15 June 2020: The Indian Express Editorial Analysis
1) As Delhi fumbles-
- On Sunday, Home Minister Amit Shah announced several measures to address Delhi’s worsening COVID-19 crisis.
- The Modi government will provide 500 railway coaches to Delhi in view of the shortage of beds, testing will be doubled in the next two days and tripled after six days.
INABILITY & FAILURE:
- A committee under the chairmanship of Niti Aayog member V K Paul has been tasked with finding ways to ensure availability of larger number of beds in private hospitals at lower rates, and to fix the rate of coronavirus testing and treatment.
- These much-needed measures also draw attention to the Delhi government’s inability and failure to use the 10-week lockdown to bolster the city’s healthcare infrastructure.
- With Delhi recording in excess of 1,000 cases daily for more than two weeks now, hospitals are evidently struggling to cope with the emergency.
- There have been several reports of patients running from pillar to post in search of hospital beds — many have reportedly succumbed(fallen) to the disease in the process.
- Last week, the Supreme Court upbraided(scold) the Delhi government for its handling of the crisis and directed it to “take immediate remedial action”.
NOT IN CONTROL:
- According to the Delhi government’s estimate, 5.5 lakh people are likely to contract the infection by the end of July.
- The Kejriwal government estimates that the city will require more than 80,000 beds to deal with the patient upsurge — nearly nine times its current capacity.
- It has reportedly started making arrangements to deal with this emergency — multi-specialty nursing homes, railway coaches, hotels, banquet halls, and stadiums will be converted into makeshift COVID care centres.
- But these plans to augment the city’s medical infrastructure seem to be lagging behind the spread of the infection.
- It seems, now, that the Delhi government drastically underestimated the intensity of the crisis.
- More worryingly, its decisions in the wake of the easing of the lockdown convey the impression that it is not in control of the situation.
- There have been accounts of underreporting of COVID-19 deaths, the government’s pandemic data has not tallied with that of the city’s municipalities and frequent changes in testing protocols have created confusion amongst laboratories, hospitals and patients.
MOST AFFECTED STATES:
- Delhi, sadly, is not the only area struggling to come to grips with the surge in infection.
- According to the Centre’s projections, at least 10 states — including Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, the five worst affected states — will fall short of ICU beds and ventilators between June and August.
- But the national capital’s failure to utilise the lockdown effectively is bound to raise larger concerns, and send out wider dispiriting signals.
- It’s also unfortunate that the AAP government’s credo of making medical amenities more accessible to the common people hasn’t yet translated into effective action when the country is facing its worst public health emergency in decades.
- It’s time the Delhi government gets its act together. There is no time to lose.
2) The downpour-
- Mumbai welcomed the south-west monsoon over the weekend.
- With the first downpour has come a rising tide of worries regarding how the virus will behave in the wet months.
- Also worrying is how the city’s annual deluge of malaria, gastroenteritis, leptospirosis and dengue will impact health infrastructure that is barely holding up right now.
- Densely populated areas and slum colonies, where the maximum numbers of COVID-19 cases have been recorded, also tend to report high incidence of water-borne and vector-borne diseases every monsoon.
- Municipal health staff will soon be additionally tasked with screening and surveying families in areas that witness floods, for distribution of doxycycline and azithromycin to prevent outbreaks of leptospirosis.
- More than 20 lakh families were screened in July last year, but such an extensive exercise this year will be difficult.
- Every June, lakhs visit municipal clinics and require diagnostic tests with viral and malarial fever symptoms.
- Testing facilities, fever clinics, municipal health outposts and hospitals, all stretched impossibly thin already, are preparing for a more demanding challenge ahead.
UNACCEPTABLE LEVELS OF INEQUALITY:
- COVID-19 has exposed Maximum City’s harsh, unacceptable levels of inequality of access to even basic amenities.
- It has also driven home middle class urban India’s complicity in hiding these inequities out of sight.
- Poor health indicators are closely linked to patchy access to water and sanitation, and as has been underlined now, Mumbai’s housing and sanitation crises do not endanger slumdwellers alone.
- The acknowledgement of interconnectedness is hopefully here to stay.
- For, it’s plainly visible now that the health of the migrant worker in the shanty town, her access to a decent living standard, her ability to nurture her family safely, are integral to the health of homes and businesses elsewhere in the metropolis.
- The poor cannot be the only stakeholders in the battle for equal access to a reasonable life.
- Additionally, these last three months have demonstrated that tele-workability norms are implementable, and rainy days can be work-from-home days.
- Uddhav Thackeray, the state’s first Mumbaikar chief minister, must recognise that a comprehensive approach is needed for an inclusive recovery.
- Public transport, health infrastructure, access to amenities, affordable housing — it cannot be business as usual on any of these.
- Thackeray, who has not baulked(hesitated) from admitting his government’s shortcomings, promised when he took charge that his focus would be on Mumbai.
Double challenge of Covid and Monsoon is baring(undressed) gaps in Mumbai infrastructure that must be addressed
3) Center that gives more space-
- The fiscal stress that has been building up at various levels of the government has been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The collapse in general government revenues, and the consequent rise in the deficit levels has not only disrupted the glide path of fiscal consolidation, but has also deepened the faultlines in Centre-state fiscal relations.
- Against this backdrop, the 15th Finance Commission is expected to submit its report in about four months from now.
FISCAL FEDERAL STRUCTURE:
- That the terms of reference of the Commission were contentious to begin with is beyond debate.
- Attempts by the Centre to claw(get) back the fiscal space ceded(given) to the states and assert its dominance over the country’s fiscal architecture have made it harder to maintain the delicate balance of the contesting claims of the Centre and the states.
- It will be ironic if the ongoing health crisis that has ended up exposing the limitations of a centralised approach, ends up reversing the trend towards fiscal decentralisation.
- The Commission’s report will be critical on two counts:
- First, it will determine how India’s fiscal architecture is reshaped, and
- Second, how Centre-state relations are reset as the country attempts to recover from the COVID-19 shock.
- To begin with, the glide path of fiscal consolidation laid out by the FRBM review committee had envisaged bringing down general government debt to 60% of GDP by 2022.
- This is unlikely to materialise now.
- Factoring in the additional borrowings, the debt-to-GDP ratio may well be over 80% this year.
- Thus, the fiscal consolidation roadmap will have to be reworked, and as per its terms of reference, the Finance Commission will lay out the new path to be followed by both Centre and states.
- But the question is: Will the burden of debt reduction fall equally upon the Centre and states?
- Or will the Commission allow the Centre to have greater leeway when it comes to fiscal consolidation?
ISSUE OF STATE BORROWINGS:
- Recently, the Centre eased the states’ budget constraint, allowing them to borrow more this year, conditional upon them implementing reforms in line with the Centre’s priorities.
- Despite protests, most states are likely to comply with the conditions, to varying degrees.
- But the issue is: As the hit from the ongoing crisis spreads over multiple years, state governments may want to maintain their expansionary fiscal stance next year as well.
- Then, will the Finance Commission, in line with its terms of reference, go along with the Centre’s stance and recommend imposing conditions on additional borrowing and formalise this arrangement?
- It is difficult to see such an arrangement being rolled back once formalised.
ISSUE OF GST COMPENSATION CESS:
- The GST council, in which the Centre effectively has a veto, is yet to clearly spell out its views on the extension of the compensation cess to offset states losses beyond the five-year period.
- The Commission will have to weigh in on this too.
- At a time when the Centre is struggling to fulfil its promise of assuring states their GST revenues, will the Commission argue in favour of extending the compensation period, as states desire?
- But, perhaps, lowering the assured 14% growth in compensation and linking it to nominal GDP growth?
- As GST revenue accounts for a significant share of states’ income, how this plays out will also have a bearing on their ability to bring down their debt levels.
- Next comes the issue of tax devolution to states. In some sense, accepting the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission was a fait accompli.
- However, the present dispensation’s unease with extending greater fiscal autonomy to states is apparent in the framing of the terms of reference of the 15th Finance Commission.
- But is clawing back fiscal space now a prudent approach?
- A cash-strapped Centre will surely welcome greater say over the diminished resources.
- And not only is there a strong argument for the Centre to have far greater fiscal space than it currently enjoys but the nature of politics may well push in that direction.
- Centralisation of political power may well lead to demands for centralisation of resources.
- However, surely fiscal space can be created by a review of the Centre’s own spending programme.
- Over the past decades, there has been a substantial increase in the Centre’s spending on items on the state and concurrent list.
- While political considerations may well have forced central governments, to greatly expand spending on these items, this shift has occurred even as grants by the Centre to states exceed the former’s revenue deficit.
- This, as some have pointed out, effectively means that the Centre is borrowing to transfer to states.
- Surely, a relook at the Centre’s expenditure priorities would create greater fiscal space for it.
- Any attempt to shift the uneasy balance in favour of the Centre will strengthen the argument that this government’s talk of cooperative federalism serves as a useful mask to hide its centralising tendencies.
- As a neutral arbiter of Centre-state relations, the Finance Commission should seek to maintain the delicate balance in deciding on contesting claims.
- This may well require giveaways especially if states are to be incentivised to push through legislation on items on the state and concurrent list.
- The fiscal stress at various levels of the government necessitates a realistic assessment of the country’s macro-economic situation, the preparation of a medium-term roadmap, as well as careful calibration of the framework that governs Centre-state relations.
- At this critical juncture, the Finance Commission should present the broad contours of the roadmap.
- Though it could request for another year’s extension to present its full five-year report citing the prevailing uncertainty.