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Mamta triggers Centre- State row over COVID-19 teams

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The Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamta Banerjee on Monday wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the latter’s decision to send inter-ministerial Central teams to the state in order to contain the spread of COVID-19.

The Central Government on Sunday decided to send Inter-Ministerial Central teams to various districts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal to make an on spot assessment of the steps taken by the administration to contain the spread the of COVID-19 and send report to the Centre.

The West Bengal CM in her letter to PM Modi said that the decision to send teams was not communicated to the state government in prior. She said that the same was done without prior information and hence is a breach of established protocol. She alleged that the state government was supposed to provide the logistics arrangement, the central teams kept the state government in complete dark and had approached central forces like BSF, SSB for the logistic support and had already moved in the field without any consultation with the state government. She also alleged that the central teams landed on Kolkata Airport much prior to her telephonic conversation with Home Minister Amit Shah. Even, the chief secretary received the order of Home Ministry only 30 minutes prior to landing of teams.

The CM in her letter said that the state government is proactively enforcing the lockdown measures as notified by the Central Government and is maintaining close liaison with the concerned central ministries. The West Bengal had pro-actively announced lockdown before it was announced by the central government and had already extended beyond 14th of April to 30th April. She said that as an established procedure, it is expected that the central teams should have first taken a briefing from the state officials prior to going for the field visits.

The Central Government under section 62 of Disaster Management Act has the power to issue directions to State Government to facilitate or assist in the disaster management and such Government or Authority is bound to comply with such direction. But, these directions are statutory in nature and not constitutional so that Centre can use them in coercion.

There is an established protocol that whenever any officer from Central Government moves to State Government, the practise is that the central government has to notify in advance the objective of sending its officer and has to consider the objections of the respective state government and has to take it in confidence. The Central Government cannot act unilaterally thereby disturbing the very fabric of centre state relationship by flouting the norms of protocol. If the Centre finds that any of its guidelines are flouted by people of any state then it should ask the concerned state government to act in accordance with law and inflict strict punishment on violators of public law and order. This is what seen by many as the compelling reason for the West Bengal CM to write to the Centre.

The letter from the West Bengal CM opens up a new debate in Centre – State relationship as the decision to send teams unilaterally by the Ministry of Home Affairs under the veil of Disaster Management Act, 2005 is unfounded and challenges the sovereignty of the states within the framework of the constitution. During the crisis, the people of India expect the Central and State Governments to work in tandem despite of the fact that they belong to opposite ideologies and work towards providing relief to the common man.

-India Legal Bureau

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