Federalism, defined as the sharing of power between different levels of a government, has been a lasting identity of Indian polity. Dr Ambedkar, as part of the constituent assembly debates, made quite a strong observation when asked about the nature of the Constitution. In his opinion, and rightly so, even though Article 1 of the Constitution holds India to be a union of states, it is not a loose organization of states, nor are the states mere agents of the Centre. He further remarked that the Constitution empowers both the states and the Centre to be supreme in their spheres and are co-equal in the spirit of a federal polity. Subsequently, from the Congress Era of Indian politics to a more resurgent form of bargaining federalism (where states and centre actively negotiate for power) today, States have come to occupy equally significant positions, in development, and politics.
It is in this context, that the Inter-State Council, as envisioned in Article 263 of the Indian Constitution and consequently set up in 1990, becomes an effective channel for communication and policymaking.
Broadly, the mandate of the Council comprises of-
1) Deliberation on subjects of common interest between Centre and States
2) Making recommendations on subjects deliberated thereof
3) Exploring and other matter of importance to the states, as may be recommended to the standing committee
The last meeting of the Council was back in 2016 (after a gap of 10 years), while the standing committee (an instrument of the Council) last met in 2018, with its meetings too quiet irregular. Further, most discussions and deliberations revolve around the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State relations, and other modalities of constitutional distribution of legislative powers. However, there must also be a greater thrust on using these recommendations for issues of realpolitik. More specifically, variation in management of Covid-19 across states, and the Centre, calls for greater utilisation of this body for public welfare.
Lessons from Covid-19
1) Convergent Disaster Governance
One of the most glaring issues in the management of covid-19 in India has been the lack of a comprehensive legislation to tackle pandemics. From numerous regulations issued under the National Disaster Management Act, to States doing the same under the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897, it has been tough to converge in flattening the curve. Further, the dominance of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, rather than the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in guiding regulations, is telling of a quite different philosophy. These, alongside issues in coordination of the Shramik Trains for migrant labourers, and confusion in treatment protocols (e.g. In Delhi), call for a comprehensive communication network between the Centre and States, and among the States themselves.
The Inter State Council thus must play a crucial role in the drafting the Public Health (Prevention, Control and Management of epidemics, bio-terrorism, and disasters) Bill, or better realization of the Model Public Health Act. Other advantages include, exchange of information (best practices such as Kerala’s initial success in containing the spread, international guidelines, scientific discourse), a bottom up approach to disaster relief disbursal (under National Disaster Response Fund), a consultative restriction/relaxation plan (such as opening of airports and stations), and uniform treatment protocols (e.g. For expat returnees, migrants, varying degrees of symptomatic).
Lastly, the very lack of a ‘Disaster Management’ entry in the 7th Schedule (distribution of legislative powers between Union and States), has been pointed out by various commissions and task forces. It therefore, calls for a solid, legal, and rational basis to tackle disasters of such scale.
2) Planning for Public Health
Despite an overarching National Health Policy, the pandemic has highlighted the need for strengthening India’s public health architecture, both in terms of planning, and structure.
Planning better: Due to ever changing land use, the need for food safety and tackling zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted from animals or insects, to humans) have become important pillars of planning for public health. This is where the ‘One Health Approach’, advocated by the WHO, assumes significance. From robust, decentralized food safety systems, to containing zoonoses (e.g. Nipah Virus), examples of administrative successes by states must be deliberated by the Council. This would be a welcome action, in serious pursuance of the One Health Approach.
‘One Health’ is an approach to designing and implementing programmes, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes. The areas of work in which a One Health approach is particularly relevant include food safety, the control of zoonoses and combating antibiotic resistance.
Further, successes of various Panchayats across states, have shown that the quickest way to respond to health emergencies is by empowering local bodies. From empowered Sarpanchs imposing lockdowns in Odisha, to village volunteers in Andhra Pradesh assisting in information dissemination and benefit disbursal, rural local bodies must figure prominently in local health planning. Building on these, the Council must also become a forum for making policies to reduce intra and inter-state disparities in penetration of healthcare, such as-
· Over 75% of specialized healthcare is provided in urban areas
· High vacancies in Primary Health Centres
Structural changes in schemes: Lastly, mammoth flagship schemes, such as the Ayushman Bharat, with its focus on access to health insurance for everybody, must leverage the strength of the Council to
· Ensure seamless portability of health insurance benefits
· Ensure seamless integration/subsuming of flagship state health schemes with Ayushman Bharat
· Stimulate interoperability, by moving towards Electronic Health Records, and the National Health Stack (a blockchain based record system, suggested by NITI Aayog)
However, lessons from the management of the pandemic, must be lasting. This goes beyond just planning for public health and disaster governance, and extends to systemic issues of fiscal policies and sectoral planning in the economy.
3) Institutional Convergence in Fiscal Planning
A remarkable feature of the Indian administration is the presence of numerous institutions in policymaking. Contrastingly, the lack of effective convergence among these institutions is what leads to less than effective policies. Three such institutions come to mind- The NITI Aayog, Finance Commission, and GST-Council, which are at the base of modern Indian federalism.
The Council, and taxation framework: The aforementioned institutions are critical for India’s fiscal federalism, or the sharing of financial powers and avenues, between different levels of the government. The need for Inter State Council here, as an overarching institution, is central. Recent developments spell out this need quite clearly. Tensions between the Centre and States in the 15th Finance Commission, over the issues of Terms of References (simply put, the scope of the Commission’s examination and recommendations) in spite of substantial devolution of taxes, indicates a certain level of trust deficit. This is further aggravated by the lack of compensation for states, in lieu of losses due to advent of GST and the related surrender of state specific taxation powers. More closely related, is the concern around separate workings of the Finance Commission and the GST-Council, both constitutional bodies, which deal with devolution of taxes to the states.
It is here, that the Inter-State council can explore interventions, such as Dr Vijay Kelkar’s 4-pillar approach for fiscal federalism, and thus reduce frictions. The Council can also serve to catalyse a uniform approach (such as Dr Raghuram Rajan committee’s guidelines for categorization of states), to Special Category States packages. These packages were introduced by the Finance Commission decades back, are often quite generous. However, they have also been contentious, and politically driven.
The Council, and NITI Aayog: The remaining of the three, the Niti Aayog, has brought about the final phase in the shift towards indicative planning, from directive planning (Planning Commission). It involves a consultative, technocratic, and a visionary approach to planning, with considerable representation of all states. The need for Inter State Council here, is to reduce the influence of the Centre in Niti Aayog, and pushing for greater incorporation of practicality. A relevant example could be the need for rational pricing of sugarcane and its products across all value chains, for a successful Ethanol Blended Petrol programme). Departure from practicality can also be felt in the rather ambitious goals of NITI’s 3-year action agenda, 7-year strategy, and 15-year vision.
4) Sectoral Economic Planning
Resolving agricultural woes: The rather slow pace of agricultural growth over the last few decades, can partly be attributed to the lack of a common vision between the Centre and the States. Promising initiatives by the Centre (such as e-NAM, Agriculture Export Policy) and states (such as KALIA Scheme in Odisha, Export based storage incentives in Punjab) have not resulted in a concurrent vision for agriculture, that should ideally encompass-
· A holistic emphasis on substantial cash transfers for farmers and landless labourers
· A more uniform approach to procurement of cereals, pulses, and horticultural crops
· Exploring land lease facilities for rejuvenating fallow lands, and improving the status of landless farmers
· Approaches to shift towards precision agriculture (extensive use of technology and data to determine feasibility, and precise input levels for crops), establishing zero based natural farming (where agriculture is characterised by use of natural inputs, and complete absence of chemical inputs), and organic farming value chains.
· Viability of Multi-State cooperatives and Farmer Producer Companies, as methods to pool inputs and yield, and increase incomes.
The Inter State Council, in this regard, can thrust on profitability, sustainability, and modernization, while also focusing on improving human capital in agriculture. It can also examine the feasibility of calls to shift the subject of ‘Agriculture’ from the State List, to the Concurrent List.
Potential in improving the secondary sector: Along similar lines, issues in the manufacturing sector too could be more efficiently resolved with the Council’s help. This could include-
· Emphasis on inflow of FDI and domestic investment into states that contribute to high outflow of migrant labourers,
· Platforms for registration of contract and unskilled labourers in the Inter State Migrant Workmen Act,1979
· Aggregating low performing Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in neighbouring states into a regional value chain
Beyond the focus areas
Having established a brief understanding of the Council’s potential across the above areas, it is in no way exhaustive. Other emerging issues, such as Centre’s role in law and order enforcement and the assertive, yet the uncodified role of the office of Governor, are massive constitutional ambiguities. These also transform into hotbeds of political confrontation, that can be sought to ease, if not resolved, by the Council. What also must not be forgotten, is that any talk of such a revamped Council to harmonize the vision of the Centre and States, must not overlook the temple of India’s federal representation- the Rajya Sabha. This would not only lend a more representative identity to the Rajya Sabha but also eliminate a fragmented approach to Centre-state relations.
The advantages of the Inter-State Council in harmonizing federal governance, and in cementing Dr Ambedkar’s vision, must not be ignored. India’s democratic governance has seen tremendous change, with the dynamic influence of regional politics, demographics, and economics. It is exactly in this change, that the Council must seek to find itself as the custodian of the federal spirit of the constitution.
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The views expressed in this article are the author's own.