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Weakening Federalism

Tamil Nadu was more prepared than before to deal with Cyclone Gaja when it made landfall between Nagapattinam and Vedaranyam on November 16, but it still took a toll of at least 45 lives. The severe cyclonic storm damaged infrastructure, property and agriculture. Even so, the effort to professionalise disaster management through a dedicated national and State organisation initiated more than 15 years ago appears to be paying off, with bureaucracies acquiring higher efficiency in providing early warning and in mitigating the impact of cyclones. The National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project started by the Ministry of Home Affairs has been working to reduce the impact of such catastrophic events on Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, classified as States with higher vulnerability; most western coastal States are in the next category. However, there is a lot to be done to upgrade infrastructure and housing in coastal districts to meet higher standards of resilience in an era of extreme weather events. The lead taken by the State Disaster Management Authority in issuing a stream of alerts ahead of Gaja helped coastal residents move to camps and adopt safety measures. The active measures taken by the State after the cyclone, notably to clear roads, remove fallen trees and repair power infrastructure and communications, helped restore some stability. In its destructive exit path, the cyclone has affected some southern districts, felling tens of thousands of trees and also 30,000 electricity poles along the coast. It also hit residents in some central Kerala districts.
Tamil Nadu’s political parties have acted in a mature manner and kept partisan criticism from getting in the way of relief and rehabilitation after Gaja. This is in contrast to some earlier instances, such as the Chennai flood of 2015, when the distribution of relief became politicised. Today, if any pressure on the government machinery is necessary, it is to secure without delay the financial relief of ₹10 lakh that has been promised for families of the dead, compensation for lost crops, trees and livestock, provision of emergency health intervention and rehabilitation assistance to rebuild lives. The larger question, of course, is whether the coastal States have equipped themselves for an even bigger event, such as the super cyclone that hit Odisha in 1999 that killed about 10,000 people. Even with far fewer casualties, Cyclone Phailin in 2013 required reconstruction estimated at $1.5 billion. India’s coastline experiences a lower frequency of tropical cyclones compared to many other regions, but the loss of life and destruction is much higher. Coastal States must, therefore, focus on reducing the hazard through policies that expand resilient housing, build better storm shelters and create financial mechanisms for insurance and compensation.
State governments of Andhra Pradesh and Bengal last week shook the federal structure by placing hurdles in the operations of the Central Bureau of Investigation. Both governments withdrew “general consent” of CBI to freely pursue investigations in their states. Consequently, CBI will in future have to seek permission of the state governments to carry on operations. In the case of Andhra Pradesh, the withdrawal of consent spans some other central agencies and serious crimes such as hijacking. Such action is neither unprecedented nor beyond the ambit of the law. However, its political and institutional contexts are worrisome.
Representatives of Andhra government point out that states have withdrawn “general consent” in the past too. Moreover, not all states in India have provided “general consent”. Two aspects suggest the issue here is more complicated. Till recently the Chandrababu Naidu government in Andhra Pradesh thought it appropriate to give “general consent” to central agencies. The only discernible changes are a ratcheting up of political tension between BJP and TDP, and CBI finding itself in a mess of its own making.
Politics is indeed at the heart of the problem as Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has alleged that CBI is being used as a political tool by NDA. This is an oft-repeated charge by all major political parties. For sure, India’s premier anti-corruption agency has an uninspiring track record and has been referred to as a “caged parrot”. But putting up hurdles in its operation will not improve things. Instead, it can dilute a deterrent to corruption. At another level, this development also evidences a worrisome level of distrust between the Centre and states administered by opposition parties. Elections may be at the heart of a democracy. But only an impartial and effective permanent executive keeps it functioning smoothly.
In this context, CBI’s current predicament where the top two officials have been sent on leave doesn’t help. Given its importance in India’s institutional framework, its autonomy has been strengthened by Supreme Court and subsequent legislations. Yet the agency’s standing is in stark contrast to Reserve Bank of India whose credibility has helped it push back against government pressure. This underlines the importance of institutional credibility in strengthening the federal structure and also improving the quality of our democracy. Both state governments should roll back their positions in larger interest. CBI too needs to transform itself into an agency which evokes respect and not derision.

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