Federalism is a system of government in which the power is divided between a central authority and various constituent units of the country. Usually, a federation has two levels of government. One is the government for the entire country that is usually responsible for a few subjects of common national interest. The others are governments at the level of provinces or states that look after much of the day-to-day administering of their state. Both these levels of governments enjoy their power independent of the other.
The Indian Federation:
The word ‘federation’ has not been used in the constitution of India, but the Indian Union was formed on the basis of federalism.
The Constitution originally provided for a two-tier system of government. The Union Government or Central Government represents the Union of India and the State governments represent the provinces. Later, a third tier was added in the federation; with the formation of Panchayats and Municipalities.
Key Features of Federalism:
There are two or more levels (or tiers) of government.
1.Different tiers of government govern the same citizens, but each tier has its own jurisdiction in specific matters of legislation, taxation and administration.
2.The jurisdictions of the respective levels or tiers of government are specified in the constitution. So the existence and authority of each tier of government is constitutionally guaranteed.
3.The fundamental provisions of the constitution cannot be unilaterally changed by one level of government. Such changes require the consent of both the levels of government.
4.Courts have the power to interpret the constitution and the powers of different levels of government. The highest court acts as an umpire if disputes arise between different levels of government in the exercise of their respective powers.
5.Sources of revenue for each level of government are clearly specified to ensure its financial autonomy.
6.The federal system thus has dual objectives: to safeguard and promote unity of the country, while at the same time accommodate regional diversity.
7.Therefore, two aspects are crucial for the institutions and practice of federalism. Governments at different levels should agree to some rules of power sharing. They should also trust that each would abide by its part of the agreement. An ideal federal system has both aspects: mutual trust and agreement to live together.
Balance of Power:
The exact balance of power between the central and the state government varies from one federation to another. This balance depends mainly on the historical context in which the federation was formed.
There are two kinds of routes through which federations have been formed; which are as follows:
Coming together federations: This type of federation exists in the USA, Switzerland and Australia. Independent states came together on their own to form a bigger unit so that they could increase their security; while maintaining their sovereignty. In this type of federation, the constituent states have equal power and are stronger vis-à-vis the central government.
Holding together federation: This type of federation exists in India, Spain, Belgium, etc. In this case, power is shared among various social groups to accommodate a huge diversity. In this type of federation, the central government is more powerful than the state government. Different constituents of the federation may have unequal powers. Some units are granted special powers, e.g. the case of Jammu & Kashmir in India.
List of Jurisdiction:
Union List: Union List includes subjects of national importance; such as defence of the country, foreign affairs, banking, communications and currency. They are included in this list because we need a uniform policy on these matters throughout the country. The Union Government alone can make laws relating to the subjects mentioned in the Union List.
State List: State List contains subjects of State and local importance such as police, trade, commerce, agriculture and irrigation. The State Governments alone can make laws relating to the subjects mentioned in the State List.
Concurrent List: Concurrent List includes subjects of common interest to both the Union Government as well as the State Governments, such as education, forest, trade unions, marriage, adoption and succession. Both the Union as well as the State Governments can make laws on the subjects mentioned in this list. If their laws conflict with each other, the law made by the Union Government will prevail.
Residuary List: Anything out of purview of above mentioned list is taken as residuary subject. Union Government has the power to legislate on these subjects.
Special Status: Jammu and Kashmir has its own Constitution. Many provisions of the Indian Constitution are not applicable to this State without the approval of the State Assembly. Indians who are not permanent residents of this State cannot buy land or house here. Similar special provisions exist for some other States of India as well.
Union Territories: There are some units of the Indian Union which enjoy very little power. These are areas which are too small to become an independent State but which could not be merged with any of the existing States. These areas, like Chandigarh, or Lakshadweep or the capital city of Delhi, are called Union Territories. These territories do not have the powers of a State. The Central Government has special powers in running these areas.
This sharing of power between the Union Government and the State governments is basic to the structure of the Constitution. It is not easy to make changes to this power sharing arrangement. The Parliament cannot on its own change this arrangement. Any change to it has to be first passed by both the Houses of Parliament with at least two-thirds majority. Then it has to be ratified by the legislatures of at least half of the total States.
Reasons for Success of Federalism in India
Linguistic States: The creation of Linguistic States was the first and a major test for democratic politics in our country. This was done to ensure that people who spoke the same language lived in the same State. Some States were created not on the basis of language but to recognise the differences based on culture, ethnicity or geography, e.g. Nagaland, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand.
Language policy: A second test for Indian federation is the language policy. Our Constitution did not give the status of national language to any one language. Hindi was identified as the official language. But Hindi is the mother tongue of only about 40 per cent of Indians. Therefore, there were many safeguards to protect other languages. Besides Hindi, there are 21 other languages recognised as Scheduled Languages by the Constitution. Hindi was not imposed on non-Hindi areas for most of the period after the independence.
Centre-State relations: Restructuring the Centre-State relations is one more way in which federalism has been strengthened in practice.
Situation during Congress Monopoly:
For a major period; after independence; same party was in power in both centre and states in most parts of the country. Those were the days of Congress monopoly in India. In those days, the central government often undermined the rights of the state governments. Many states were brought under President’s rule at slight pretext of assertiveness from the state government.
Situation in the Era of Coalition Government:
After 1989, the pattern has shifted to multi-party coalition government at the centre. As a result a new culture of power sharing and respect for the autonomy of State Governments has developed. It can be said that now the federalism is more developed in India.
Linguistic diversity of India
As per the latest Census Report, 1991 of India held in 1991 there are 1500 distinct languages. These languages were grouped together under some major languages. For example languages like Bhojpuri, Magadhi, Bundelkhandi, Chhattisgarhi, Rajasthani, Bhili and many others were grouped together under ‘Hindi’. Even after this grouping, the Census found 114 major languages. Of these 22 languages are now included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution and are therefore called ‘Scheduled Languages’. Others are called ‘non- Scheduled Languages’. In terms of languages, India is perhaps the most diverse country in the world.
Decentralisation in India:
A vast country like India cannot be run only through two-tiers of government as discussed above. Some of the Indian states are bigger than independent countries of Europe. The population of Uttar Pradesh is more than that of Russia. These states are internally very diverse in terms of variety of dialects, eating habits and culture.
Hence, a need for creating a third tier of government was always being felt. There are many local issues which can only be solved by a local governing body. It is also possible to ensure direct participation of people in such a governing body.
A major step towards decentralisation was taken in 1992. The Constitution was amended to make the third-tier of democracy more powerful and effective. The local governing bodies were given constitutional status.
Now it is constitutionally mandatory to hold regular elections to local government bodies.
Seats are reserved in the elected bodies and the executive heads of these institutions for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes.
At least one-third of all positions are reserved for women.
An independent institution called the State Election Commission has been created in each State to conduct panchayat and municipal elections.
The State governments are required to share some powers and revenue with local government bodies. The nature of sharing varies from State to State. Rural local government is popularly known by the name panchayati raj.
Each village, or a group of villages in some States, has a gram panchayat. This is a council consisting of several ward members, often called panch. The president of the panchayat is called sarpanch.
Members of a panchayat are directly elected by the all the adults who are living in the panchayat.
The local government structure goes right up to the district level. A few gram panchayats are grouped together to form what is usually called a panchayat samiti or block or mandal. The members of this representative body are elected by all the panchyat members in that area. All the panchayat samitis or mandals in a district together constitute the zilla (district) parishad. Most members of the zilla parishad are elected. Members of the Lok Sabha and MLAs of that district and some other officials of other district level bodies are also its members. Zilla parishad chairperson is the political head of the zilla parishad.
Similarly, local government bodies exist for urban areas as well. Municipalities are set up in towns. Big cities are constituted into municipal corporations. Both municipalities and municipal corporations are controlled by elected bodies consisting of people’s representatives. Municipal chairperson is the political head of the municipality. In a municipal corporation such an officer is called the mayor.