Needed, greater decentralisation of power-THE HINDU-09-04-2020
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. 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. 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. 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.
Under such a model, the Union government will command less but coordinate more.
Two distinct levels:
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. Issues concerning public health and sanitation, agriculture, public order, and police, among other things, have each been assigned to State governments. This federal architecture is fortified by a bicameral Parliament.
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. Union of India, as mere “appendages of the Centre”.
Matters of finance:
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 Union government’s centralising instinct, though, has not been restricted to matters of finance. 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. 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.