Coronavirus | Opeds and editorials

Needed, greater decentralisation of power

Even as States have taken up positions of leadership in the pandemic response, federal limitations are becoming hurdles

Over the course of the last few weeks, as we have found ourselves in the throes of a pandemic, one of the striking features of governance has been the signal role played by State Chief Ministers across India. Even before the Union government invoked the Disaster Management Act, 2005, many State governments triggered the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and installed a series of measures to combat what was then an oncoming onslaught of COVID-19. These actions have not always been perfect. Some of them have even disproportionately trenched upon basic civil liberties. But, by and large, they have been tailored to the reality faced on the ground by the respective governments. States such as Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, and Karnataka have shaped their policies to address their direct, local concerns. They have communicated these decisions to the public with clarity and consideration, helping, in the process, to lay out a broad framework for the nation. In doing so, they have acted not merely as “laboratories of democracy”, to paraphrase the former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, but also as founts of reasoned authority.

Stifled by limitations

Equally, though, as much as State governments have taken up positions of leadership, they have repeatedly found themselves throttled by the limitations of the extant federal arrangement. Yamini Aiyar and Mekhala Krishnamurthy of the Centre for Policy Research have pointed out at least three specific limitations. One, the inability of States to access funds and thereby structure their own welfare packages. Two, the curbs imposed by a public finance management system that is mired in officialdom. This has prevented States from easily and swiftly making payments for the purchase of health-care apparatus such as ventilators and personal protective equipment. Three, the colossal disruption of supply chains not only of essential goods and services but also of other systems of production and distribution, which has placed States in a position of grave economic uncertainty. As Ms. Aiyar and Ms. Krishnamurthy argue, these limitations demonstrate an urgent need to decentralise administration, where States — and local bodies acting through such governments — are allowed greater managerial freedom. Under such a model, the Union government will command less but coordinate more.

Two distinct levels

There are varying accounts of what Indian federalism truly demands. But what is manifest from a reading of the Constitution is that it creates two distinct levels of government: one at the Centre and the other at each of the States. The Seventh Schedule to the Constitution divides responsibilities between these two layers. The Union government is tasked with matters of national importance, such as foreign affairs, defence, and airways. But the responsibilities vested with the States are no less important. Issues concerning public health and sanitation, agriculture, public order, and police, among other things, have each been assigned to State governments. In these domains, the States’ power is plenary. This federal architecture is fortified by a bicameral Parliament. Significantly, this bicameralism is not achieved through a simple demarcation of two separate houses, but through a creation of two distinct chambers that choose their members differently: a House of the People [Lok Sabha] comprising directly elected representatives and a Council of States [Rajya Sabha] comprising members elected by the legislatures of the States.

In formulating this scheme of equal partnership, the framers were also conscious of a need to make States financially autonomous. To that end, when they divided the power to tax between the two layers of government they took care to ensure that the authority of the Union and the States did not overlap. Therefore, while the Centre, for example, was accorded the power to tax all income other than agricultural income and to levy indirect taxes in the form of customs and excise duties, the sole power to tax the sale of goods and the entry of goods into a State was vested in the State governments. The underlying rationale was simple: States had to be guaranteed fiscal dominion to enable them to mould their policies according to the needs of their people.

Despite this plainly drawn arrangement, the history of our constitutional practice has been something of a paradox. It is invariably at the level of the States that real development has fructified, but the Union has repeatedly displayed a desire to treat States, as the Supreme Court said in S.R. Bommai v. Union of India, as mere “appendages of the Centre”. Time and again, efforts have been made to centralise financial and administrative power, to take away from the States their ability to act independently and freely.

As Christophe Jaffrelot and Sanskruthi Kalyankar have shown, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi rallied against these attempts. So much so that an undertaking to decentralise power and steer a new era of Centre-State cooperation became a leitmotif of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign for the 2014 elections. Among other things, in its manifesto, the party promised to create a “Team India” that will “not be limited to the Prime Minister led team sitting in Delhi,” but that “will also include Chief Ministers and other functionaries as equal partners”; to place “centre-state relations on an even keel”; and to “ensure fiscal autonomy of the States”.

Matters of finance

Some efforts have no doubt been made to this end. But they have been ostensible, at best. Consider the widely hailed decision to accept the 14th Finance Commission’s recommendation for an increase in the share of the States in total tax revenues from 32% to 42%. While, in theory, this ought to have enabled the States to significantly increase their own spending, in reality, as a paper authored by Amar Nath H.K. and Alka Singh of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy suggests, this has not happened. Gains made by the States, as the paper underlines, have been entirely offset by a simultaneous decline in share of grants and by a concomitant increase in the States’ own contribution towards expenditures on centrally sponsored schemes.

Other measures have proved still more destructive. Notably, the creation of a Goods and Services Tax regime, which far from achieving its core purpose of uniformity has rendered nugatory the internal sovereignty vested in the States. By striking at the Constitution’s federal edifice, it has made the very survival of the States dependent on the grace of the Union. The tension today is so palpable that a number of States are reported to have written to the Union Finance Ministry highlighting that more than four months’ worth of Goods and Services Tax compensation to the States — reportedly totalling about a sum of ₹40,000 crore — remains unreleased.

The Union government’s centralising instinct, though, has not been restricted to matters of finance. It has also introduced a slew of legislation as money bills, in a bid to bypass the Rajya Sabha’s sanction, even though these laws scarcely fit the constitutional definition. Similarly, the role of the Governors has been weaponised to consolidate political power. But perhaps most egregious among the moves made is the gutting of Article 370 and the division of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories without securing consent from the State Legislative Assembly.

To be sure, this impulse to appropriate authority is not in any way unique to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s command. Congress-led governments of the past have also been susceptible to such motives. But perhaps a crisis of the kind that COVID-19 has wrought will show us that India needs greater decentralisation of power; that administration through a single central executive unit is unsuited to its diverse and heterogeneous polity. We cannot continue to regard the intricate niceties of our federal structure as a nettlesome trifle. In seeing it thus, we are reducing the promise of Article 1 of the Constitution, of an India that is a Union of States, to an illusory dream.

Suhrith Parthasarathy is an advocate practising at the Madras High Court

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

We have been keeping you up-to-date with information on the developments in India and the world that have a bearing on our health and wellbeing, our lives and livelihoods, during these difficult times. To enable wide dissemination of news that is in public interest, we have increased the number of articles that can be read free, and extended free trial periods. However, we have a request for those who can afford to subscribe: please do. As we fight disinformation and misinformation, and keep apace with the happenings, we need to commit greater resources to news gathering operations. We promise to deliver quality journalism that stays away from vested interest and political propaganda.

Support Quality Journalism
Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 2, 2020 8:30:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/needed-greater-decentralisation-of-power/article31293086.ece

In This Package
Open with caution: On Unlock 1
It’s time for a universal basic income programme in India
The waning of subaltern solidarity for Hindutva
Export blocks: On India’s trade amid the pandemic
A moment to trust the teacher
The echo of migrant footfalls and the silence on policy
Enjoying the fruits of their labour
Helping supply chains recover
The heavy burden of social suffering
An effective lockdown
The lockdown has highlighted stark inequalities
Will sport be the same in empty stadia?
Cinema after COVID-19
The eternal longing for the distant home
Working safely: On workplaces during the pandemic
A hole in the whole: On health sector woes
China, better prepared for the post-COVID world
How public health boosts an economy
Keep it retrospective
Backing the ‘angels in white coats’
Standstill: On opening of stadia for training
Flawed stimulus is justice denied
We need social physicians
A callous response
Peaking: On India’s coronavirus tally
Farm gate in focus: On amending Essential Commodities Act
A question of quarantine: On migrant workers and other travellers
TASMAC tribulations: On Tamil Nadu liquor sale
The pandemic and the challenge of behaviour change
One for the poor: On Centre’s corona package
Lockdown syndrome: On virus-induced economic crisis
Are India’s labour laws too restrictive?
Stop the return to laissez-faire
States cannot be left to the Centre’s mercy
Local motif: On Modi’s call for self-reliance
Liquidity lifeline: On Nirmala’s MSME package
A plan to revive a broken economy
Provide income support, restore jobs
Perilous state: On State finances
COVID-19 and the path ahead
Reaffirm cooperative federalism
Riding roughshod over State governments
Tragedy on the tracks: On the killing of 16 migrant workers
Coming to terms: On India refusing to admit community transmission
The trends shaping the post-COVID-19 world
The epidemic and ensuring safety in courts
Responding to COVID-19 at the grassroots
The face of exploitation
Contempt for labour: On dilution of labour laws
Slower growth and a tighter fiscal
Back home: On return of Indian expatriates
Blame game: On Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric over COVID-19
Resuscitating multilateralism with India’s help
A war-like state and a bond to the rescue
Fear and loathing in the land of the free
Everyone wants a good stimulus
Rent control amidst pandemic
Slow release: On lockdown 3.0
No comfort in numbers: On Bengal’s coronavirus cases
Pandemics without borders, South Asia’s evolution
India’s disease surveillance system needs a reboot
No relief for the nowhere people
BRICS against COVID-19
Recovering early: On India’s COVID-19 patients
It’s about food, nutrition and livelihood security
Taiwan’s coronavirus protocol shows how it is done
Needed: a pandemic patent pool
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Plasma therapy is no silver bullet
Take care of yourself too, fellow journalists
Strategic shift: On home isolation of mild coronavirus cases
Coping with today, planning for tomorrow
No end in sight: On India’s coronavirus strategy
Vividly imagining the life of migrant workers
A task for South Asia
Privacy concerns during a pandemic
Unlocking justice in the lockdown
Safe return: On migrant worker distress
The outline of another pandemic combat strategy
Pandemic and panic: On Tamil Nadu’s five-city lockdown
Protecting the poor from becoming poorer
Did SARS-CoV-2 begin from a lab?
Protection for protectors: On safety of healthcare workers
Rapid failures: On antibody testing kits
The COVID-19 paradox in South Asia
Fishing in troubled waters during a pandemic
How will India emerge out of the lockdown?
Making doctors wash hands
Locked out of cities, homes and livelihoods
Script of unity: On coronavirus and social prejudices
Exploiting a pandemic: On Trump’s immigration policy
The village is still relevant
A time for planetary solidarity
There may be no going back
No transparency in West Bengal
Focus on the curve: On India’s COVID-19 numbers
Economy in lockdown: On India’s worst case scenario
A shot of hope with a game changing vaccine
Caught in the heightened arc of communal polemics
Singing the corona tune
Helping a lending hand: On RBI’s second lockdown stimulus
A season of change: On IMD forecast system
A virus, social democracy, and dividends for Kerala
Across the gulf: On stranded Indian workers
Virtual reality: On telemedicine
A blueprint to revive the economy
A case to use JEE-Main instead of JEE-Advanced this year
Will the aviation industry recover from the pandemic?
Data-driven reporting during COVID-19
Stress test: On revised lockdown guidelines
Disastrous decision: On Trump halting funds to WHO
Cease the distractions, seize the moment
Getting the containment strategy in India right
In India’s response, a communications failure
Harmonising with nature
End the harassment of farmers now
A narrowing window: On extension of lockdown
Corona bond: On Eurozone COVID-19 rescue package
Halting the march of rumours
Polls during a pandemic
The pandemic and the contours of a health response
Economic liberalisation and its faults
Invasive, alien, most fearsome
Trade in tatters: On the global slump
Wanted, a collective national endeavour
Disingenuous and no antidote
COVID-19 and the crumbling world order
Women’s safety during lockdown
Lives and livelihoods: On economy after lockdown
Stage fright: On denying community transmission
Team India and winning the pandemic battle
In time of need: On hydroxychloroquine export
Will COVID-19 affect the course of globalisation?
Finding a scapegoat in WHO
Curating news for children during pandemic
A time for extraordinary action
For better use: On MPLADS funds
You are reading
Needed, greater decentralisation of power
A key arsenal in rural India’s pandemic fight
Preparing for exit: On lifting the lockdown
Sanctions and pandemic: On America’s Iran policy
‘A script of action, responsibility and compassion’: Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot writes on Rajasthan’s fight against COVID-19
Taking a long view of the pandemic fight
Ten questions posed by the virus
A different economic approach
Why healthcare workers above 60 should be ‘benched’
Enemy at the gates: On Kerala-Karnataka border row
Reducing farm distress during a pandemic
Why everyone should wear masks
The criticality of community engagement
A niggardliness that is economically unwarranted
The spectre of a post-COVID-19 world
Light and sound: On Narendra Modi’s 9-minute light ceremony
A million and counting: On global coronavirus spread
Safe forests, safe people: On diseases of animal origin
Quarantine and the law
Making the private sector care for public health
Looking east to contain COVID-19
Limits to rugged individualism
Uncritical endorsement: On exodus of migrant workers and the Supreme Court
Beyond the blame game: On the Tablighi Jamaat episode
A long road: On India’s 21-day coronavirus lockdown
The missing notes: On politics and the fight against COVID-19
China’s zero: On China’s lead in containing coronavirus
Unprecedented step: On Wuhan lockdown
The return of the expert
Lessons from Hubei
A pandemic in an unequal India
Faith can’t override public health
Devising a people-centric response to COVID-19
Karnataka CM writes on how the State is fighting the pandemic
Tamil Nadu CM writes on how the State is stopping the pandemic in its tracks
The hunt for a cure begins with telling the truth
COVID-19 and a city’s anatomy
Long live the nation-state
The COVID cycle
Coronavirus | The worst of times, the best of times
It’s also a fight against punitive measures
The age of the neoliberal virus
The deep void in global leadership
Thinking national, acting local
Every man is a part of the main
Beyond social distancing to fight COVID-19
Next Story