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Subjects /Indian Polity / The Federalism in India

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14 Jul 2020

On the basis of relations between the central government and the units, the governments are classified as unitary and federal. In a unitary system of government, all powers are concentrated in the Centre, which can delegate them to the units.

On the other hand, in a federal system, powers are divided between the Centre and the states by the constitution. The constitution of India provides a federal system of government in the country even though it describes as ‘a Union of States’.

The term ‘Union of States’ implies firstly, the Indian federation is not the result of an agreement between the independent units, and secondly, the units of the Indian federation cannot secede from the federation.

The Indian constitution contains both federal and non-federal features.

Federal Features

The federal features of the constitution include:

  1. A written constitution which defines the structure, organization and powers of the central as well as the state government
  2. Supremacy of the constitution, which implies that both the Centre and the states are subordinate to the constitution and are expected to act according to its provisions;
  3. A rigid constitution which can be amended only through a special procedure, which is quite different from the ordinary law-making procedure. Some provisions of the constitutions can be amended only with the consent of legislature of not less than one half of the state;
  4. An independent judiciary which acts as the guardian of the constitution and ensures that the Centre and the states operates within their respective spheres. It also acts as the guardian of the fundamental rights of the citizen.
  5. A clear division of powers between the Centre and the states. The powers which are of national importance, in which a uniform policy is desirable in the interest of the units, have been entrusted to the union while matters of local concern have been allocated to the states;
  6. The creation of an Upper House-Rajya Sabha, in which the states have been given representation.

Non-federal Features

The constitution also contains a number of non-federal (or unitary) features such as:

  1. The creation of very strong center.
  2. The absence of separate constitution for states
  3. The right of Parliament to amend major portion of constitution by itself.
  4. The creation of single citizenship for all.
  5. Unequal representation to the states in the Rajya Sabha.
  6. The right of Parliament to change the name, territory or boundary of state without their consent.
  7. The presence of All India Services which hold key positions in the centre as well as in the states.
  8. Appointment of the Governor by the President.
  9. The granting of extensive powers to the President to deal with various kinds of emergencies.
  10. The right of parliament to legislate on state subjects on the recommendation of Rajya Sabha.
  11. The presence of the single Judiciary with the Supreme court of India at the apex.
  12. The same election machinery to conduct elections in states as well as the centre.
  13. The creation of the office of the Comptroller and the Auditor General to look after the accounts of the centre as well as the states.
  14. The exclusive right of the Parliament to propose amendments to the constitution.
  15. The establishment of the zonal councils to secure cooperation among the states, etc.

On the account of the presence of a large number of non-federal features in the Indian Constitution, India is often described as a Quasi-federal country.

The Indian constitution is neither purely federal nor purely unitary. On the other hand, it is a combination of both. It is mainly federal with unique safeguards for ensuring national unity and growth.

Union State Relations

The federal system adopted in India involves division of authority between the Union and the States. Both the Centre and the States derive the authority from the constitution and each is sovereign within the field assigned to it. In fact, the authority of one is coordinate with that of the other.

Relations between the Union and the States can be studied under the following heads:

  • Legislative Relations
  • Administrative Relations
  • Financial Relations

Legislative Relations

The constitution divides the subjects into:

  • the union list (97 subjects)
  • the state list (66 subjects) and
  • the concurrent list (47 subjects)

Parliament enjoys the exclusive power to legislate on subjects enumerated in the union list. Some examples of subjects like defence, foreign affair, currency, communication, interstate trade and commerce.

State legislature have the right to legislate on subjects in the state list like health, sanitation, public order, agriculture

Both parliament and state legislature can legislate on subjects contain in the concurrent list like criminal law, forest, education, marriage and divorce, drugs, newspaper

In case of conflict between the law of state and union law on a subject in the concurrent list, the law of the parliament prevails.

However, if a law passed by the state legislature had received the approval of the president before the enactment, law on the same subject by parliament, the law by the state legislature prevails.

Residuary powers (i.e. subjects not included in any of the list) rest with the union government. Parliament can also legislate on subjects in the state list if the Rajya Sabha passes a resolution by two-third majority i.e. necessary to do so in the national interest (Article 249).

During the times of emergency, Parliament can make laws on subjects in the state list. In the event of the failure of the constitutional machinery in the state, the parliament can make laws with respect to all matters in the state list (Article 250).

The Parliament can also legislate on a subject in the state list for giving effect to treatise and International agreements (Article 253).

Finally, the Parliament can legislate on subjects in the state list if two or more states make a joint request to it to do so (Article 252).

It shows that the Parliament has been given more powers than the State legislatures.

Administrative Relations

The Union government occupies a superior position, in so far as its executive authority extends over a larger number of subjects. Further, the states are expected to comply with the laws of the Parliament and not impede the exercise of the executive powers of the Union. In this regard the Union government can issue the necessary directives to the states:

  1. It can issue directions regarding the construction and maintenance of means of communications of the national or military importance.
  2. It can also give instructions to state governments for the protection of railways. Expenses incurred by the states on this account are reimbursed by the union government.
  3. The President can entrust to officers of the state certain functions of the union, but the extra costs have to be met by the union government. (Article 258)
  4. The embers of the All India Services who occupy key positions in the state administration are recruited by the union government and give the Centre indirect control over the states.
  5. All disputes between states regarding the use, distribution or control of water are decided by the Centre. (Article 262)
  6. The President can appoint inter-state councils to advise him on inter-state disputes (Article 263). Such a council was constituted by the President in May 1990.
  7. The states have to give full faith and credit to public acts, records proceedings and judicial decisions of the Supreme Court.
  8. The President appoints the chief justice and judges of the state high court and the states have hardly any say in this matter. Similarly, the power to remove these judges also rests with the Centre. They can be removed by the President on the recommendation of the Parliament.
  9. The Central government provides grants-in-aid to the states for the implementation of various schemes of social upliftment. This provides an opportunity to the Centre to exercise strict control over the states because the grants are given subject to certain conditions. Further, it obliges the state to cooperate with the centre if they want financial help from the centre for the implementation of various welfare schemes.

Thus, in the administrative sphere also, the centre occupies a dominant position.

Financial Relations

The states are greatly dependent on the Centre in this sphere as well. Though the Constitution provides independent sources of revenue to states, these are not adequate. Therefore, the states have to depend on the Centre for subsidies and contributions.

With regard to the borrowing of money also the position of the states is rather weak. While the Union Government has the power to borrow from within India or outside subject to the limits laid down by the Parliament from time to time, the borrowing power of the states is subject to several limitations.

Thus, they cannot borrow from outside India. No fresh loan can be raised by the state without the consent of the Union government so long there is an outstanding loan of the state.

Within the country also the loans can be raised within the limitations laid down by the state legislature. The Union government exercises control over state in financial spheres through the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, who determine the manner in which the accounts of the state shall be maintained and also audits those accounts.

The grants-in-aid provided by the union government to the states also enables the Centre to exercise control. The appointment of the finance commission by the President every five years, and the determination of the basis for recommendations of the finance commission, adds to the importance of the Centre in President can ask the states to reduce the salaries of its servants and direct it to reserve all the money bills for his approval.

A perusal of the relations between the Centre and the states shows, that the framers of the Constitution opted for a strong Centre. The Center can exercise control over the states not only in normal times through various methods, but also during an emergency, when the federal system is virtually converted into a unitary one.

Lack of sufficient resources with the states also makes them dependent on the Centre. The adoption of planning in India since 1950 and the dominance of a single party at the Centre for a long time also contributed to the strengthening of the Centre.