One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Centre Should Allow States To Lead Moves Away From Lockdown

by R Jagannathan - Apr 21, 2020 03:24 PM +05:30 IST
One Size Doesn’t  Fit All:  Centre Should Allow States To Lead Moves Away From LockdownPrime Minister Modi and chief ministers of Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Maharasgtra.
  • Why it would be better to let states make smaller mistakes than to allow the Centre to make a potentially big mistake for which all of us have to pay a price.

The Union government has probably made a mistake in pulling up Kerala for easing restrictions in the state after gaining some measure of control over the pandemic. The Centre has asked Kerala to follow its guidelines strictly on when the how the curbs can be lifted.

One has used the word “probably” above with a reason. One cannot, at this point, know if the central guidelines on the easing of lockdown rules are right or wrong. But there is no getting away from the fact that India should not have a one-cap-fits-all rule for all states in this pandemic, especially given differential state capacities to deal with the challenges. Kerala’s capacity, with its better healthcare facilities, to deal with the pandemic is not the same as Bihar’s.

In small states like Goa, which depend on tourism for revenues and livelihoods, the achievement of zero active Covid-19 cases as of yesterday (20 April) points to the need to ease up faster; ditto for a tech state like Karnataka, where work-from-home possibilities can ease the return to normality faster. But in Maharashtra, which has millions living in slums, normality cannot be speeded up without better demonstrated control of the spread of the virus.

The core point is this: the central government’s guidelines for the lifting of curbs should be guidelines; they should not become directives except when the situation in a state is obviously careening out of control. States have the best ability to judge what is right for them.

The only area in which central guidelines should predominate is where one is dealing with inter-state commerce and large-scale movements of people (migrants, cargo, etc). But even here groups of states should be able to mutually decide how they can ease up on their borders, region by region, or district by district.

The real problem is this: as long as there is no vaccine or cure for Covid-19, no state, no country, no region can actually ease up fully. No one can claim to have found the perfect balance between rescuing lives and livelihoods either. We will know which state or country made the right choices only long after we have seen the back of Covid-19.

We have no means to assess how effectively we have dealt with the crisis when second wave of infections seems entirely possible, and asymptomatic cases seem to be on the rise. The latter means even those who are infected may not know it, and we don’t know what is the potential damage they may cause. Equally, we may never be able to assess the real damage of keeping lockdowns on for months without end.

Our best bet today is to empower people, local communities, states and countries to do what they think is best for themselves, and not impose solutions from above.

What is universally good advice is compulsory wearing of masks, regular sanitisation of hands and exposed areas of the body, banning people from spitting anywhere, and keeping safe physical distance from other humans when in public places. Keeping old people and those with serious co-morbidities at home also seems like a reasonable thing to do. Beyond that, no one has the right answers right now.

Was China right to impose the strictest lockdown in Wuhan? We can’t say for sure, unless this time next year we see no recurrence of the infection. Was Sweden right to go easy on normal activities? We don’t know, for opinion is divided in Sweden itself; there are those who defend keeping public spaces open as long as things don’t get worse, and others who warn that the country is courting big risks.

Celebrating early successes too soon is a luxury we can’t afford. To say that New Zealand and Iceland have done well to contain the pandemic makes no sense, for these are sparsely populated countries separated by wide swathes of water from other continents.

Its like celebrating Nagaland (with zero Covid-19 cases as of now) as some kind of exemplar in dealing with the pandemic when it merely may have been lucky. The same applies to the Kerala model or the Goa model, when we don’t know how they will fare six months down the line.

However, states should have the right to experiment with opening up as they deem fit. It is not unreasonable to allow Kerala or Karnataka to open up quicker than the rest of the country, given that infection rates are relatively low, and better state healthcare capacities.

Imposing strict central guidelines on unwilling states will needlessly politicise the issue. If the Kerala economy fails to revive for a long time, the Centre will be blamed for it. On the other hand, if the state is allowed to do what it believes is feasible, the political responsibility shifts to it. Power and responsibility must go together.

In a situation where we do not have the right answers beyond all doubt, it is worth allowing states to experiment with different strategies and check which ones work and which ones don’t. Covid-19 is a natural experiment to find out which mix of public policies work in which kind of state. It is not an occasion to centralise decision-making.

The Centre may be right, the state might be right. Both may be partially right or partially wrong, or even fully wrong. But it would be better to let states make smaller mistakes than to allow the Centre to make a potentially big mistake for which all of us have to pay a price.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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