Rishi Raj Mukherjee, 1st year student of National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi analyzes the manifold challenges associated with the Indian federalism at the time of pandemic.

The outbreak of the global pandemic has thwarted the equilibrium in nations across the world and triggered a ‘litmus test’ moment for Indian Federalism. The article outlines the opportunities it has presented, the manifold challenges associated with the same, and how far has the Indian State successfully transformed ‘challenge into opportunity.’ Undoubtedly, a curious paradox of a ‘Globalised World and Federalised Politics’ is undeniable. The pandemic has derailed globalised development and connectivity and urges for increased cooperation between the Centre and the States.

Politics is a perennial, overflowing river changing its course and dynamics subject to time, space, and conditionalites. So, it is crucial not only to look at the structure of the constitution but also at the practice of it to attempt a comprehensive understanding of the Indian polity and federalism in current times. Scholars including Subrata.K.Mitra have envisaged Federalism as reconciliation between ‘self-rule’ and ‘shared rule’ where there is not only division of powers but eventually a trickledown effect to empower the last person in the line within the folds of democratic governance. 

Changing Centre-State Equations

The shift towards centralization was evident since 2014, with states ruled by Opposition parties alleging discrimination and authoritarianism on part in the Centre. The nationwide lockdown never seemed a ‘consensual decision’ in the initial stages, with only a couple of states like implementing strict curfew restrictions. Delhi was the first to close educational institutions in the first week of March, followed by Karnataka, which had imposed restrictions on public gatherings even before a nationwide lockdown was declared. Public health is a subject in the State List, but given the Global Pandemic, a national approach was much desired. Invoking the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, which provides the Centre with magnanimous powers to arrest the spread of the disease, the decision seemed unilateral on the part of the centre. Later a number of states joined the bandwagon, as the situation worsened.

The Centre and the States finally decided to bury the hatchet for a common cause triggered by the outbreak of the pandemic. Indian federalism seemed to take a conciliatory approach manifested in the video conferences hosted by the Prime Minister with the Chief Ministers. A plethora of Inter-Governmental and Inter-Departmental meetings were witnessed at different levels of the Government. ‘Minimisation of political differences’ is a landmark development achieved only sparingly in the Indian political landscape characterized by stiff electoral competition. Working in a collective and coordinated manner has yielded results, and India’s response mechanism has been widely praised, including by the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

The Federal Tensions

When the entire country was being mapped into red, orange, and green zones, disagreements were bound to surface with every state calling for considerable autonomy in the handling of the pandemic and deciding the parameters for zone demarcation. Past experiences have demonstrated how guidelines and directives issued by the Centre have ‘irked’ state leadership in some opposition ruled states who have conceived such actions as a blow to the ‘federal structure.’ Disputes over data sharing have further contributed to a tug of war with the Governor’s ‘apolitical office’ has recently stirred fresh controversy in the states of Maharashtra and West Bengal. The chaotic inter-state movements of migrant labourers have certainly reflected the failure to chart out a joint plan by the governance. The onus is to effectively mitigate the sufferings of the migrants through proper coordination and develop the areas where the scope lies to transform the ‘challenge into an opportunity.’ 

At the district level, Bhilwara in Rajasthan, Agra, and Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh and several districts in Kerela have done a commendable job in conducting large scale testing and door to door campaigns. A ‘PM-CM-DM’ equation is clearly playing an instrumental role in all three levels of governance. From the right to life, liberty, and property, the Government moved to secure second and third generation of rights for its citizens, but the crisis has pushed it back to the pavilion. As the unlocking begins after a prolonged shutdown, it needs to be taken care of that ‘A one size fits all policy’ wouldn’t yield the best results.

Dynamics of Fiscal Federalism 

In such times, the significance of ‘Fiscal Federalism’ is only ascendant. The States see the Centre as a ‘repository for financial aid.’ The Centre also continues to play a critical redistributive role in such matters. The Indian Constitution certainly provides us Articles 268 – 293 under Part XI dealing with center-state relations with respect to fiscal provisions shows that the States has exclusive jurisdiction over the collection of State GST, duty on liquor, tax from agriculture etc, depends on aid provided by the Centre. A Micro-Analysis would definitely point to the harsh realities where the States are in a dire financial crunch to meet their immediate expenditures. The nationwide lockdown implied a stop to the sale of liquor, thereby depriving the States of a major source of revenue along with significant relaxations in the collection of land revenues and repayment of farmer loans. Justice KM Joseph had hailed the introduction of the GST Regime as a ‘revolutionary chapter in the history of Indian federalism’, yet states look forward to a GST compensation, which the Centre is yet to release. 

With the BJP at the Centre and a number of opposition parties ruling at the state level, the decision to suspend the MPLAD Funds for a period of 2 years has been slammed by the Opposition as a unilateral stand to ‘Centralise Funds’. Such unilateral steps of the centre without consulting the State governments can worsen the situation. Always ‘demonising the centre as Shylock’ is not the solution to our present woes. Every Government has fiscal constraints, and besides aiding the States, the Centre has its own schemes and packages to fund. 

Empowering local self-governance is imperative to the success of Fiscal Federalism in India. The informal and agricultural sectors which hold the key to economic recovery have been apparently one of the focal points of the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ package announced by the Centre. The package could well emerge as a source of tension with time concerning provisions for loans over grants from the centre. But, it is time for the leadership to realise that the Centre and States ought not to ‘scramble’ for funds but rather, effective and coordinated fund transfer to the needy should be the sole objective. Municipalities and Panchayats will inevitably have a decisive role to play in providing relief at the grassroots for the successful implementation of the package. 

Roadmap for the Future

The framers of the Constituent Assembly had envisioned Indian federalism as a ‘Strong Centre but not Weak States.’ In an era of ‘cooperative federalism,’ states are the partners in nation-building. Leadership and well as policy implementation is the foundation of federal dynamics during any crisis of such massive proportion. Though separation of powers is a tenet of ‘India’s Living Constitution,’ their territories of operation and the interests of the electorate overlap. Any remedial strategy in response to the crisis ought to be people-centric. The reality is that federalism is not just a normative doctrine; it is a ‘procedural necessity’ for achieving ‘larger substantive goals.’ 

“No train runs without an engine. Moreover, the real job is to lay the tracks”. In the context of Cooperative Federalism, the Double Engine, which comprises both the Centre and the States, ought to run in synchronisation to make things happen. ‘Saving Lives and Restarting Economic Growth in a phased manner’ poses a dual challenge in the current scenario. The writing on the wall is bold, clear, and unambiguous. ‘A proactive role for the Centre coupled with constructive partnership from the states’ seems to have emerged as the ‘mantra for nation-building’ in the new evolving India of the 21st century.


Rishi Raj Mukherjee is a first law student from National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi


IMPORTANT – Opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IJOSLCA.

Image Source – The Statesman

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