Blog Symposium on Law & Political Economy after COVID

Federalism in India after Covid: Introduction to the Theme

Dr Amal Sethi


This post introduces the first theme for our Symposium on Law and Political Economy in India After Covid.

The three posts on the theme can be found here: fiscal federalism, inter-state cooperation and centre-state cooperation.

Federalism is a mode of political organization that unites separate states or other polities within an overarching political system in a way that allows each to maintain its integrity. We often think of Federalism as the key to the running of a polity as large and diverse as India. Yet, there is very little understanding of how Federalism works in India. Despite being thought of as a key reason why India manages to work and sustain, questions regarding Federalism are rarely a part of the mainstream discourse. Curiously, Federalism in India has barely even managed to scrape the surface of academic conversations –  which usually deliberates and dissects the minutest of details in Indian Constitutionalism.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed this as seen here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. The pandemic showed us the cracks in our system and the challenges that come with a federal structure of government where power is distributed at different levels. Initial actions aimed at addressing the pandemic brought into the limelight several important legal and practical questions. In fact, a lack of coordination and clarity with questions regarding Indian Federalism was partially responsible for one of the largest internally displaced individuals’ crises in global history and continues to be the reason behind its proper resolution.

This Blog Symposium organized by the student wing of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, the Kautilya Society, in partnership with the Young Scholars Initiative is an attempt to discuss and deliberate some of these questions. For example, even though public health is the exclusive domain of states, they are grossly underfunded to deal with the same. In such a situation “How does revenue shortages affecting states’ capacity to deal with COVID-19, and the responsibilities owed by the centre in this regard.” Further, the centre needs the administrative apparatus of the states to implement its lockdown policies or to conduct oversight. In such a scenario, “What responsibilities are owed by states to the centre?” On the other hand, the earlier mentioned migrant crisis cannot be resolved with different states looking at the issue differently. This leads to another significant question “In India’s federal structure, what is the relationship between states” and “ What are the responsibilities owed by them to each other.”

This symposium will use three students articles published on the LSPR Blog by Tejas Popat on Fiscal Federalism, Ragini Agarwal on Cooperative Federalism and Anubhav Khamroi on Centre-State Coordination as the focal point of its discussions. These student articles collectively show and argue – How better fiscal planning would need to address union territories that often get left out of the debate but are nonetheless essential parts of India; How cooperative Federalism would require more clear demarcation of power and the centre to respect the states authorities and not infringe on their domains; and How for the better addressing of national crises such as the COVID-Pandemic, the centre would need to activate institutional mechanisms set up to ensure Federalism can work.

However, the issues confronting Federalism are not just restricted to what is mentioned in the three student papers and the challenges highlighted above. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us an excellent opportunity to reflect upon our federal system and think of better ways to not only make the system work but also to reform the system. These would require us to question the virtues of Federalism and the current federal structure; to think about which levels of governance have the best capacity to deal with issues concerning the day to day life of people; and to deliberate whether the current federal structure needs reform and if so how would these reforms look like. Consequently, this symposium will even seek to address these fundamental questions concerning Federalism with the hope that it gets people thinking about questions vital to India’s day to day workings.

Dr Sethi is a Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania where he researches on comparative constitutionalism with an emphasis on courts, constitutions and democracy.

Picture Credits: Bloomberg Quint