Obstacles to cooperative federalism

Business Line, February 19, 2016

By Pradeep S Mehta

The bureaucracy has been unable to take it forward, thanks to its reluctance to share information and ideas

Having been a chief minister for long, Narendra Modi as Prime Minister has rightly put his weight behind cooperative and competitive federalism.

In March last year, I had elaborated in this column the relationship between the two in the context of development and growth in India in an article ‘What sort of Federalism do we want’? A year hence and things have become further clear on how crucial it is to get States on board to promote the idea of Team India.

For instance, the ‘Make in India’ initiative, including ease of doing business, is contingent upon factor markets which are either subjects in the State list or concurrent list. Likewise for public service delivery, States’ proactive stance right from designing their own schemes to delivery of services is the logical way forward. Tripura and Gujarat are quite different, and so are many other States with their own typical contours.

Joint efforts

In order to achieve this shared vision between federal units and their individual responsibilities towards national development, the government has created the NITI Aayog one year ago.

One of its mandates is cooperative federalism. It is still work in progress but as things are evolving one can expect it to deliver, mainly because of the leadership at the helm of this body and the political vicissitudes.

With the Prime Minister himself on the steering wheel along with noted economist, Arvind Panagariya, and an imaginative CEO, Amitabh Kant, expectations are aplenty from this body.

But to expect the NITI Aayog to deliver on all counts will be a fallacy. Cooperative federalism will require all actors and institutions to deliver both at the central and State level.

Significant among them will be the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers, but equally important is the role of other relevant institutions and the steel frame in achieving the objectives of cooperative federalism.

It is with respect to the latter that Prime Minister should be worried. Some of these ‘other’ institutions are just not up to the mark and are quite adept in being unable to think out of the box.

One such institution is the Inter State Council. Under its current mandate, which amongst other things, include addressing disputes between centre and States, the council could complement the objective of cooperative federalism.

A cold storage

But apart from the fact that it is severely understaffed and therefore inefficient, it is also a cold storage for underperforming bureaucrats thus making it doubly inefficient.

In my first-hand experience of working with the council to organise an International Conference on Cooperative Federalism, I was appalled to see that the sitting Secretary of Inter-State Council Secretariat, who happens to be a senior member of the prestigious ‘IAS’, does not even know the difference between holding a council meeting and organising a conference that had nothing to do with a council meeting. The council meeting has to be within the confines of the Presidential order which created it.This is symptomatic of a larger problem — the sheer inability of some of the top bureaucrats to understand their roles properly.

The tendency is to be least imaginative and least proactive. Further shocking is the fact that the same officer prevented conference papers written and vetted by experts on national perspectives from being circulated to international experts and participants in advance for the fear that the world would know too much about our weaknesses.

It may be pertinent to mention here that the conference was geared towards generating recommendations from international experiences on the topic of cooperative federalism relevant to the Indian context.

It was for this reason the conference was titled ‘International Conference on Cooperative Federalism: National Perspectives and International Experiences’.

Anyhow, the national perspectives were finally presented but only verbally and just before the international speakers spoke. This prevented what could have been a far more enriching discussion. The Inter State Council at some point will submit the key recommendations from this conference to the government and hopefully they will be put out in the public domain as well. So, there is no point in repeating what one may eventually see. For now it will serve well to focus on some of the lessons which may not find mention in that document.

Process of evolution

The first is that cooperative federalism is not a theoretical subject, rather it is a practice under a continuous process of evolution.

Therefore, what is important is to not to merely focus on the good practices but to also focus on the processes of arriving at a good practice.

Second, if we really want to learn from other countries, there is a need to engage with them in further detail and share with them the weaknesses that we acknowledge. Unfortunately, the civil servants are all too wary of speaking about such weaknesses. They would rather work with the weaknesses than work towards their reform. This means that we will never move anywhere and the world will stand still.

Third, there are also lessons from within India on cooperative federalism which must be given due attention. For instance, Karnataka has a body similar to the National Development Council which facilitates better consultations between States and local bodies.

Cooperative federalism is not only an exercise limited between political heads of States and Union. It requires an active role on part of the steel frame and its ability to deliver.

In fact, the unique all India service would do well to redeem itself if it can really act as bridge between centre and States — it is for this precise purpose it was created but we all know where we stand.

The writer is secretary general of CUTS International.

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