How Centralization of power with the Union and the States creates barriers between the citizens and the state
(by Shivakumar Jolad and Mehr Kalra)
The passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill (2023) is seen as a landmark moment for women’s empowerment in India. The Act reserves one-third of all seats for women in Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies to women, including those reserved for the SCs and STs. This is conditional upon the delimitation exercise to be carried post the Census of 2024 (or whenever it happens). It brought back the question of delimitation of Parliamentary Constituencies, which has been frozen since 1976 (based on 1971 Census). While Delimitation does bring with itself the possibility of better representation in the parliament, it also opens up the pandora box of North-South faultline in Indian Politics, asymmetric federalism with dominant Center, and irrelevance of disempowered local governments.
India has the largest number of elected representatives at around 3.1 million elected from over 260,000 Panchayats. In comparison only a small number ~4200 (0.15%) represent state legislative assemblies and councils, and an even tinier number ~793 (~0.026%) are there in the parliament. Rest all come from the pool of panchayat members and urban local bodies. Yet for the commoner and the media, politics means the MLAs and the MPs, who dominate news and movies. Most urbanites don’t even know their ward member or Mayor. India’s constitutional design has ensured that politics has distanced the elected from the electors. An average person in India would have never met/interacted with the MLAs and MPs they elected.
The average MP represents 2.5 million people, more than three times what the Constitution envisioned in 1950. In contrast, countries like the UK, Germany and even China each have less than 500,000 per member of Parliament. The value of the vote depends on where the person is born, as the parliamentary seats for states were frozen fifty years ago, based on the 1971 Census. In Bihar, one MP represents approximately 3.1 million citizens, whereas in Kerala, one MP represents about 1.75 million citizens. (Shruti Rajgopalan, 2023). Shruti Rajgopalan(2023)s analysis shows that If we fix the ratio of one MP to 750,000 population as per the 1950 Constitution, the Lok Sabha seats would expand to 1,872 seats in the present day.
The framers of India’s Constitution, a diverse group of elites in the Constituent Assembly, created an asymmetric Federal structure for the Nation. This federalism was characterized by unequal powers and power dynamics in political, administrative, and fiscal matters between the Union (central government) and the states. Unlike the United States, where states voluntarily came together to form a Union, in India, it’s the Union that defines and delineates states. The Constitution rests on excessive power with the Union. It can redraw the boundaries of states (linguistic reorganization), split it without the state’s consent (Kashmir), dismiss state governments at will (President rule), retain a lion’s share of the taxes (GST), create centralized welfare schemes (PDS, Employment, Housing etc; many with name and face of the prime Ministers, with an intention to promote party’s ideology), legislate laws in concurrent list, which supersede any state laws. The Union government uses central agencies to harass state officials (ED and CBI), often to arm-twist the opposition party members and officials who don’t toe the line.
Since the state is so distant from the people- it can not connect personally with people. The Nation and the states have resorted to technocracy to command and control all the program implementation on the ground (such as MNREGA, DBTs, Aadhaar in PDS and Ujjwala scheme). Technocracy is replacing bureaucracy and is taking the role of Central planner and implementer. Central planning which failed in the Nehruvian and Indira eras, is now replaced by Techno-planning- control everything through tech platforms and dashboards. Technology lacks local knowledge and is less adaptive than humans. It brings rigidity and conformity when there is diversity and variability across the length and breadth of the country. The digital divide characterized by a lack of access to digital devices, internet, bandwidth, and poor digital literacy erects the digital barriers to utilizing technocratic governance solutions.
States and homogenization of identity
Many states in India surpass the size of European countries in population. If Uttar Pradesh were a country, it would have become the fourth largest country in the world (235 million, projected population 2021), surpassing Brazil. Maharashtra and Bihar would lie among the top 10. Like the Nation, states in India are highly diverse in language, culture, geography, and ethnicity. When Linguistic reorganization promotes linguistic homogenization within states- rather than protecting linguistic diversity, states become agents for promoting political ideology along communal, linguistic and caste lines.
The nine “Hindi states” of North India, have chosen one standard form of Hindi as the official language, ignoring the fifty-two major dialects (many of which qualify as language according to linguists), and several “other” mother tongues spoken by more than 16.7 million speakers. By controlling the school curriculum (especially history and politics)- it extols selective state idols and singular history, dismissing numerous regional histories and heroes, and promotes monolingualism, dismissing languages of tribals and minorities.
Domination of State and Disempowered Local Governments
The second level of asymmetric Federalism is evident from the state’s control over their subunits of governments in districts, cities, towns, and villages. The states have their agents in every district and city (Commissioners- Districts, Municipal commissioners), and created multiple parastatal agencies (for water supply, Urban planning, building metro lines etc.) to control the local administration. The number of districts has increased from 310 in 1951 to 640 in 2011, to over 700 now (recently Rajasthan created 19 new districts and 3 new divisions). States have renamed districts (such as Prayagraj(Allahabad) Uttar Pradesh: Sambhajinagar (Aurangabad), Dharashiv (Osmanabad), and Ahilya Nagar (Ahmednagar) in Maharashtra; Narmadapuram (Hoshangabad) in Madhya Pradesh- to name a few), ignoring the rich local history and culture associated with the historical names. Districts have been split and merged as per the whims and fancies of the ruling party.
The constitution (even after the 73rd and 74th amendments) and the state have accumulated power to the extent that local bodies have become largely irrelevant in policymaking. Consequently, local governments have been reduced to local bodies in the Urban areas. Elected ward members in Cities have no fiscal authority and autonomy and are subservient to both the state and, the executive arm of the Municipality and Municipal corporations. Even after 30 years of the 73rd and 74th amendments, the local government expenditure as a percentage of GDP is only two per cent, This is extremely low when compared to other major emerging economies such as China (11 per cent) and Brazil (seven per cent).
While, states are at the mercy of the Union Finance Commission, Municipalities and Panchayats are at the mercy of the State Finance Commission. The power to raise their own tax has been curtailed. The Union government spreads its arm in cities through its schemes and programmes- like the Urban housing schemes, JNNRUM (now AMRUT-Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation ), smart city mission and metro projects in big cities- all with little involvement of urban local governments. The centre gets to decide the housing scheme, and its beneficiaries in cities, send its agents for smart cities under the Special purpose vehicles. Similarly, states and their functionaries decide what roads and bridges to build and what name should be given, and control urban schools and health centres. Local governments are reduced to mere implementers of Central and state government programs, with little discretionary power over funds, functions, and functionaries. Moreover, Local elections have been reduced to a preparation ground for state politics.
In spite of a 99.8% share of elected representatives, the share of employment under local governments ranges between 12 to 14% of all government employees (average between 1980–2012). In contrast, in China and the United States, local government employees are more than 50% of total public employees. Local government employees in India decreased from around 3200 per million in 1971 to 2100 per million in 2011. India’s total government expenditure is 30% of GDP, yet Urban local bodies spend only 1% of the GDP (Kapur, 2020). The local government expenditure (including smaller towns and village panchayats) is a mere 3 per cent of the total government expenditure in India, the rest 97% is spent by the state and the union government. In contrast, local government expenditures constitute 27 per cent in the United States and almost 51 per cent in China, of their respective government spending. India’s local democracy is huge in electoral size. but extremely weak in terms of funds and functionaries.
In the Indian constitution of 1950, Panchayats were relegated to directive principles of state policy and Municipal bodies were left to the discretion of the state governments. Ambedkar had feared village politics and power capture by the upper caste elites if local governments were constitutionalised. In his thesis, Madhav Khosla (2017) argues that the act of separating power from local actors was seen as a means to enable the progressive exercise of power. The demarcation between the state and society became less distinct as political authority trickled down. Kapur (2020) further noted that policies, often initially driven by progressive intentions, were formulated by national elites who were relatively isolated from broader society.
The adoption of the Western parliamentary system with direct election to state and national-level representatives has created a gap between electors and the elected. Centralized top-down political and administrative system, created barriers between the citizens and the state. Citizens are distanced from state affairs and made victims of vested political decisions and bureaucratic apathy.
Shivakumar Jolad works as an Associate Professor of Public Policy and a member of the FLAME Center for Legislative Education and Research
Mehr Kalra works as Research Assistant at the FLAME University, Pune. She graduated with Masters in Developmental Studies at Azim Premji University, Bangalore in 2023.