Deepen federalism, reorient welfare

Any attempt to reverse progressive social, economic, secular and democratic ideas can prove cataclysmic

Published - August 15, 2021 02:40 am IST

‘We need to focus on economic equality too, especially when 92%   of our labour force is in the unorganised sector.’

‘We need to focus on economic equality too, especially when 92% of our labour force is in the unorganised sector.’

Seven-and-a-half decades have passed since we became Independent, throwing off the yoke of colonial rule through a long-drawn struggle, which had caught the attention of the world. The nationalist movement was not one which aimed at mere political independence. It had a clear perception of what Independent India should be. Independent India visualised by it was to be a democratic, secular, federal nation which will strive for removal of socially obscurantist practices and economic scourges such as poverty and inequality.

As early as 1920, the linguistic basis of States was recognised. By 1931, the Karachi session of the Congress, had adopted an economic programme which laid the way ahead for an egalitarian society. Within the congress, the socialist groups and communists had a strong presence and they galvanised the move towards Poorna Swaraj.

The values held aloft by the freedom movement should have easily translated into the agenda of the Independent India’s government led by titans of the freedom movement. But, this did not happen so easily. For linguistic reorganisation of States, an arduous struggle became necessary.

Though federal principles are present in the Constitution, they have not got the pride of place they deserved, in a country which has unity in diversity as its unique feature. In a country such as ours, the Union, States and the local governments are to be moving in concentric circles and not functioning as a pyramidal structure.

Certain unitary features such as Article 356, which enables the Union to take over the administration of a State on the recommendation of the Governor or otherwise, emergency powers, redrawing of State boundaries without discussion, vertical imbalances in fiscal matters, make the distribution of powers at best quasi-federal.

The content of our federal structure needs strengthening ... Change in the approach of government authorities will give a sense of empowerment to the poor and the marginalised sections, and will enrich the content of our democracy - Pinarayi Vijayan

Article 356, which was envisaged to be a dead letter by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, has been one of the most overused provisions of our Constitution. Legislation by the Union on subjects enumerated in the State and Concurrent Lists go against the grain of cooperative federalism. The content of our federal structure needs strengthening.

Attack on constitutional values

Besides, ideological and other forms of attack on the values enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution are on the rise and people of our country who have given unto themselves the Constitution need to be vigilant for preserving democracy, secularism, socialism and the sovereignty of our nation.

Our economy, which hardly grew in the first half of the last century, saw better growth since the 1950s, though there is a trend to view this growth also as tardy, by experts who advocate liberalisation by dismantling the public sector and the roll-back of the government from social and economic sectors. Data tell us that our experience in the post-liberalisation phase since 1991 has not been one which has made us feel that economy has entered a higher phase of growth. Our economy has been facing phases of persistent slowdown in recent years. The reasons for the same have not only been cyclical but also structural.

This brings us to highlight the need for state intervention in social and economic sectors so that there is demand-led growth. We need to focus on economic equality too, especially when 92% of our labour force is in the unorganised sector. Providing social security to this category is the obligation of governments as enunciated in the Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution.

To do this effectively, the Union-State fiscal relations are to be restructured and local governments be empowered by providing them with funds, functions and functionaries.

In the age of digitisation, we have to consciously bridge the digital divide, the consequence of economic inequality. We have made great strides in the fields of science and technology. But the progress will become fruitful only when no one faces a barrier in enjoying the results of our scientific and technological innovations. Technology has taken us to levels which we could not have even dreamt of in the past. But it has also brought in issues of incursions into privacy and civil rights. We need to be guarded against these.

There needs to be a total change in mode of provision of government services to the public. The last vestige of colonial attitude should be discarded and the attitude of ‘giver’ and ‘taker’ should be erased from the minds of government authorities. Information technology can help a lot in this. But attitude change plays a key role and decentralised democratic governance is a great catalyst in this process.

It is the poor and the marginalised who depend more on service and support from the government. Change in the approach of government authorities will give a sense of empowerment to the poor and the marginalised sections, and will enrich the content of our democracy.

At this moment, we are on the cusp of history. We need to preserve, protect and carry forward the values of our nationalist movement which have been reflected in the Constitution we have given to ourselves.

An empowered citizen, enabled local governments, federalism with meaningful content, and last but not the least the citizen who can exercise his freedom of choice and enjoy civil liberties without unnatural fear will make our freedom at 75 a moment of glory. Any attempt to reverse the progressive social, economic, secular and democratic ideas which we have imbibed as the people of this nation who value its unity amidst plurality and diversity, can prove cataclysmic.

Redeeming the pledge

At this moment, we have to redeem the pledge to preserve our values not wholly or in full measure but very substantially, as famously said by our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Our democracy has passed through stages of fragility like 19 months of the Emergency, but our people have exhibited agility to restore it.

In the time of the novel coronavirus pandemic, we have felt the need for a proactive role of the state in protecting life and livelihood of people. Our political democracy will have a bright future when efforts to attain economic and social equality succeed.

Pinarayi Vijayan is the Chief Minister of Kerala

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