India has a federal constitutional structure, and health is a state subject. Both the federal and state governments retain competence over “prevention of the extension from one State to another of infectious or contagious diseases.” India is also a parliamentary democracy, and the executive is accountable to the legislature. Despite this constitutional set up, the initial state response to the pandemic was driven primarily by the federal Executive.
On 24 March 2020, the Government of India imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. This lockdown was imposed invoking the Disaster Management Act, 2005, a law that grants wide powers to the Executive to “take such … measures…. as it may consider necessary” to deal with disasters. The law provides little by way of guidance or limitation on how delegated power can be exercised, it enables the federal government to direct and override state governments, and there is no parliamentary approval of such measures. State governments have also used the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 to enact public health measures.
This complete lockdown was followed by a gradual relaxation in the rules. By the time the first wave peaked in India, the Covid-19 restrictions had been significantly relaxed.
Most of the rules were still being made by the federal government under the Disaster Management Act, supplemented by state rules under the 1897 Act.
While the federal government retains the power under the Disaster Management Act to make guidelines, over time it increasingly left it to the states to decide how best to proceed. This move comes at a time when the health infrastructure across the country is crumbling in face of the onslaught of the second wave cases. Hospitals are running out of oxygen, Intensive Care Units, and essential medicines; there is widespread vaccine shortage; and the need for federal level coordination to deal with cross-state procurement and delivery of essential supplies is at an all-time high. The country is recording the highest number of new infections per day that any country has seen during the pandemic so far and more than 2,000 deaths a day (which is by all accounts severely underreported, which must be borne in mind in considering the graphic above).