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August 11, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

The autonomy virus

The autonomy virus would seem to have suddenly spread from Kashmir to Kancheepuram. The symptom was the two-day state autonomy conference held in that city in Tamil Nadu in the last week of July. The hosts, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (a tiny constituent of the Vajpayee-led government) came out with a state autonomy declaration and a policy document on the subject. But going by the two statements reportedly made at that conference, our Dravidian friends would seem to either have no grasp of the Constitution of India or to harbour ideas of fantasy about their own ability to lead their state subjects to Utopia, as it were, if only Delhi stopped being a hindrance.

M Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu's chief minister, must have been in a rare picturesque frame of mind at the conference's inaugural function when he likened the states in independent India to a released prisoner who was still handcuffed. And Vaiko of the MDMK was probably intoxicated with the joy of his reunion with his DMK mentor when his policy document proclaimed that the Centre should have powers only relating to defence, foreign policy, inter-state communications and currency, with the states being given all other powers. This distribution scheme alone, we were told, would create a 'true federation' at the Centre.

Clearly, these two Dravidians -- and maybe other state politicians -- need a quick re-orientation course on the nation's Constitution.

The first thing Vaiko and his ilk must realise is that India's Constitution is not a 'false federation' as implied in his demand for a 'true federation'. According to the constitutional expert, Professor Alan Gledhill, ''the essence of federation is the existence of a sphere in which the units can exercise executive and legislative authority free of central control.'' Our own expert, D D Basu, considered, ''A federal state is the fusion of several states into a single state in regard to matters affecting the common interest while each component unit enjoys autonomy in regard to other matters.'' The pattern of the Indian Constitution answers to both these definitions.

Thus, the legislative powers of the Union and the state legislatures have been embodied in two separate lists, while there is also a third list enumerating the matters which give concurrent powers of legislation to both the states and the Centre. Currently, the Union List contains 97 items, the State List has 66 and the Concurrent List includes 47 with the provision that if a state law is repugnant to the law of Parliament, the latter shall prevail. The residuary power of legislation on items other than these 210 vests with the Union -- like in Canada.

Because the above scheme is weighted in favour of the Union, some have variously characterised our Constitution as quasi-federal, unitary with federal features and centralised federation. The fact is that though the Centre in India is strong, the states are not agents of the Centre; they exist under the Constitution and not at the sufferance of the Centre; they enjoy a large amount of autonomy in normal times; their powers are derived from the Constitution and not from the Central laws; and the federal portion of the Constitution can be amended not unilaterally by the Centre alone but only with the co-operation of the states.

These elements constitute the essence of federalism and they are all present in the Indian federation. What seems to irk Vaiko most is that the Union List is not confined to his prescription -- defence, external affairs, inter-state communications and currency.

To understand the rationale behind the expanded Union List (97 items), Vaiko and his ilk must need be reminded that, at the time our Constitution was being framed, its architects were aware that centralising tendencies had become manifest in the world and strong governments had emerged in practically every federation. Wars, international crises, scientific and technological developments, and the emergence of the political philosophy of a social welfare state had brought that about. Pragmatism and practical considerations thus dictated the bias towards centralism in our Constitution.

Karunanidhi and Co must also realise the inherent dangers in a vast and ethnically divergent country like India if it didn't have the type of co-operative federalism that exists. Thus, though it is a dual polity, India has only one citizenship viz the Indian citizenship, and there is no separate state citizenship. This is in contrast to the American pattern of dual citizenship -- one of the USA and that of each state in it. This is politically explosive because a state, if it had the power, could well discriminate in favour of its own citizens in matters such as the right to hold public office, to vote, to obtain employment or to secure licences for practising law or medicine.

The overall effect of such discrimination is evident in Jammu and Kashmir where only the state's ''Permanent Residents'' have the right to acquire immovable property in that state. With that solitary exception -- the removal of which can be facilitated by the abrogation of Article 370 of our Constitution -- the Indian federation has largely achieved, and seeks to maintain, uniformity in basic civil and criminal laws. It was with that same noble intention that our Constitution's framers proposed a Uniform Civil Code but got cold feet in imposing it, opting to leave it there as a Directive Principle; that hesitancy has, in hindsight, proved a tragic blunder inasmuch as it has entrenched communal interests with attendant consequences so plain to see for all save the pseudo-secularists of our country.

It is wrong to believe that the ''defence, external affairs, inter-state communications and currency'' constitute four subjects in the Union list and that nothing in the remaining 93 items relates to those four heads. As a matter of fact, seven of those 97 items cover all aspects of India's defence, 12 entries extend to ''foreign affairs,'' 10 to railways, nationals highways, airways etc (''communications'') and four items fall under the category of financial powers: eg, legal tender, public debt, foreign loans, Reserve Bank of India.

There are dozens of other items which necessarily have to be with the Centre -- stock exchanges and future markets, patents, standards weights and measures, quality standard of goods, census, survey of India, parliamentary affairs, Supreme Court and high courts; if not so left to the Centre, one can imagine what chaos there would be in those areas what with a communist like Basu and a Mandalite like Laloo around.

It is also wrong to believe that just because the constitution of the United States of America provides only one list that enumerates and specifies the powers allocated under 18 heads to the Centre, it is a ''true federation.'' Far from it. As an expert, Dr M P Jain, records ''A liberal interpretation of these powers (couched in very general language) has made the Centre very powerful... The commerce power has become the Centre's source of extensive power to regulate the economic life of the country, to deal with national economic problems, to prevent or restrict disfavoured local activities... And the taxing power has been used not only to raise money but also for regulatory purposes... Thus, the Congress has come to exercise enormous power with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court.''' Believe it or not, Mr Vaiko, the American Congress has reached the loo as well: under a federal law, all toilets made, sold or installed in the USA as of 1994 must have a tank no larger than 5.7 litres!

It seems quite clear that the yearning for a true federation by Karunanidhi and Co is not based on facts or on contemporary history of political philosophy. Why the outcry then?

One strongly suspects that the plaint against the nation's Constitution is nothing but a cover up. It is an alibi for the non-performance by and large of state governments across the country in the last 50 years. Take land reforms -- an exclusively state subject. Barring Bengal, which state has done anything radical to improve the lot of the landless? (However, Communist Bengal has, in its 20-odd years, been so lax in disciplining labour that several of its industries have become sick and even prestigious companies have perforce had to exit to other locations).

Take municipal corporations -- also an exclusive state subject. Which of the 26 states of ours can boast of a single locality which is spotlessly clean and which is happy with the civic amenities provided?

Take public health and safety -- one more subject in the exclusive domain of a state. Which state has a record to be proud of in that sphere?

Take prevention of floods -- a state subject. Which state with that need has done anything worthwhile on its own?

Take law and order -- yet another exclusive state subject. Which state can hold its head high in that area?

Take local self-government including village administration -- yet another important state subject. Which state has done anything concrete and lasting about it?

What is the condition of our city and village roads? Remember, road development is a state subject.

To all of the above, our state governments will plead lack of resources as defence. Well, the states do have some exclusive powers to raise taxes. But which states have raised land revenue in keeping with the inflation from the times the British left our shores? Which states have raised rural electricity rates to realistic levels? Which state has levied a tax on agricultural income as empowered under the Constitution? Which state has collected its sales tax efficiently? Which state has resisted populist give-aways like rice at Rs 2 a kilogram? Which state has tightened its belt all round?

Vaiko and his ilk would do well therefore to get their priorities right instead of faulting the Constitutional powers of the state vis-a-vis the Centre. It is essentially a matter of being able to walk before wanting to run, of being able to digest what is served before craving for a multi-course banquet.

Our Constitution does need some changes, no doubt. Largely, however, as a wise Indian noted ''The Constitution has not failed the people but the politicians have failed both the people and the Constitution.'' An all-pervading, self-generated environment of corruption and craze for power, of hypocrisy and inefficiency, of populism and profligacy -- in alphabetical order -- has ensured that. Tragically, that verdict is as much applicable to the states as it is to the Centre.

Tailpiece: The central government owned Radio network in Farooq Abdullah's domain has for years been announcing itself as ''Radio Kashmir'' -- the only state where the prefix Akashvani/All India Radio stays axed. Some autonomy that, what?

Arvind Lavakare

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