7 PM Editorial |Pandemic and Federalism|18th September 2020

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Pandemic and Federalism

Topic: GS-2, Polity

Sub-Topic – Issues and Challenges Pertaining to the Federal Structure.

Overview – The need to restructure the 7th Schedule of the Constitution.

Introduction:

There has been a raging debate regarding the distribution of subjects in the 7th schedule of the constitution. Bibek Debroy wanted rationalisation of Centrally Sponsored Schemes arguing, why the centre should spend on subjects like health and why the states should not spend on national defence. There was a counter argument by M Govinda Rao who argued that defence is a “national public good” and has to be a Union subject. He argued that division of subjects should be on the basis of respective comparative advantage which is why national public goods are in the federal domain and state-level public service are in the state domain.

So what is the appropriate framework to decide the distribution of powers?

India’s response to the coronavirus pandemic provides a lesson in understanding what the distribution of powers should be like. The pandemic has affected more than 5 million and resulted in a loss in excess of 80000 lives. There was an initial unilateral lockdown by the centre. However, it has eventually moved on to working with the states towards a collective response. Also, the most cynical of the chief ministers professed working with the Centre and other states to deal with a variety of challenges posed by the pandemic. This exigency response will help us a great deal in understanding Centre-state relations as well as in improving mechanisms of federal governance.

So how should federal distribution of powers be reorganised?
  1. The Centre’s efforts are now primarily focused on achieving economies of scale in vaccine procurement, knowledge production for setting standards and guidelines for the states, and mitigating inter-state externalities. States continue to play the dominant role in the execution of the actual response to the health crisis. This shows that the fundamental principles of comparative advantage should prevail.
  2. The Centrally Sponsored Schemesmust continue but they should be restructured.
  3. There is a need for an appropriate forumto discuss the complex and contentious issue of reviewing federal organisation of powers and restructuring of central transfers.
  4. Some subjects need to put in the concurrent list. Eg. Health where the states have limited power to spend and the Centre invariably has to spend.

There were different committees who recommended the change of lists in case of some of the subjects.

  1. A High-Level Group, constituted by the 15th Finance Commission, recommended shifting health from the State to the Concurrent List.
  2. A similar recommendation was made earlier by the Ashok Chawla Committeefor water.

But is such shifting of subjects from the State to Concurrent List really feasible in these times of acute sub-nationalism, deep territorialisation and competitive federalism?

That seems unlikely. However the emerging challenges are linked to either the State List subjects or the ones that rely on actions by states — water, agriculture, biodiversity, pollution, climate change. This shows the need to pursue the change.

So what can be done to address the issue?

The states should continue to play a dominant role in these aspects. However, the Centre must expand its role beyond the mitigation of inter-state externalities and address the challenges of security and sustainability.

Conclusion:

The GST reforms is the most recent instance of such reworking of the Centre-state roles for a greater and collective goal. A similar consensus-building for sectors like health, rural development and agriculture can be achieved through GST Council like institution- Inter-State Council.

Source: The Indian Express

Mains Question:
  1. The COVID-19 pandemic provides a clue to how the federal distribution of powers need to be reorganised. In light of this, suggest the broad contours of the redistribution of powers in the 7th schedule.
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