The Economic Times, July 30, 2012

By Pradeep S Mehta

Not many know that the words ‘central government’ does not exist in our Constitution, but we have ‘union government’ and states. Our founding fathers had envisioned the idea of a true federal political structure.

However, due to fears of fissiparous tendencies, which have been a part of India’s history, the practice has been that all our laws define the federal government in New Delhi as the central government and not union government.

Not only laws but several policies are drafted at and reforms driven from the national capital, which do not necessarily have the ownership of the states. It is precisely because of this factor, the Rajya Sabha was conceptualised. Alas, our polity has made a mockery of it.

It is time to turn this process on its head, so that we can grow as a nation with a bottom-up approach. Much water has flowed since we became a republic in 1950 a nd but for a few murmurs in the early years, the country has emerged as a united nation.

The unity is symbolised by the coalition calculus, which is now a permanent feature in New Delhi and some states due to shrinking national parties. Regional parties are now in power in many states, and also sharing power at New Delhi. This change has thrown up increasing demands for fiscal and governance federalism.

For quite some time, we have been seeing demands for greater devolution of powers and management of financial resources by states.

The struggle continues as the ruling party at New Delhi feels that enough is being done. There is also a discussion about pruning centrally sponsored schemes, but the ruling party claims that it is their largesse to the states, which only adds fuel to the fire.

After all, provisioning of public goods and services are best understood at the local level, rather than decided in Lutyen’s Delhi by babus who do not comprehend the contours or priorities.

Many subjects, such as home, agriculture, education, health, among others are either under the states’ jurisdiction or in the concurrent list under our Constitution and yet the union government has big ministries handling huge budgets, and distributing moneys to states with some arm twisting.

It does not matter if the state is ruled by the same party or not. The recent posting of police officers in the BJP-ruled Goa drew the same criticism by the Congress-ruled government in Delhi. The only difference is that these small states’ constitutional powers are not on a par with other bigger states.

Education is in the concurrent list but the Centre is hell bent to destroy the role of states in providing quality education. There is strong opposition to the Centre’s moves. Perhaps, the ruling party has forgotten that it is no longer a strong force as it was earlier.

Many of our states are doing good work in running systems which are otherwise difficult to run well. Many of the schemes like the PDS or NAREGA are hijacked to serve as political patronage for the grassroot polity, but some states have been able to run them well, which is an important factor for some of them to get re-elected.
For instance, Chhattisgarh, which has had the same party in government since 2003, inter alia, has been able to reform its PDS, which offers good example to other states.

Successful implementation of NAREGA in Tripura has lead Assam to send a team there to gather hands-on experience. Getting investment approvals swiftly has been attacked by many states through reforming laws and creating single-window services, but the experience varies.

The reason is not difficult to understand, because any system is as good as the people who manage it, backed by political will which comes from the CEO of the state. We had seen it in Andhra Pradesh earlier, and currently in Gujarat.

There are numerous such examples where the states have progressed well without any dependence on the union government. But there is no single knowledge repository of such good practices. In India, states do try and acquire know-how and follow good practices but the system is not structured.

Many federal countries, such as the US, Nigeria, among others, have established state governors’ forum to speak to each other on a wide range of local issues.

For instance, the National Governors Association in the US has successfully dealt with the higher education system, which is the states’ responsibility, through a structured exercise of comparative learning and doing. Consequently, states have been able to learn from each other, thus achieving better systems.

The Nigerian Governors’ Forum has been able to accelerate eradication of polio through a bottom-up approach rather than being engineered by the federal government.

And this is when these states are also ruled by different parties at the federal and state levels, but in this body, they follow a non-partisan approach. They also take up state-centre issues where there is a common interest.

Considering the fact of coalition politics, the country would do well to push for reforms from the bottom, and for that to happen the chief ministers need to come together on a non-partisan platform.

The author is secretary general of CUTS International

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