Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Cooperative Federalism or Unitary State?

Samuel Philip Mathew

In January 2015, ahead of its first full-fledged budget, the present NDA Government at the Centre had announced the scrapping of the Planning Commission. The announcement of a NITI Aayog to replace the Planning Commission was a regressive step which further pushed the country into a market driven economy and privatization in all spheres, at the expense of diluting even the inadequate schemes aimed at improving people’s welfare that existed then. Whatever role the Planning Commission had in allocating resources for the public sector and deploying public investment keeping in mind the regional disparities has now ended.

The old Planning Commission was an instrument of the Central Government, with the states having no say in the allocation of resources. However, the Modi’s claim that the new set-up would be based on cooperative federalism* with the states as stake-holders has turned out to be a spurious one. The National Development Council, to which the Planning Commission reported, was not a statutory body. It was a forum where state chief ministers expressed themselves, not just on issues affecting their own states but on national development issues. The centre was under some pressure at its meetings to accommodate states’ demands. In January 2016, a year after the dismantling of the Planning Commission, the Central Government made it clear that it wished to completely replace the National Development Council by the Governing Council of NITI Aayog, which is a powerless body, designed to work like a think-tank. That think tank is under the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister's Office. This is in essence a centralized unitarian structure.

Moreover, since allocations to the states are now being decided by the Finance Ministry. The states are subjected to the political whims of the Central government. By saying "one size fits all" cannot work, what was done was to put the states at the mercy of the Centre to be dealt with arbitrarily, without any common principles and norms. This has dangerously opened new doors for political bargaining and deal making. Underlying the abolition of the concept of the Planning Commission, was the NDA Government's ideological conviction that public resources should be put at the disposal of the private sector and the market forces. With this, the role of the State in ensuring the citizens the fundamental rights and fulfilling the Directive Principles of the Constitution regarding education, health, food security and livelihood, has been abandoned.

These centralising measures constitute an essential element of the neo-liberal strategy, and were being introduced by the previous UPA government as well. But the present NDA government, with its unquestioned and single-minded loyalty to the corporate-financial oligarchy, which had spent massively to ensure its coming to power, is pursuing this agenda with a relentlessness that is quite unprecedented. Neo-liberalism always wants a centralisation of power and resources in the hands of a union government that is sympathetic to corporate interests, so that the states, devoid of resources, will then be constrained to entice such corporate elements into their domains, as the only possible means of bringing about any investment and growth. Neo-liberalism wants,, in short, a destruction of any authentic federalism that allows leeway to states for pursuing divergent strategies, including strategies that do not strictly conform to the demands of the corporate-financial oligarchy. The abolition of the Planning Commission and the National Development Council were in line with this neo-liberal agenda.

This attempt at the complete destruction of our federal structure has come to the fore, more visibly, with the recent Niti Aayog’s ‘instruction’ to collectors. Bypassing the state government, the Niti Aayog has asked the district collectors to convene grama sabhas on January 26, the Republic Day, to get feedbacks on the aspirations and priorities of citizens regarding the formulation of a vision document envisaged by the Prime Minister. As March 31 will mark the end of Five-Year Plan concept in the country, following the dismantling of the Planning Commission, the Central Government is coming up with a 15 year vision document comprising of 3 year action agenda and a 7 year strategy document.

The letter from Niti Aayog's chief executive officer Amitabh Kant on January 11, has requested all district collectors to prepare a one page document listing the suggestions and priorities of the citizens from every grama sabha and forward it to the agency by January 31, after convening a ‘special grama sabha’ on January 26. The letter also said that ‘Once collated, the national priorities will be taken into serious consideration in drafting India's vision document and shall also be presented as Citizen's Vision of India to the Prime Minister’.

No communication in this regard has been made to the State Governments and the letter has directly been sent to the district collectors. This is the second instance in which the Niti Aayog has directly given instructions to the district collectors. The earlier one was with regards to the steps to be taken to reduce the hardships of the public pertaining to the demonetisation issue. It is alarming that the Niti Aayog is operating an informal WhatsApp group meant for the Digital India initiative in which only the Niti Aayog officials and the district collectors are the members. Not only is the bypassing of the State Governments unconstitutional, the district collectors are in no way empowered to convene a grama sabha meeting. According to the Panchayati Raj Act, the power to convene grama sabhas rests with the respective local bodies. Therefore, it is both unconstitutional as well as against the spirit of federalism.

If at all the Prime Minister was serious about formulating a Citizen’s Vision of India, it would have been appropriate to convene a meeting of the Inter-State Council to draft it. It would have ensured that the citizens voices from all across the country is recorded. Considering the fact that this is the second instance where the State Governments have been bypassed by the NITI Aayog, it is clear, that this is a deliberate and planned effort at destabilising and dismantling the federal structure of our country. India being a country that is inhibited by several nationalities, it is imperative that the federal structure of our country is upheld without fail, to ensure that the spirit of equality, brotherhood and justice as envisaged in our constitution prevails. Such nefarious designs would eventually deal a body blow to the unity and diversity of our country. Yet, no strong opposition to such dubious measures of the Central Government and the NITI Aayog have been expressed and that is concerning, to put it mildly.


*It is said that the Prime Minister kept quiet when the Tripura Chief Minister, Manik Sarkar asked him what he meant by Cooperative Federalism. One is not sure, if the Prime Minister was hinting that Cooperative Federalism means to keep quiet.

The Author is a Research Associate at C-DIT, Trivandrum.

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