be given to state governments which in turn must pass it on to district administration. Health workers and administrative machinery functioning on ground are better rehearsed with problems and hence their say in policy making or decision making be considered.


Indeed, a more consultative and community-based strategy is vastly preferable to a unilateral, top-down approach reflected in decision making like the abrupt announcement of a lockdown. Regardless to issues, this crisis has made it evident that the Constitution of India, while allowing adequate leeway to the State Governments to govern, has also made enough allowance for the Central Government to ensure a united approach to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. So far, despite the odd differences of opinion, co-operative federalism seems to have triumphed.