Working Paper
Pandemic precarity and the complicated case of Maharashtra

Interrogating state capacity and its fault lines

The state of Maharashtra and the city of Mumbai have been referred to as the epidemic epicentre of India since the time of the plague of 1896 and influenza epidemic of 1918. During the COVID-19 pandemic too, the state experienced the highest cases with maximum fatalities.

Against the structural backdrop of India’s underfinanced public health infrastructure, this paper engages with the subnational state’s capacity, legitimacy, and authority in managing the pandemic. The paper highlights the socio-economic and spatial-demographic context to explain the reasons behind the severity of the pandemic in Maharashtra.

Through an analysis of regulatory information at different levels during crucial phases of the pandemic, and statistics about tests, caseloads, medical resources (such as hospital beds, essential drugs, and oxygen), migrants’ welfare, excess deaths, vaccines, etc., the paper explores how knowledge about the unfolding crisis and the capacity to respond kept changing as the pandemic progressed.

The emphasis is on demonstrating how the state improved its response, from a situation of confusion to an augmentation of infrastructure and a coordinated response. Despite fiscal constraints and centre-state tensions, the reliance on rational bureaucracy, scientific knowledge, and the decentralization of the response helped to develop several models and good practices that were widely acknowledged.

The paper emphasizes that the case of Maharashtra underscores the importance of decentralized planning and recognizes the value of collaborative federalism.