India’s attempt to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic with an unprecedented total lockdown of the country witnessed a major setback as millions of economically disadvantaged people, chiefly daily wage earners in big cities were forced to return to their homes, 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 in sync or have not been implemented properly.

The Union Health Minister Mr. Harsh Vardhan on 9 March 2020 stated that the Government was prepared to deal with the Novel Coronavirus and his Ministry was sending directives, including guidelines to all 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 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 pandemic. Some state governments like Odisha were prompt and active but a few others were sluggish and passive in their response. Unfortunately, no sincere and strategic coordination efforts between Union and State Governments were made to give full 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 people to avoid leaving their homes unless there being an acute emergency.

The success of the Janata Curfew demonstrated that people are willing to abide by Government advisories and especially the appeal made by the Prime Minister. But a 21-day national lockdown on four hours’ notice, suddenly put millions of lives at risk, leaving many struggling for basic requirements of food and medicines. They were left to choose between the virus 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 other relief measures. But without a guaranteed wage it was hard to convince people that the State would 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 citizens have a right to adequate means of livelihood, and are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuitable for them.

The Constitutional vision ideates that both the Central and the State Governments must embrace a collaborative federal architecture by displaying harmonious co-existence 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 a joint and 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 lockdown.

A similar situation was perceived in Italy, where people from the initially- affected northern region fled to their respective hometowns thereby spreading the virus across the entire nation. The present condition of Italy is a direct result of a faulty lockdown and a spectacle which we must avoid at all costs. To achieve this, we must deal with the issue of migration expeditiously. As tens of thousands of people have already left their accommodations in cities, have travelled long distances, and intermingled with other people, it is not advantageous to direct them back to the cities.

Instead, temporary shelters must be created for them in the cities or on its outskirts. Food, basic necessities, and materials for maintaining hygiene must be provided at such locations. Thus, even in the unfortunate event of an outbreak of the virus at such shelters, it will not spread to remote areas and can be nipped in the bud. India has in the past constructed such shelters quickly, a prime example being the Maha Kumbh Mela in 2013 wherein temporary living facilities were created for crores of people in a short span of time.

Thus, meticulous tracking, compulsory quarantines and social distancing, all coordinated by a leadership willing to act fast and transparently is required at this moment. Unless collaborative federalism is implemented in the true sense by taking all the states together, the lockdown may unfortunately prove to be an exercise in futility.

(The writers are, respectively, professor of law and a final year student at the National Law University Odisha)