India is a federal state. There are generally two types of states in the world. The state that has only one government for the entire country, which is known as unitary state. The United Kingdom has a unitary system. But there are states like United States of America and Canada which have governments at two levels: one at the central level and the other at the state level.

Besides having two sets of government, a federal system must have three other features:

  1. A written constitution
  2. Division of powers between the central government and the state governments
  3. Supremacy of judiciary to interpret the constitution

India also has a federal system having all these features, but with a difference. 

Characteristics of the Indian Federal System

1. Two-tier Government

There are two sets of government created by the Indian Constitution: one for the entire nation called the union government (central government) and another for each unit or State, called the State government. Besides the Union and State governments, local governments-both rural and urban- are also said to constitute another tier.

But constitutionally India has a two-tier government. The Constitution does not allocate separate set of powers to the local governments as these continues to be under their respective State governments.

2. Division of Powers

Like other federations, both the Union and the State governments have a constitutional status and clearly identified area of activity. The Constitution clearly divides the powers between the two sets of governments, so that the Centre and the States exercise their powers within their respective spheres of activity. None violates its limits and tries to encroach upon the functions of the other.

The division has been specified in the Constitution through three Lists: the Union List, the State List and the Concurrent List. The Union List consists of 97 subjects of national importance such as Defence, Railways, Post and Telegraph, etc. The State List consists of 66 subjects of local interest such as Public Health, Police, Local Self Government, etc. The Concurrent List has 47 subjects such as Education, Electricity, Trade Union, Economic and Social Planning, etc. On this List both the Union government and State governments have concurrent jurisdiction.

However, the Constitution assigns those powers on the subjects that are not enumerated under Union List, State List and Concurrent List to the Union government. Such powers are known as Residuary Powers. If there is any dispute about the division of powers, it can be resolved by the Judiciary on the basis of the constitutional provisions.

3. Written Constitution

India has a written Constitution which is supreme. It is also the source of power for both the sets of governments, the Union and the State. These governments are independent in their spheres of governance. Another feature of a federation is the rigid constitution. Although the Indian Constitution is not as rigid as the US Constitution, it is not a flexible constitution. It has unique blend of rigidity and flexibility.

4. Independence of Judiciary

Another very important feature of a federation is an independent judiciary to interpret the Constitution and to maintain its sanctity. The Supreme Court of India has the original jurisdiction to settle disputes between the Union and the States. It can declare a law as unconstitutional, if it contravenes any provision of the Constitution. The judiciary also has the powers to resolve disputes between the Union government and the State governments on the constitutional and legal matters related to the division of powers.

Indian Federal System with a Strong Centre

The Indian system appears to have all the features of a federal system. India is federal in form but unitary in spirit. Indian federal system has a strong Union government. This was deliberately done in the context of the prevailing situation on the eve of independence and in view of the socio-political situations. Apart from India being a vast country of continental dimensions, it has diversities and social pluralities.

The framers of the Constitution believed that we required a federal constitution that would accommodate diversities and pluralities. But when India attained independence, it was faced with challenges like maintaining unity and integrity and bringing about social, economic and political change. It was necessary for the Centre to have such powers because India at the time of independence was not only divided into Provinces created by the British but it also had more than 500 Princely States which had to be integrated into existing States or new States had to be created.

The Central government has been made strong deliberately. Besides the concern for unity, the makers of the Constitution also believed that the socio-economic problems of the country needed to be handled by a strong central government in cooperation with the States. Poverty, illiteracy, social inequalities and inequalities of wealth were some of the problems that required unified planning and coordination. Thus, the concerns for unity and development prompted the makers of the Constitution to create a strong central government.

1. The First Article of the Constitution itself hints at Indian federal system being different. It states that India shall be “a Union of States”. Nowhere does the Constitution describe India as a federal state. The Central government has sole power on the territory of India. The very existence of a State, including its territorial integrity is in the hands of the Parliament.

The Parliament is empowered to ‘form a new State by separation of territory from any State or by uniting two or more States. It can also alter the boundary of any State or even its name. However, the Constitution provides for some safeguards.The Central government must secure the view of the concerned State legislature on such decisions.

2. Secondly, the division of powers is in favour of the Union government. The Union List contains all the key subjects. Besides, even in relation to the Concurrent List the Constitution has assigned precedence to the Centre over States. In the situation of a conflict between laws made on any subject of the Concurrent List by a State and also by the Parliament, the law made by the Parliament would be effective. The Parliament may legislate even on a subject in the State List, if the situation demands that the Central government needs to legislate. This may happen, if the move is ratified by the Rajya Sabha.

3. Thirdly, the federal principle envisages a dual system of Courts. But, in India we have unified or integrated judiciary with the Supreme Court at the apex.

4. Fourthly, the Union government becomes very powerful when any of the three kinds of emergencies are proclaimed. The emergency can turn our federal polity into a highly centralised system. The Parliament also assumes the power to make laws on subjects within the jurisdiction of the States. In yet another situation, if there are disturbances in any State or part thereof, the Union Government is empowered to depute Central Force in the State or to the disturbed part of the State.

5. The Governor of the State is appointed by the President of India, i.e. the Union government. He or She has powers to report to the President, if there is a constitutional breakdown in the State and to recommend the imposition of President’s Rule. When the President’s Rule is imposed on the State, the State Council of Ministers is dismissed and the Governor rules over the State as a representative of the Central government.

The State legislature also may be dissolved or kept in suspended animation. Even in normal circumstances, the Governor has the power to reserve any bill passed by the State legislature for the assent of the President. This gives the Central government an opportunity to delay the State legislation and also to examine such bills and veto them completely.

6. The Central government has very effective financial powers and responsibilities. In the first place, items generating revenue are under the control of the Centre. The States are mostly dependent on the grants and financial assistance from the Central government. Moreover, India has adopted planning as the instrument of rapid economic progress and development after independence. This also has led to considerable centralisation of decision making.

7. Finally, according to the constitutional provisions, the executive powers of the Centre are superior to those of the States. The Central government may choose to give instructions to the State government. Moreover, we have an integrated administrative system. The All-India Services are common for the entire territory of India and officers chosen for these services serve in the administration of the 

States. Thus, an IAS officer who becomes the collector or an IPS officer who serves as the Commissioner of Police, are under the control of the Central government. States cannot take disciplinary action nor can they remove these officers from service.

There is a tilt in favour of the Centre at the cost of the States. The States have to work in close co-operation with the Centre. This has lent support to the contention that the Indian Constitution is federal in form but unitary in spirit. Constitutional experts have called it a ‘semi-federal’ or a ‘quasi federal’ system.

Demand for Greater Autonomy to States

The working of the Indian federation over the last six decades clearly shows that primarily because of the centralised federal system, the relations between the Centre and the States have not always been cordial. It is quite natural that the States would expect a greater role and powers in the governance of the State and the country as a whole. Which is why, from time to time, States have demanded that they should be given more powers and more autonomy.

With a view to seek solution, the Administrative Reforms Commission, Sarkaria Commission and several other Commissions were appointed by the Government of India. The core of important recommendations of various Commissions has accepted that there is no need to bring about changes in the fundamental fabric of the Constitution.

However, the need to have a permanent Inter-State Council has been felt. In addition, it is desired that both the Centre and the States should have the concern for the development of backward territories or areas. If economic development of these backward regions is undertaken in a planned manner, the separatist tendencies will be automatically controlled.

Differences between the Union and the States should be resolved by mutual consultation. The view on the demand of the States to provide more financial resources at their disposal has found favour. In order to improve Centre-State relations in the country, recommendations have been made for economic liberalisation and suitable amendments to the Constitution.