The battle against Corona virus requires close cooperation among all levels of government. However, we are witnessing acute Centre-State conflicts, making us wonder whether the Indian Union is a democratic Union of States.
- The Centre is making all the vital decisions though health is a State subject;
- States were not consulted or even informed beforehand about the lockdown;
- Centre’s decisions have deprived States of their major revenue sources;
- States have been reduced to the status of beggars supplicating for Central fund transfers.
Over the past 72 years, the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer super-rich business houses has been accompanied by the growing concentration of decision-making power in the hands of the Central Government. It has led to ever growing tensions between the Central and State Governments, a problem that stares us in the face during a humanitarian crisis like the present one.
It is no doubt true that several State governments have responded to the crisis caused by the lockdown by treating the working people rendered jobless and forced to migrate to their villages in an inhuman way. While such acts deserve to be condemned, they do not obfuscate the fact that the Centre is the main guilty party.
While health is designated as a “State subject”, it is the Central Government which decided to impose a countrywide lockdown, invoking the Disaster Management Act, 2005, which gives it sweeping powers for administrative and financial control. The Centre did not consult or even inform State governments ahead of time.
The sudden closure of the production of all “non-essential” goods and services have deprived State Governments of their two biggest sources of revenue – namely, their share of the Goods & Services Tax (GST) and State Excise Duty on liquor sales.
The GST law stipulates that State governments are to receive compensation from the Centre for any loss of revenue in the first five years of implementation of that tax, which came into force from 1st July, 2017. However, the Centre decides when to release each instalment of this compensation. After the majority of State governments make desperate appeals, the Centre condescends to release some of the money due to the States. The compensation for revenue loss during October and November 2019, for instance, was released only in February 2020. Compensation for December and January is yet to be released.
While the Centre has announced an economic package of Rs. 20 lakh crore for economic revival, it has allocated a mere Rs 15,000 crore for upgradation of health infrastructure in the States. This amount is to be spent over four years and divided between 28 States and eight union territories, which works out to an average of less than Rs. 135 crore per State per year.
India consists of diverse peoples, each with their own distinct language, culture, territory and political history. It is as diverse as the member states of the European Union. However, the Constitution of India does not recognise this diversity. It does not list the different nationalities who constitute the Indian Union. It declares that India is a “union of States”, but this union is conceived only as a territorial union. It is not conceived as a union of diverse peoples who have come together of their own choice to constitute the Union, who give up a portion of their powers to the union.
Had the above been the case, the territorial boundaries of constituents of the Indian Union cannot be altered by decision of the Central authority. In India, the Central Parliament can merge or split up States, or even reduce the status of a State to a Centrally controlled union territory, as was seen recently in the case of Jammu & Kashmir. .
The specification of Central, State and concurrent lists of subjects gives the impression that decision-making power is shared between the different levels of government. However, the provisions of the Constitution permit the Centre to run roughshod over the States, even with respect to matters listed as State subjects.
Whether it is the problem of education, health care or ensuring the right to food, the differentiated needs and habits of the diverse peoples who make up India need to be taken into account. Central policy and planning must not remain a top down process. People need to be empowered to become decision makers at all levels.
The present framework of centre-state relations is a legacy of British colonial rule. Times are calling for a new vision, a modern Indian Union in which the rights of every constituent people is respected and protected.