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archive: The autonomy virus

The autonomy virus

Arvind Lavakare
Rediff on Net
August 11, 1999


    Title: The autonomy virus
    Author: Arvind Lavakare 
    Publication: Rediff on Net
    Date: August 11, 1999 
    
    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?
    



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