Lessons from India’s federalism - Experts take a look at what might work for Myanmar
Experts Take On Its Working and Lessons for Myanmar
“Indian Constitution has been able to meet the expectations of ethnically, religiously and linguistically diverse population and proved that it is able to cater to their needs and aspirations”, and “The more federal we (India) are, the more united as a country”.
This was the central message from two Indian Scholars who visited Myanmar Institute for Strategic and International Studies (MISIS) on invitation from the Embassy of India.
Mr. Shakti Sinha, former civil servant and current Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and Dr. Vishwa Nath Alok, Associate Professor at Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi were presenting their views at an interactive session with invited academia, intellectuals and former diplomats at MISIS, on how Indian federal system evolved and met the needs of changing society.
The focus of the discussion ranged from wide array of issues including constitutional arrangements of governance, fiscal federalism, protection and promotion of rights of minorities, group and individual rights and entitlements, balance of powers and responsibilities and identities and sub-nationalism. The burden of colonial past has also come to the fore during the discussions as ‘colonial constructs’ shaped the contemporary thinking on some of the vexed issues of identity.
Evolution of Indian federalism can be traced to the Constitution and the uniqueness is that the constituent sub-units viz., states, derive powers from the Constitution as a mandated division of powers, responsibilities are clearly articulated and followed. The fact that Indian Constitution has undergone over 120 amendments during the past 70 years also reflects the need to be flexible and adaptive and there by it is seen as a living document. Judicial oversight on the working of Constitution is also a critical element in retaining the balance of power between Union Government and State Governments.
Speaking on the occasion India’s Ambassador to Myanmar, His Excellency Mr. Saurabh Kumar pointed out that such an exchange of views between think tanks and scholars from India and Myanmar brings out lessons from each other’s experiences. Committing to host such future dialogues with members of parliament and other stakeholders, he pointed out that “Our collective colonial past and cultural affinity and geographical proximity compels us to seek lessons from each other on how to address the challenges facing the countries”. “There may be some lessons for Myanmar on how India is able to retain its unity through a flexible federal system” and it is for this purpose that the event has been organized.
Speaking on the occasion Mr. Shakti Sinha pointed out that at the time of India’s Independence and enactment of Constitution, there were apprehensions whether India would remain as a country or disintegrate within few decades. The fear of un-governability of such a vast, diverse country was the source for such an apprehension, however Indian Constitution has proved it wrong. As a guiding document it provided solutions, as it is being a living and flexible document. State formation, protection, and promotion of rights of minorities, protection and promotion of linguistic and cultural rights, affirmative action to protect the rights of marginalized sections of people (scheduled castes and scheduled tribes) are some of the features that ensured unity of people of India. A critical aspect to appreciate is that Indian Constitution respected the popular sovereignty and social justice. Non-discriminatory functioning of the State apparatus at all levels and special protection and promotion of the rights of minorities and marginalized will go hand in hand so that the unity and integrity is maintained. Experience of North-Eastern States of India compels us to assess how flexible Constitution and federal system enabled it to retain the territorial integrity of the country, though all the problems are not yet been fully solved. Dialogue and deliberations take prime route in addressing grievances of sections of people and solutions are found through such an approach within the framework of basic structure of the constitution. India’s policy on languages, special status for certain states, provisions for backward areas development, affirmative policies, all these were possible through dialogue with aggrieved sections of the society.
Pointing out that no two federations are similar, Prof. Vishwa Nath Alok pointed out the need for a flexible formula based fiscal transfers so that the sub-entities of the federal structure will become accountable and responsible for the people. Resources and accountability goes hand in hand and Indian federal system accommodates the specific geographical or other constraints of some of the States while devolving resources. Such arrangements are made through constitutional body, the finance commission. However, it is the ability to raise own resources that determines the real autonomy of the sub-national entities in a federation. This is an evolving area where in political economy factors play a crucial role in terms of maintaining equity and addressing inclusive and balanced development of all regions of the country. In India, special category states have been designated, who receive substantial grants from pooled resources from the union government owing to their specific circumstances like geographical isolation, hilly areas, sensitive and border
states, concentration of tribal population and etc. Such arrangements are meant to bring out equitable development of all parts of the country.
Fiscal transfers are sensitive issue and it is for this reason that Indian Constitution mandates an independent body ‘ finance commission’ which is set up at every five year interval, to take the responsibility of devising a just formula for sharing of resources. Such a mechanism has proved to be successful as India has so far 14 finance commissions who have accomplished the responsibility of devising flexible and relevant formulae for fiscal devolution.
Indian federal system received further boost with the enactment of constitutionally mandated local governance structures that are closer to the people. Democratically elected local bodies at the village level and at municipalities, with mandated functions and resources led to deepening of the democratic practice in the country. Though saddled with uneven functioning of such arrangements in different States, local governance structures have proved to be a significant way forward for India to deepen and sustain its democratic practice. Over 2 million people’s representatives are elected for all the villages of the country every five years! Such local bodies are close to the people and meet their day-to-day needs. Strengthening of fiscal capacities of rural local bodies and their leadership is still an on going agenda for India. For example in urban areas, municipalities are more resourceful with over 70% own resources to spend on local development activities, compared to their rural counterparts.
During the interactive session, the speakers responded to various queries from Myanmar academia and intellectuals. Lively debate followed on diverse topics such as, fiscal equalization principles, fiscal capacities, process of constitution amendment, pro-center biases and quasi-federal nature of Indian Constitution, the dichotomous view on federalism and unity, issues of resources, especially mineral royalties; citizenship issues under federalism; decentralization and federalism; colonial legacy and ethnic identity building, role of freedom struggles in forging identity and consciousness among people; and spirit of reasonable accommodation.
It is heartening that both Indian Embassy as well as MISIS have expressed their commitment to continue such an exchange of scholars in order to foster a healthy debate and discussion on issues of contemporary relevance for Myanmar society.