Democracy Tested: India's Response to COVID-19 Without Imposing Emergency Provisions
The COVID-19 epidemic tested governments' capacity to strike a balance
between democratic ideals and public health imperatives, posing an unprecedented
challenge to all of them. Contrary to the emergency proclaimed in 1975, the
government of India did not impose one to address the pandemic. Because it can
become unitary when an administrative apparatus fails. The Indian federal
system, according to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, is unique in that it can become unitary
in the event that an administrative system fails. The Indian Constitution's Part
XVIII and additional Articles 352, 356, and 360 both provide provisions for
The COVID-19 pandemic affected millions of Indians and the overall economy of
the Indian state, the GDP of India contracted by around 7.3% and a few sectors
like tourism, aviation, retail, and small business faced significant challenges
due to the lockdown The pandemic led to a surge in unemployment and job losses
in India. Lockdowns and restrictions on economic activities resulted in layoffs,
business closures, and reduced incomes for many individuals and households.
Did the Indian Constitution empower the central government to declare a state
of emergency in response to the COVID-19 situation in India?
Article 352 of the Constitution pertains to the declaration of National
emergency. An emergency could be initially proclaimed based on reasons such as
war, external aggression, or internal disturbance. In times of emergency,
Article 353 grants the Central government the authority to issue directives to
states regarding the utilization of their executive power. Additionally, it
empowers Parliament to enact laws even on subjects that fall within the
jurisdiction of the states.
Moreover, Article 358 suspends the exercise of rights guaranteed under Article
19 during emergencies, while Article 359 suspends the enforcement of fundamental
rights altogether during such periods. The utilization of the "internal
disturbance" justification by Indira Gandhi to impose an emergency on June 25,
1975, spurred the subsequent Janata Party-led government, which assumed power in
1977, to introduce the 44th amendment to the constitution.
This amendment not only replaced the "internal disturbance" rationale with
"armed rebellion" but also addressed several deficiencies that were exposed
during that tumultuous period. These included rectifying the issue of President
Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed acting without cabinet advice and countering the Supreme
Court's ruling that even the right to life was suspended during an emergency.
Subsequently, the Indian political landscape underwent a transformative shift,
giving rise to a cadre of new visionary leaders.
Article 356 provides for a State emergency that can be imposed by the President
who has the authority to proclaim a state of emergency upon receiving reports
from the Governor of a specific state or upon the President's own assessment of
the deteriorating functioning of state institutions.
On the other hand, Article 360 The President possesses the authority to proclaim
a state of financial emergency when substantial evidence of an unstable economy
and a lack of credibility is encountered. Both executive and legislative factors
hold significant importance in the decision-making process of declaring a
financial emergency. As per the provisions outlined in Article 360 of the
Constitution, the corresponding proclamation will remain in effect throughout
the entirety of the emergency period. It is noteworthy that India has never
witnessed the declaration of a financial emergency.
The Constitution of India does not specifically include a provision for
declaring a 'Health emergency,' whereby the state can respond to a massive
pandemic that affects millions of people in the country. This is despite the
fact that such a pandemic, like the COVID-19 outbreak, poses a threat that
requires a different approach from traditional emergencies, as it cannot be
combated with conventional ammunition but rather necessitates medical
interventions such as vaccines and treatments.
Role of Civil Society:
During the COVID-19 crisis, civil society organizations and grassroots
initiatives played a crucial role in complementing the government's response.
The contributions of various civil society organizations, community groups, and
volunteers in addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, disseminating
information, providing healthcare support, and coordinating relief efforts. It
analyzes how their involvement bolstered democratic participation, social
cohesion, and resilience during the crisis.
India experienced a series of nationwide lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic
and implementing such measures in a country as vast as India was an immensely
challenging task. However, it was the collective support and cooperation of the
general public, even in the face of widespread illness, that played a pivotal
role in effectively tackling the pandemic. It was through this collective effort
that we were able to navigate the challenges posed by the pandemic.
India witnessed a staggering number of over 4 crore confirmed COVID-19 cases,
resulting in a devastating loss of more than 5,00,000 lives. Amidst this grim
scenario, the primary focus of the Central Government remained twofold: first,
to diligently address the risks posed by the virus, and second, to expedite the
development and deployment of a viable vaccine. This collective endeavor aimed
to not only safeguard the population but also facilitate a return to normalcy,
reviving economic activities and restoring employment opportunities.
When comparing India's COVID-19 response without imposing emergency provisions
to countries that did declare emergencies, notable differences emerge in
approaches, outcomes, and the impact on democratic principles. While some
nations resorted to emergency declarations to centralize decision-making and
enforce strict measures, India took a different path.
India's response without an emergency declaration showcases the country's
steadfast commitment to democratic governance and the preservation of civil
liberties, even in times of crisis. By avoiding emergency provisions, India
aimed to strike a delicate balance between public health imperatives and the
fundamental rights of its citizens.
This approach allowed for greater participation, transparency, and
accountability in decision-making processes, as well as enhanced respect for
individual freedoms. The Indian government emphasized the importance of
upholding democratic principles, protecting civil liberties, and ensuring that
public health measures were implemented with appropriate checks and balances.
Emergency or Lockdown?
Lockdown measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, as opposed to the
imposition of a state of emergency, have proven to be a more measured and
democratic approach. Lockdowns were implemented with the primary goal of
protecting public health and mitigating the spread of the virus.
Unlike emergencies, which often involve the suspension of civil liberties and an
increased concentration of power, lockdowns allowed for a more targeted and
proportionate response. Lockdowns prioritized the health and safety of the
population while also aiming to minimize the disruption to daily life and
maintain essential services.
This approach ensured that democratic principles and individual freedoms were
upheld, while still enabling the government to take decisive action to address
the unprecedented public health crisis. Additionally, lockdowns allowed for
greater public participation, as individuals and communities actively
contributed to the containment efforts by adhering to guidelines, practicing
social distancing, and supporting vulnerable populations.
By striking a balance between public health and democratic values, lockdown
measures showcased the ability of democratic systems to effectively respond to
crises while preserving individual rights and liberties.
In reflecting on India's experience with the Emergency and the COVID-19
lockdown, it becomes evident that the absence of an emergency declaration during
the pandemic was a testament to the lessons learned from history. The Emergency
of 1975 had a cruel impact on democracy, infringing upon fundamental rights and
democratic principles. In contrast, the COVID-19 response without imposing
emergency provisions showcased the resilience of Indian democracy.
This approach enabled the government to tackle the crisis while upholding
democratic values and individual liberties. However, these experiences should
serve as a clarion call for further strengthening India's public health
infrastructure and vaccine support systems. A clear vision for the future lies
in bolstering healthcare infrastructure, improving access to quality healthcare,
and enhancing vaccine manufacturing capabilities.
This will ensure a robust and responsive public health system that can
effectively combat future crises while maintaining the essence of a vibrant
democracy. By drawing on the lessons from the COVID-19, India can forge a path
towards a stronger, more inclusive, and resilient healthcare system, ultimately
safeguarding the democratic principles that have been tested and upheld
throughout these challenging times.
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