Federalism in India

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This article is written by Tasneem Hussain Legal content writer at Lawyers Troop

Federalism in india


We shall focus on what features of the Governance structure of India makes it a Quasi-Federal Nation and how Unitary powers are exercised over the State powers. We shall also focus on how both the Union and State Government, exercising their federal powers, are fighting against the ongoing pandemic, COVID-19.

Introduction to Federalism

Federalism is a principle of decentralization of powers between the Central Authority and its Subordinates in order to ease the functioning of the Government. There are various characteristics of a federal structure of governance. The most essential is the division of powers between two or more levels of governance. The exercise of these powers is on the same set of citizens however, their domains and jurisdiction differ.

Federalism brings with it not just powers but also duties to be performed by the different levels in their respective domains. This opens up paths for revenue and expense sharing systems which are mutually decided by the levels of the Government.

Federalism is a principle that needs to be supported by the laws of that nation without which its practice is futile. Therefore, the Constitution and the Judiciary also plays an important role in practicing federalism.

History of Federalism in India

India has seen various administrative patterns in different eras by different rulers. As being under the governance of these various rulers, India has seen a legacy of governance which is inspired by different theories and practices be it Dictatorship, Company rule or Democracy. The concept of federalism was first introduced in the Government of India Act, 1919 which provided for the separation of the Central and State subjects and provided jurisdictions over it for the purpose of governance.

The Simon Commission Report of 1930 suggested that India should be completely federalized. Later, the Government of India Act, 1935 established that the Indian Federal State shall include the British-Indian Provinces and the Princely States.1 It provided for a centralized federation with a considerable amount of autonomy to the provinces.

The Federal structure was inspired by the Canadian, American and Australian constitutions and models. During the period of Independence, when our Constituent Assembly was determined in laying the foundation of democracy, there were contrasting opinions as to the centralization of powers. Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar were in favor of a unitary system of governance whereas Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhai Patel were against it and suggested a decentralized system of governance. They finally came to an agreement where India was to be known as a “Union of States” which eliminated the idea of dual citizenship and provided for single citizenship provisions.

However, this federal structure was planned to grant more powers to the Centre as compared to the State. B.R. Ambedkar stated in a report of the Constituent Assembly that. “it would be injurious to the interests of the country to provide for a weak central authority which could be incapable of ensuring peace and also of coordinating vital matters of common concern2

India as a Federal State

Nowhere in the Constitution of India, is the word “federalism” mentioned. India as a federal state is referred through “Union of India”. In the current structure of governance, Union Government and the State Government, though being independent, work mutually. The Constitution of India provides the subjects on which the Union and States hold authority to legislate. These subjects are provided in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India which has provision of three lists namely the Union List, the State List and the Concurrent List. These lists clearly mark the jurisdictions of the Centre and State on various subjects. The Constitution in Part XI also establishes the various legislative and administrative relations between the Centre and the State.

However, India is not considered entirely as a Federal State. Most scholars term India as a Quasi-Federal State. Mr. Narayan Ramchandran states that “The Indian Nation is a federation with Unitary bias.”3 He uses the term “Unitary Bias” because of the Centre’s power to legislate on residual issues which are not covered under the Union, State or Concurrent Lists. It is true that Unitary powers shall mostly prevail in various circumstances where the Centre and State are at conflict. The federal structure is safeguarded by the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court resolves any dispute between the Centre and State or between different states. “The Indian Nation is a federation with Unitary bias.”

Unitary Features of the Constitution of India

In the case of The State of West Bengal vs. Union of India4, the Supreme Court stated that our Constitution is not of a true or traditional pattern of Federation. In the case of The State of Rajasthan vs. Union of India5, the Supreme Court held that “whatever appearance of a federal structure our Constitution may have, judging by the contents of the power which a number of provisions carry with them and the use made of them, is in its operation, more unitary than federal.” The constitution of India provides various provisions that are Unitary in nature.

  1. More Number of Subjects under the Union List than the State List.6
  2. Even in matters under the State List, the Parliament can legislate on those matters and therefore the State does not have absolute authority to make laws on those subjects.
  3. States do not have Right to Territorial Integrity7
  4. States cannot interfere in the matters of Election Commission.8
  5. Appointment of the Governor of the State is done by the President9 and the State Government has no role to play in it.
  6. The State does not have any authority to provide citizenship to any person. There is only a single citizenship principle in India power of which remains with the Union.10
  7. Financial autonomy of the State is also restricted as the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India look into States’ finances and he is appointed by the President.11
  8. The Centre has control over various All India Services. The State plays no roles in the appointing candidates of these fields.12
  9. The Judiciary is not split but is one. The Supreme Court functions at the highest level and the High Courts functions subordinate to it.
  10. In emergency situations, the State loses all its powers and the Central Government has autonomy over all the issues of the Country.13
  11. States does not have any power to frame their own Constitution.14 There is only one Constitution of India, which contains both the Centre and State’s interests.

Challenges Faced by the Indian Federation

The upper hand of the Union and its power in making decision has caused various conflicts in the federal behaviour of the nation. The Indian structure of federalism though have proved effective in many ways, it has also surfaced many challenges that create disputes between the functioning of the Centre and State and their relations. A few challenges are discussed below:

  • Limited Sovereignty of States

Due to the various unitary features of the Constitution of India, States enjoy lesser sovereignty which poses the major challenge to federalism in India.15

  • The Language barriers

Various States prefer to use their regional languages which are constituted under the Eight Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Differences of dialects occur within the same language which might cause a threat to federalism when one language or dialect is forced upon the other. Even today, various states question the status of the two official languages of India.

  • Economy

Various economical decisions may give rise to a conflict between the Centre and State. Autonomy in making decisions regarding the economy might get hindered which shall imbalance the federation.

  • Communication Barriers

Establishing touch with all units at times create problems which results in hampering the federal structure. Also, the physical and external environment and forces create glitches.

Federalism in Emergencies

In the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, the working of the States along with the Centre has been evident. Although, the state has taken the upper hand in fighting the disease, states have come forward with their own plans in regard with centre’s policies. B.R. Ambedkar stated in his report in the Constituent Assembly that “It is unitary in extra-ordinary circumstances such as war and other calamities and federal under normal circumstances” In such an emergency, both the Centre and the State need to work hand-in-hand.

For example, when the Union announced a country-wide lockdown for 21 days ending on 14th April 2020, many states declared the lockdown to last till 30th April. Even in other operations of tackling the pandemic, various states have made their own policies regarding curfew, or shop permits etc. However, these policies are in regard with that of the Union. Therefore, it is clear that in such situations, the Unitary rules shall prevail over the rules formed by the States.


It cannot be denied that India, though being a federal nation, have shown some extent of centralization of powers. There is no doubt that the Unitary powers on residual subjects and the fact that Union’s decision prevails over that of the State have revealed the features of India being a Quasi-Federal Nation. However, it is important that in circumstances of emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, both the Union and the States need to exercise their authority with diligence, care and in regard with each other.


  1. Dr. Mukesh Kumar, Nature of Indian Federalism, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Invention, Volume 7, Issue 1
  2. A Probe into A Federal Structure as Envisaged by Constituent Assembly, Chapter Two, Shodhganga
  3. [1] Narayan Ramchandran, The State of Indian Federation, Livemint, 25 July, 2015
  4. 1964 SCR (1) 371
  5. 1963 AIR 1241
  6. Constitution of India, Schedule VII
  7. Constitution of India, Article 3
  8. Constitution of India, Article 324
  9. Constitution of India, Article 155
  10. Constitution of India, Article 11
  11. Constitution of India, Article 148
  12. Profile – The Union – Public Services – Know India: National Portal of India.
  13. Constitution of India, Article 353
  14. KNOWLEDGE G., Polity, T. and Singh, H., Jagran josh
  15. A Challenge to Indian Federalism, The Hindu

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