The Concept of Federalism in India: Challenges and Features

Federalism in India is not merely a constitutional arrangement but a reflection of the diverse and pluralistic nature of the country. Enshrined in the Constitution of India, the concept of federalism plays a crucial role in the distribution of powers and responsibilities between the central government and the states. This article explores the nuances of federalism in the Indian context, examining its historical roots, constitutional provisions, and its impact on governance.

Federal System – Two Types of Federations

In a federal system, two autonomous seats of power exist, each operating independently within its designated spheres. This system differs from a unitary one as it constitutionally divides sovereignty between two territorial levels, allowing each level autonomy in specific areas.

There are two primary types of federations:

  • Holding Together Federation: In this type, powers are shared among various constituent parts to accommodate diversity within the entire entity. Generally, authority leans towards the central power. Examples of this type include India, Spain, and Belgium.
  • Coming Together Federation: In this type, independent states unite to form a larger unit. States in this federation enjoy more autonomy compared to the holding together type. Examples include the USA, Australia, and Switzerland.

Challenges Faced by Indian Federalism

  • Regionalism:

The emergence of regional parties and movements centered around linguistic, ethnic, religious, or cultural identities has emerged as a formidable challenge to India’s national integration and unity. Some regions or groups have advocated for increased autonomy, special status, or even secession from the Indian union. Notable instances include the demand for Gorkhaland in West Bengal, Bodoland in Assam, etc.

  • Division of Powers:

Clarity and balance in the division of powers between the Centre and the states remain elusive. The Center possesses more powers and resources, enabling interference in state affairs through means such as President’s rule, the role of Governors, and central laws. This results in limited autonomy and fiscal space for states to pursue their development and welfare policies. Instances like the imposition of President’s rule in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in 2016, later revoked by the Supreme Court, exemplify this challenge.

  • Absence of Fiscal Federalism:

Equitable and transparent fiscal relations between the Center and states are lacking. The Center collects the majority of taxes and distributes them at its discretion or according to set criteria. States depend on the Center for grants-in-aid, loans, and other transfers, leading to limited taxation powers and borrowing capacities. Concerns have been raised by states regarding inadequate compensation for revenue losses due to GST implementation.

  • Unequal Representation of Units:

The representation of states in the Parliament and other federal institutions is not proportionate to their population, area, or contribution. Some states are over-represented, while others are under-represented, impacting their voice and influence in national decision-making and resource allocation. For instance, Uttar Pradesh has 80 Lok Sabha seats, while Sikkim has only one.

  • Centralized Amendment Power:

The authority to amend the Constitution rests solely with Parliament, requiring a special majority. States have no role or say in the amendment process, except in select matters affecting them. Decisions such as the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories in 2019 were made without consulting the state government or other stakeholders. Similarly, the creation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh in 2014 faced opposition from the latter, resulting in protests and violence.

Importance of Strengthening Federalism

  • Preserving Diversity and Pluralism:

Strengthening federalism is crucial to safeguard and maintain the rich diversity and pluralism inherent in India’s society. It serves as a protective shield against pressures for homogenization and assimilation emanating from the central government or dominant groups, ensuring the preservation of various aspects such as culture, language, religion, and more.

  • Safeguarding Autonomy and Rights:

The reinforcement of federalism is essential to protect and enhance the autonomy and rights of states and other sub-national units. This becomes particularly significant in countering the trends of increasing centralization and external interference, empowering regional entities to govern themselves effectively.

  • Improving Quality and Efficiency of Governance:

Federalism plays a pivotal role in enhancing the quality and efficiency of governance and service delivery at different levels. By granting states and sub-national units the authority to formulate and implement policies tailored to their specific needs and capacities, federalism ensures a more responsive and effective governance structure.

  • Promoting Balanced and Inclusive Development:

The strengthening of federalism is necessary to promote balanced and inclusive development across all regions and sections of India. By facilitating an equitable and transparent distribution of resources and opportunities among various levels of government, federalism contributes to the overall welfare and development of the nation.

  • Fostering Harmony and Cooperation:

Federalism fosters and sustains harmony and cooperation among different levels or units of government. It provides a mechanism for resolving disputes and conflicts through dialogue and consultation rather than resorting to confrontation and coercion. This collaborative approach contributes to a more cohesive and cooperative governance framework.

Institutions Promoting Federalism in India

  • The Supreme Court:

As the apex judicial body, the Supreme Court serves as the guardian and interpreter of the Constitution. It plays a crucial role in adjudicating disputes between the Centre and states or among states, thereby upholding the principles of federalism.

  • The Inter-State Council:

Established under Article 263 of the Constitution, the Inter-State Council acts as a constitutional body facilitating coordination and cooperation between the Centre and states on matters of common interest. Comprising the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers of all states, Chief Ministers of union territories with legislatures, and nominated central ministers, it promotes federal collaboration.

  • The Finance Commission:

Constituted under Article 280 of the Constitution, the Finance Commission recommends the distribution of revenues between the Centre and states. By suggesting measures to augment state resources and providing grants-in-aid to states in need, it contributes to maintaining fiscal balance in the federal structure.

  • The NITI Aayog:

Established in 2015 to replace the Planning Commission, the NITI Aayog acts as a think tank and advisory body for economic and social development. With representation from the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, and other members, it fosters cooperative federalism by involving states in policy formulation and implementation.

Ways to Strengthen Federalism in India

  • Enhancing Devolution of Powers and Resources:

Strengthening federalism involves enhancing devolution by revising constitutional lists, increasing the states’ share in central taxes, and providing fiscal autonomy. This ensures a more balanced distribution of powers and resources to states and local bodies.

  • Ensuring Greater Representation and Participation:

Federalism can be reinforced by involving states in national decision-making processes. Increased representation in federal institutions such as the GST Council, Inter-State Council, and NITI Aayog ensures a more participatory approach to policy formulation and implementation.

  • Fostering Cooperative and Competitive Federalism:

Encouraging states to collaborate on common issues, promoting best practices, and creating incentives for performance enhances cooperative and competitive federalism. This approach encourages states to work together, fostering healthy competition and innovation.

  • Addressing Regional Imbalances and Inequalities:

To strengthen federalism, it is crucial to address regional imbalances. Providing special assistance to backward regions, ensuring fair resource allocation, and creating regional development councils contribute to a more balanced and equitable distribution of opportunities.

  • Respecting Federal Principles and Spirit:

Maintaining the strength of federalism requires a commitment to federal principles and spirit. Adhering to constitutional provisions, avoiding unilateral actions, and resolving disputes through dialogue or judicial mechanisms contribute to a harmonious federal structure.

Federal Features of the Indian Union

  • Governments at Two Levels:

The Indian Union operates with governments at two levels – the central and state governments, each possessing distinct powers and responsibilities.

  • Division of Powers:

Powers are divided between the centre and states through three lists in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution – Union List, State List, and Concurrent List.

  • Supremacy of the Constitution:

The constitution holds supreme authority, and its basic structure is deemed indestructible by the judiciary.

  • Independent Judiciary:

An independent and integrated judiciary is established, comprising lower and district courts, state-level high courts, and the Supreme Court.

Unitary Features of the Indian Union

  • Flexibility of the Constitution:

The constitution blends flexibility and rigidity, allowing for certain provisions to be easily amended while making amendments related to federalism challenging.

  • Centralized Power:

More powers are guaranteed to the Centre, especially through the Union List. Parliament can override state laws on Concurrent List subjects.

  • Unequal Representation in Rajya Sabha:

Representation in the Rajya Sabha is based on population, leading to unequal representation among states.

  • Executive as Part of Legislature:

The executive in both the Centre and states is part of the legislature, deviating from the principle of the separation of powers.

  • Lok Sabha Dominance:

The Lok Sabha holds more power than the Rajya Sabha, contradicting federalism principles.

  • Emergency Powers:

Emergency powers granted to the Centre during emergencies increase control over states, undermining their autonomy.

  • Integrated Judiciary:

The judiciary is integrated, with no separate judiciary at the central and state levels.

  • Single Citizenship:

India follows a single citizenship model, fostering a sense of national unity amidst regional and cultural diversity.

  • Governor’s Appointment:

Governors are appointed by the Centre, acting as its representatives in states.

  • New States Formation:

Parliament has the authority to alter state territories, change state names, and create new states.

  • All India Services:

Through services like IAS and IPS, the Centre influences state executive powers, ensuring uniform administration.

  • Integrated Election Machinery:

The Election Commission conducts elections at both central and state levels, with members appointed by the President.

  • Veto over State Bills:

Governors can reserve certain bills for the President’s consideration, allowing for absolute veto power.

  • Integrated Audit Machinery:

The President appoints the CAG, responsible for auditing accounts at both central and state levels.

  • Power to Remove Key Officials:

Certain key officials at the state level, like election commissioners and high court judges, cannot be removed by state governments, reinforcing centralized authority.


The concept of federalism in India is a dynamic and integral aspect of the nation’s governance. Rooted in history, enshrined in the Constitution, and evolving with the times, federalism provides a framework that accommodates diversity while fostering national unity. As India continues to grow and face new challenges, the adaptability and resilience of its federal structure will play a crucial role in shaping the future of the nation.