As we have learnt that in modern democracies, the vertical division of power among different levels of governments is one of the major forms of power sharing. This is most commonly referred to as “federalism”.
It was experienced in the examples of countries like Belgium and Sri Lanka that how power sharing plays a significant role in modern democracies. The constitution of Belgium reduced the powers of the central government and gives these powers to the regional governments. Regional governments existed earlier in the Belgium and had their roles and powers. But all these powers were given to these governments and could be withdrawn by the central government. In 1993, regional governments were given constitutional powers that were no longer dependent on the central government. So, Belgium shifted from a unitary to federal form of the government. On the other hand, Sri Lanka continued to be a unitary system for all practical purposes where national governments have all the powers. Tamil leaders wanted Sri Lanka to become a federal system but it preferred to be a unitary system.
Federalism is a system of government in which the power is divided between central authority and various constituent units of the country. Generally, a federation has two levels of government. The first level comprises of the government for the entire country that is usually responsible for a few subjects of common national interest. The other levels of the government are the governments at the level of provinces or states that look after much of the routine day administering of their state. These two levels of governments enjoy their power independent of the other.
In unitary systems, there is one level of government or the sub-units that are subordinate to the central government. In this system, central government can pass orders to the provincial or the local government. In federal system, the central government cannot order the state government to do something as state governments has powers of its own for which it is not answerable to the central government. Both these two different forms of governments are separately answerable to the people of their country.


The key factors of federalism are listed below and they are as follows:-

1. In federalism, there are two or more levels or tiers of governments.
2. In federalism, different levels or tiers of governments govern the same citizens. Each tier or level of government has its own jurisdiction pertaining to the matters of legislation, taxation and administration.
3. In federalism, the existence and authority of each level or tier of government is constitutionally guaranteed as the jurisdiction of the respective levels or tiers of governments are specified in the constitution.
4. One level or tier of government cannot unilaterally change the fundamental provisions of the constitution as such changes require the consent of both the levels or tiers of government.
5. If disputes arise between the two tiers or levels of government in their exercise of power then highest court acts as an umpire. The courts have the power and authority to intervene into the matter and interpret the constitution and the powers of different levels of governments.
6. For each level of government, sources of revenue are clearly specified to ensure its financial autonomy.
7. The most important factors of federalism can be broadly divided into its important features. Firstly, federalism safeguards and promotes the unity of country. Secondly, it accommodates regional diversity to facilitate unity amongst citizens of the country. It builds trust between both levels of government and works as an agreement to live together in peace and harmony.

There are two types of route through which federations are formed and they are as follows:-

1. Coming together federations
2. Holding together federations

1. Coming together federations involves independent states coming together on their own to form a bigger unit. In this kind of federations, all the constituents’ states have equal powers and are strong vis-à-vis the federal government. It includes countries like U.S.A, Switzerland and Australia.
2. Holding together federations is type of federation where large country decides to divide its power between the constituent states and the national government. In this type, central government is more powerful in comparison to the state governments. It is very often that different constituent units of the federation have unequal powers while some units are granted special powers. It includes countries like India, Spain and Belgium.

What makes India a federal country?

India is a vast country with numerous languages, religions and regions. The concept of “federalism” plays a vital role and the power sharing arrangements plays a crucial role in maintaining unity and harmony in the country. India got its independence in 1947 but it also resulted in painful partition that paved way to the formation of Pakistan. After independence, several princely states became a part of the country and the constitution declared India as a Union States. Despite the fact that the word “federalism” is not used or implied with Indian Union but it is largely based on the principles of federalism. All the above key features of “federalism” are well suited to the provisions of the Indian Constitution. The constitution of India provided two tiers of levels of governments – Central or Union Governments representing the Union of India and the state governments. Later, a third tier or level of federalism was formed and added in the forms of Panchayats and Municipalities. These three different tiers of governments enjoy separate jurisdictions and the constitution provides a three fold distribution of legislative powers between the Union governments and the state governments. It comprises of three major lists and they are as follows: -

1. Union List: - This list includes subjects of national importance such as defence, foreign affairs, banking, communications and currency. They form as the part of “Union list” as we need a uniform policy on these important matters throughout the country. Union or Central government can only make laws relating to these above mentioned important subjects.
2. State List: - This list contains subjects of state and local significance and state governments alone can make laws relating to subjects like police, trade, commerce, agriculture and irrigation.
3. Concurrent List: - It can also be termed as “co-existing” list and includes subjects of common interest to both the Union Government as well as the State Governments. It includes subjects like education, forest, trade unions, marriage, adoption and succession. Both levels of government (Union and State governments) can make laws on these subjects. If their laws conflict with each other then the law made by the Union Government will reign and succeed.

There are still other subjects that don’t fall in any of these lists. These subjects are computer software that came much after the formation of constitution in India. According to our constitution, Union government has the power to legislate on these left over or untapped subjects. Generally, it is learnt that “holding together federations” do not give equal power to its constituents so all states in Indian Union does not have identical powers. Jammu and Kashmir has its own constitution and enjoys special status and many provisions of Indian constitution are not applicable in this state. There are some units of Indian Union that enjoys very little power and these are areas which are too small to be recognized as an Independent state and could not merged with any other states. They are referred to as “Union Territories” and include areas like Chandigarh, Lakshwadeeep and Delhi, capital city of India. These territories do not have the powers of the state as Union or Central Government runs these areas with their special powers. It is not easy to make changes to the power sharing arrangements of Union and state governments as it has to be passed with both the houses of parliament with at least two-third majority. After its approval from both the houses of parliament, it has to be authorized or ratified by the legislatures of at least half of the total seats. In case of disputes about the division of powers, the High court and Supreme Court makes the decisive decision. Both Union and State governments have the power to raise resources by imposing taxes in order to carry on the government and the tasks allocated to them.

How is Federalism practiced?

The success of “federalism” in India cannot be merely attributed to constitutional provisions but to the nature of democratic politics in our country. It ensured that the spirit of federalism, respect for diversity and desire for living together became a common goal in our country. The major reasons in which federalism has succeeded in our country are as follows: -

1. Linguistic states: - The formation of linguistic states was the first major test for democratic politics in India. There were lots of changes in democratic politics of our country from 1947 to 2006. In India, many old states have vanished while many states have been created. Even the names of areas, boundaries and states were changed during this period. In 1947, the year of independence, the boundaries of many old states were changed in order to create new states. It was done to ensure that the people speaking same language should reside in same state. It led to formation of some states that were created not on the basis of language but to recognise differences based on culture, ethnicity or geography. It includes states like Nagaland, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand. There was fear of disintegration by some national leaders in our country when there was demand for the formation of states on the basis of language was raised. Earlier central government resisted linguistic states but the experience has shown that their formation has made country more united and integrated. It made administration procedure easier and opened doors of opportunities for everybody.
2. Language policy: - Our constitution has not given the status of national language to any one language. Language policy proved second major test for India federation and finally Hindi was identified as the official language of the country. Hindi, the official language of country proved to be mother tongue of only 40 percent of India and therefore there were many safeguards to protect other languages. Besides Hindi, constitution recognized 21 another languages as scheduled languages. All the states had their own official language and much of government work took place in the official language of the concerned states. Our leaders adopted a cautious and vigilant attitude in spreading the use of Hindi in India. According to Indian constitution, the usage of English for official use has to be stopped by 1965 but many non-Hindi speaking states resented it violently and wanted to continue with English. In Tamil Nadu, the movement took ugly turn as it turned into violent agitation. Thereafter, Central government responded positively and agreed to continue with usage of English along with Hindi for official purposes. But still Government of India continues to have encouraged the promotion of Hindi in their official policy. It does not mean that central government can impose Hindi on states where people speaks their own regional languages.
3. Centre State Relations: - The concept of federalism was strengthened to large extent by restructuring of centre and state governments relationships. It also largely depends on how the leaders of ruling party follow these arrangements. In India, the same party ruled both at the centre and at the most of the states. It means that the state governments did not exercise their rights as autonomous federal units. There were occasions where the parties at centre and state were different and in such cases central government tried to undermine the powers of state government. In those days, central government misused the constitution to dismiss the state governments that were governed by opposition parties. It undermined the spirit of “federalism” to large extent. After 1990, there was significant changes as the country saw the rise of regional parties in many states of the country. It was the arrival of the era of “coalition governments” at the centre. It led to new culture of power sharing and created a respect for the autonomy of state governments. This new trend was supported by a major judgment of Supreme Court that made difficult for Central government to dismiss state governments in an illogical manner. Federal power sharing holds more significance in today’s time than in early years when constitution came into force.

Decentralisation in India

India is a vast country with various religions, regions, caste, areas and boundaries, so it cannot be run by two-tiers of governments. In terms of population and area, the states of India are as large as independent countries of Europe. Many states of India are very diverse and so there was need for power sharing within the state. The federal power sharing in India needed another tier of level of government that could work below state governments. This formed the foundation or basis for decentralisation of power. It resulted into third tier or level of government called “local government”. The word “decentralisation” means when power is taken away from central and state government and given to local government. The basic idea behind “decentralisation” was to solve problems and issues of residing citizens that can be best solved at local level. It was easy to participate and manage domestic issues at local level and even decision making become easier. It helped to instruct a habit of democratic participation. The importance and need for decentralisation was recognized by our constitution and there were several attempts to decentralise power to the level of villages and towns. In villages, it resulted in the form of “panchayats” while municipalities were set up in urban areas of town and city in all the states. Both “panchayats” and municipalities were directly under the control of state governments. These local governments did not have any power or resources of their own and elections to these governments were not held regularly. The decentralisation was very little in effective terms but major steps were taken in 1992. The constitution was amended to make “local government” or the third tier of government more powerful and effective.


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