If a uniform goods and services tax (GST), launched with much fanfare in 2017, aimed to unify India’s fragmented markets, the coronavirus crisis threatens to balkanize the Union, even if temporarily, with potentially serious repercussions for business and perhaps the broader economy as well. In extending the country’s lockdown till 31 May, the Central government gave individual states the authority to slot administrative units into colour-coded zones of risk on their own, and determine some relaxations within a common set of guidelines. This upheld the spirit of federalism. It was also pragmatic. With local conditions so diverse, such decisions are best decentralized. On the whole, it was hoped, a gradual reopening of commerce would restore sufficient activity for our economic squeeze to ease. However, reports of traffic choked at some state borders, with special permits demanded of people for boom barriers to be lifted, despite the Centre’s go-ahead to inter-state travel, suggests a lack of policy cohesion among various administrations that could keep us gridlocked. An illustration of this is how Delhi remains largely walled in by Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, making a mockery of the idea of a “national capital region" as a single commercial unit and making it hard for companies to operate.
The instinct to constrict—if not entirely close—state borders in an effort to keep out virus carriers is visible even in parts of the country where it is relatively feasible from a work perspective. Karnataka, for example, has barred the entry of people from three specific states that have high covid infection rates: Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. Not only is this troublesome on principle for being arbitrary, it requires a process of checkpoint screening that hardens the state’s borders and delays the entry of all others. Some of these restrictions may sound reasonable if seen in isolation of the larger picture, but our long national experience of a licence-permit raj ought to have taught us how dozens of well-meaning rules (and variants thereof) can combine forces to tie business up in knots. For the country to emerge from its lockdown, we need simplification, not complication. A small imposition like an age cut-off for a flight, as one aviation proposal goes for the future of flying, or an entry ban that goes by a passenger’s place of origin, could compound the compliance burden of many enterprises.
No state economy is an island unto itself, and the country cannot afford to have its rules vary too widely across its length and breadth for very long. As a start, state governments should coordinate a plan to dismantle their checkposts. This would also relieve thousands of migrants who have found themselves turned away at borders after having endured long trudges in their attempts to reach home. The poor have suffered especially hard because of sketchy information on entry requirements for other states. But even the relatively well- informed have been at a loss to understand why some people are allowed to get past and others are not, what is deemed an “essential" passage and what is not. These are not permanent curbs, true, but if the constraints under which we must operate have no end in sight, then it is about time that some principles were brought to bear on them. Let’s be clear. India is one country. Barring a few exceptions for the sake of public security, the right of citizens to move around within the territory cannot be held in abeyance beyond a point. State administrations would do well to rethink their isolationist border policies and act in the common interest of all Indians.