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Unfolding challenges OF COVID-19 & supreme court observations: Need for prompt, firm and assertive action by the centre

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The recent verdict of Supreme Court that constitutes a severe indictment of the working of 4 states in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic ought to be a matter of grave concern to the government at the Centre as well, though all these four states are ruled by its opposition parties. The Court observed how the hospitals were overwhelmed by surge in numbers of Covid patients and called it ‘deplorable’ that patients were lying by the side of the ‘dead’.

Many may argue that after having led the fight against the pandemic in a statesman like manner for past nearly 3 months and earning accolades from several world leaders, Modi government did not quite expect situation in some parts of the country to degenerate the way it has.

However, the fact is being the ruling party at the centre, it is finally responsible, no matter which party rules which part of the country. The Constitution has also the inbuilt mechanism that empowers the government in the centre to enforce course correction, when the situation is grave.

Staggering dimension of the crisis

The flaks from the apex court has come at a time when the challenges in are steadily mounting up in commensuration with scaling up of Corona testing. According to a report, the Dy CM of Delhi estimated the number of infected persons in Delhi alone to rise to around 5.5 lakhs by July 31, this year i.e., in a matter of few weeks. Considering that the health infra of Delhi is overwhelmed with around 22,800 active cases presently, this projection is indeed scary.

Going into root causes

The root causes for the present predicament, despite having achieved considerable success in first two months since the time of Janta Curfew may be traced to two major factors: (a) inability to enforce the lockdown effectively in some parts of some states; (b) inability to quickly add to covid-19 treatment infrastructure to meet the requirements that was bound to snowball in keeping with rise in the testing.

The above in turn may be attributed to the style of functioning by the Modi government, which has impinged on its performance generally and also specifically in relation to the handling of the Covid-19.

Style of functioning – too much of persuasion?

First, the style in general. It has been marked for an obsession for ‘consensus’ to settle political question. It has also been seen to attempting to secure Court order to settle issues of governances at times. Trying to get a solution of the Shaheen bagh unlawful congregation through the Apex Court to which the matter was taken up by way of a PIL, is a recent example.

With regard to opposition ruled states, it has often taken almost a ‘180 degree away’ position vis-a-vis the Congress. For example, if Congress has been accused of dismissing several elected state governments under Art 356 during its rule at the centre, Modi government seems to be following a policy of not using Art 356 ‘under any circumstances’, howsoever warranted. Many political analysts will argue that not all problems can be solved by ‘kid glove’ treatment or sheer persuasion alone.

Need to be firm and tough for the sake of people & democracy

The Constitution bestows several kinds of powers to the ruling dispensation which need to be carried out for the sake of protecting people and democracy. This may entail seemingly hard actions at times. As a matter of fact, far from involving Judiciary on various kinds of governance issues, the Constitution expects Legislature and Executive to ensure that the Judiciary does not encroach upon their domains. Needless to say, the ruling regime has a prime role to play in fulfilling this obligation for the sake of a healthy democracy.

Coming to Covid-19 handling in particular, Modi government, despite its commendable leadership in trying to marshal the nation in a unified mission, adopted a laissez faire policy with regard to the violation of lockdown norms in some states and worse, violence against Covid-19 warriors- medical staff, police and sanitation workers in some areas of these states. Although it may be premature to come to a definite conclusion, it appears prima facie, that all four states named in SC verdict were afflicted with the kinds of indiscipline and transgressions stated above while the Centre had left the matter in the hands of the respective states.

Consequences of indifference

Sadly, now it is the harvest time of such indifferent approach. The number of new Covid-19 cases are galloping by the day and threatening the extremely inadequate health infrastructure. Though we are trying to draw satisfaction in high recovery rates, it is clear that at this rate of growth of new cases, our whole health infrastructure will fall far short of the needs in a matter of weeks, simultaneously throwing the treatment of the non-Covid patients including cancer, diabetes, etc out of gear. As a result these patients, many of whom are chronic and need regular medical care and far outweigh the numbers of Covid-19 patients may be exposed to unprecedented health hazards.

Sheer barbarity in handling dead bodies

What adds to the anxiety is the manner in which the death of Covid-19 patients have been handled in the four states named in the SC verdict viz., Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. In a recent case in West Bengal, a big controversy arose on a video film circulating in social media about how 14 dead bodies were being treated in a city crematorium. The seriousness of the case may be gauged from the fact that the Governor of the State tweeted about it condemning the manner of disposal of dead bodies in the State. Though the government claimed they were not Covid-19 cases, the controversy rages. There are also several complaints about very dishonorable treatment of dead bodies in Delhi and Maharashtra.

As a matter of fact, the lack of transparency and the utter insensitivity in handling the Covid-19 patients, and inhuman manner of disposal of dead bodies have begun to fetch the world attention. It is emerging as a grave concern for the country. The resolution of PM Modi to project the country as a post Covid-19 economic powerhouse by building a strong brand image for India may get impacted unless urgent action is initiated to address issues at these states.

Raising their hands up or any hidden agenda?

Interestingly, there was a media report that the CM of West Bengal had suggested during her interaction with the Home Minister of the country that the Centre can take over the responsibility to tackle Covid-19 crisis if it was of the view that the State was unable to handle it. Very recently, the CM of Delhi also met the Home Minister seeking the help of the Centre to deal with the crisis. 

Considering the overall scenario, the Modi government needs to take immediate and drastic action before the situation goes beyond control. It must be borne in mind that there can be no permanent lockdown, nor can there be any effective mechanism to prevent transmission of infection across states or population groups. It is time for assertive action, whatever that is.

How ‘assertive’ handling of Covid-19 challenge paid dividend?

By way of example, one of BJP ruled states viz., UP reportedly took a series of assertive actions to enforce lockdown, arrange quarantine of migrant workers, and ramped up the medical infrastructure considerably. It has been under media glare for firm action against violators of lockdown and attackers of Covid-19 workers. At the same time, it also hogged limelight for creating facilities by way of  1 lakh Covid-19 hospital beds under three categories during the brief period of lockdown. The net result? Despite early criticism by sections of society for its tough handling of lockdown violation, eventually all communities across caste and creed have been the beneficiaries of the assertive actions.

Need to be vigilant and assertive

The ruling regime at the centre also needs to be much more assertive to be able to retrieve the situation before it goes out of control. There can be no greatness in not being strict with the state governments, beyond the province of persuading and cajoling. Nor there seems to be any sense in taking the monkey that is sitting on Delhi CM’s back on his own by the Home Minister. Unless the Centre gets effective control over total situation the grave problem of Delhi may not mitigate, but the blame will pass on.

It has not escaped public attention that after having used the exchequer indiscriminately to waive electricity and transport facilities to win election, and thereafter spending huge chunk of money on publicity blitz during the Covid-19 crisis, the ruling party of Delhi state placed demand for a hefty INR 5000 crore by way of aid from the Centre to tackle Covid-19 crisis. The Centre must step in for the sake of people, but it must have every necessary control and this fact must be public knowledge.

On the whole, whether in Delhi or other cases, the Modi government should have hard look at the challenges that are ailing these recalcitrant states and take tough objective decisions.

It must weigh every option, not excluding placing one or two of them under central rule, should they continue to be negligent or irresponsible. The rein may be retransferred after the pandemic is tackled and overcome.    

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