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Prelims Capsule


Indian federalism and its impact on Covid-19 Pandemic management

Indian federalism and its impact on Covid-19 Pandemic management


  • GS 2 || Polity || Constitutional Framework || Basic Structure of the Constitution

What is ‘Federalism’?

  • A federal government is a system of government that separates the power between the central government and the state government of the country.
  • It delegates certain responsibilities to each sector so that the central government has its task to do and the state government has its own.
  • Indian Polity system is also a kind of federal system, which is called by the Constitution experts as a “Quasi-federal’ political set-up.

The difference between ‘Federal’ and ‘Quasi-Federal’:

  • In a Quasi-Federalsetup, the powers and authority are though shared between the central government and state government yet it is inclined in favour of the central government. The Central government typically assigned more power than the state government in a quasi-federal setup.
  • In a quasi-central government system, the central government can also interfere in the decision which is made by the state government.
  • The features of India’s polity such as Parliament’s overriding power over states laws (Article 249); Residual powers are vesting with the central government. etc. make it a ’quasi-federal set-up.

Constitutional evidence in favour of a strong Centre:

  • Residuary list: Article 246 of the Indian constitution distributes legislative power between union and states. It gives the union exclusive power to legislate in respect of matters contained in list 1 and concurrent power to legislate in respect of matters contained in list 3 of schedule 7 of the constitution.
  • Parliament’s powers to override state legislatures: Parliament is given the power to legislate on exclusively state subjects matters namely:
    • Article 249 of the Indian constitution gives power to parliament concerning the matter in the state list in the national interest.
    • Article 250 of the Indian constitution gives power to parliament in respect of any matter in the state list if a proclamation of emergency is in operation.
    • Article 252 of the Indian constitution gives power to parliament to legislate two or more states by consent of those states.
  • Unitary government during times of emergency: Article 352 and 353 states about provisions for the proclamation of emergency and the effect of such proclamation.
  • No operation of certain provisions without the consent of the Parliament: There are provisions included in the constitution that are to be operative unless parliament made any contrary provision or word to the same effect.
  • Constitution amendment power is the exclusive jurisdiction of the Parliament: Article 368 of the Indian constitution states about provisions regarding the amendment of the constitution

Federal features of Indian Constitution and Polity:

  • Two sets of Government: There are two sets of government in India and that is the Central government and state governments. The central government looks after the whole country and the state government mainly works for the states. Both governments are autonomous in their Constitutional spheres of functioning
  • Division of Powers: Powers between the central government and state government have been divided by the Constitution of India. The seventh schedule of the Indian constitution provides how the division of powers is made between state and central government. Both central and state governments have separate power and responsibilities.
  • Written Constitution: India has one of the largest constitutions in the world which consist of 395 articles 22 parts and 12 schedules. Every article of the Indian constitution is written down and has been discussed in full details.
  • Supremacy of the Constitution: The Constitution of India is regarded as the supreme law of the land. No law can be made or passed against the constitution of India. The Constitution of India is above all citizens and organisations of the country.
  • Supreme judiciary: The Supreme Court of India is regarded as the superior court of the country. The decision of the Supreme Court is binding upon all courts and it has the power to interpret the articles of the constitution.
  • Bicamerallegislation: In India, the legislature is bicameral. It has two houses and that is Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. The upper house of the parliament which represents the states is Rajya Sabha and the lower house of the parliament which represents the people, in general, is Lok Sabha.

Important judicial pronouncements regarding Indian federalism:

  • State of Rajasthan v Union of India, (1977): In this case, the former chief justice of India (CJI) called the constitution of India “amphibian”. He further propounded that our constitution creates a central government that is amphibian in the sense that it can be either federal or unitary according to the need of the situation and the circumstance of the case.
  • R. Bomnai v Union of India: In this case, the court stated that the President of India should exercise his powers only after his proclamation is approved by both houses of the Parliament. The power of the President to dismiss a state government is not absolute. Thus, this case strengthened the position of States vis-a-vis the Centre.
  • Haryana v State of Punjab: Inthis case, the term “Semi-federal” was used for India and in ShamsherSingh v State of Punjabthe constitution was called more unitary than federal.
  • State of West Bengal v Union of India: This case dealt with the issue of the exercise of sovereign powers by Indian states. In this case, the Supreme Court held that the Indian constitution does not promote a principle of absolute federalism. The Supreme Court also held that the central government is the final authority for any issue.
  • The political power distributed between both union and state government with greater weight given to union government.
  • The court further states four characteristics highlighting the facts that the Indian constitution is not a traditional federal constitution.
    • One Country; One Constitution: The first characteristic is highlighted by the court is that constitution of India is the supreme document that governs all states and there is no provision of separate constitutions for each state as required in the federal state.
    • No Constitution amendment power to the States: The second characteristic is highlighted by the court is that the states have no power to alter the constitution but the only central government has the power to alter the constitution of India.
    • Judiciary is the ultimate approver: The third characteristic is highlighted by the court is that the Indian constitution renders supreme power upon the courts to invalidate any action which violates the constitution.
    • Powers by the nature of issues: The fourth characteristic is highlighted by the court is that the distribution of powers facilitates national policies matter by central government and local governance by the state government.

Issues in India federalism

  • Finances: After the Parliament enacted the Goods and Services Tax (GST), a substantial amount of taxation powers has gone into the hands of the central government. There is an immediate need to rationalise the GST Council- a federal body so that the interests of the states can be protected.
  • Law and order during the Elections: The states have been alleging that the central government is misusing its powers to systematically deem power the financial bodies such as the Election Commission of India. They allege the central forces during the elections do excess of their mandate than just maintaining law and order.
  • Inter-State river water disputes: Inter-state water disputes have also been a big issue of confrontation between the centre and the states.
  • All India Services (AIS): Though the AIS were envisaged as issues to protect the integrity of India and promote federalism, many states alleges that the AIS needs to be reformed so that the states’ interests should remain intact.

Covid-19 Pandemic: A testing time for Indian federalism

  • The Covid-19 pandemic has been a learning experience as far as Indian federalism is concerned.
  • While in the first wave, the central government managed the pandemic well using its powers given in Disaster Management Act, 2005 and the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, the subsequent relaxation led to the explosion of infection rates crippling healthcare services in the country.
  • Impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic over Indian federalism
    • Centralisation of powers: Section 62 of the DM Act stipulates extraordinary powers to the union government by which any authority in union ministries, statutory bodies, state governments etc is bound to take direction from the ministry of home affairs of the government of India.
    • Petty politics over critical functions: The political blame game has also increased between political parties ruling parties of the centre and respective states. The political parties governing states different to the centre have been alleging the central government of biased conduct in relief resources allocation. The political blame game to milk the crisis has taken a big impact upon Indian federalism.
    • Encroachment upon state list: Since the central government has much greater financial powers, it allows it to undertake more and more welfare schemes in the states. It is an indirect encroachment in the states’ list
  • Lack of Finances
    • With the States Due to the Covid-19 induced lockdown, the sources of states’ revenue have collapsed.
    • Majority of states’ revenue comes from liquor sales, stamp duty from property transactions and the sales tax on petroleum products.
    • However, their expenditure such as on interest payments, social sector schemes and staff salaries remain unchanged.
    • Moreover, states are now called upon to spend more on beefing up their health infrastructure and on Covid-19 measures, including testing, treatment and quarantining. States’ GST collections have also been severely affected with their dues still not disbursed by the Centre. According to the FRBM Act, states cannot borrow from the market over a certain limit.
    • Further, the PM-CARES relief fund has been put under the ambit of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) contributions. However, contributions to the ‘Chief Minister’s Relief Fund’ or ‘State Relief Fund for Covid-19’ do not qualify as admissible CSR expenditure.

Way forward

  • There is a need to revisit the Constitutional provisions on federalism.
  • The constant friction between the states and the centre must be reduced for the efficient functioning of the government machinery.
  • The institutions which are meant to protect the federalism such as GST Council, NITI Aayog, Finance Commission, Election Commission, etc. must be strengthened and empowered to look after the issues causing harm to the federalism.
  • Last but not the least, the politicians need to work ethically and it is not correct for them to use unethical principles to exploit the loopholes in the Constitutional provisions.

Mains model  Question

  • What do you understand by ‘quasi-federalism’? Do you think the quasi-federal character of India has allowed it to manage a disaster like Covid-19 more efficiently?