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Indian Federalism- Issues and Challenges


The term ‘Federalism’ has been originated from the Latin word ‘foedus’ which means ‘Covenant’. Federalism can be defined as “compound mode of government which combines the central government with the regional governments to form a single political system where the powers of the governments are divided among them”. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Federalism is defined as “the theory or advocacy of federal principles for dividing powers between member units and common institutions.”

The Constitution of India has opted for federal features into it. However, it has been never claimed by Constituent Assembly whether the Indian Constitution could be said as a federal constitution or not. 

Schedule Seven of the Indian constitution provides 3 lists under Article 2461, they are: Union List, State List, and Concurrent List. Defense, trade and business, citizenship, insurance, banking, roads, railways, higher education, navigation, shipping, etc., matters are handled by the central government. While public order (excluding military, naval, and air force or any other armed forces under the purview of Central Government), state court fees, police, prisons and reformatories, Local Government, public health and sanitation, pilgrimage, etc., issues are dealt with the State Government. The final list i.e., the concurrent list contains the issues where both the state and Central governments have the jurisdiction. A few such issues are stamp duties, contempt of court, electricity, price control, forests, prevention of animal cruelty, etc.

When there is a conflict between both the state and the central government regarding the issues aforementioned in the concurrent list, the decision of the central government supersedes the state government. 

Features of Indian Federalism

The Indian Constitution has federal elements, yet it does not aspire to form a federation. The members of the Constituent Assembly were divided on whether the Indian Constitution could be labeled a federal constitution.

Written Constitution:

The most crucial aspect of a federation is that its constitution is formulated so that both the Union Government and the states may refer to it as and when required. The Indian Constitution is a written constitution that is the most detailed in the world. It establishes the Constitution’s supremacy since the Constitution empowers both the union and the states to be self-governing in their respective realms of government.

Rigid Constitution:

In a federal government, the method for altering the Constitution is often strict. Some revisions to the Indian Constitution need a special majority. Such an amendment must be approved by a majority of all members of each house of Parliament, as well as a two-thirds majority of those present and voting. In addition to this procedure, certain revisions must be accepted by at least half of the states. Following this process, the President, as the head of state, signs the amendment. Because in India, significant adjustments may be made via this approach. As a result, the Indian Constitution is appropriately referred to as a rigorous constitution.

Power Assignment:

There is a clear separation of powers in our Constitution, such that the States and the Centre are obligated to enact and legislate within their respective spheres of activity, and none violates or attempts to intrude on the duties of the other. Our constitution specifies three lists: the Union List, the State List, and the Concurrent List. The Union List includes 97 issues of national significance like defense, railways, postal service, and so on. The State List includes 66 topics of local relevance such as public health, police, and so on. The Concurrent List includes 47 topics that are vital to both the Union and the State, such as electricity, trade unions, economic and social planning, and so on.

Bicameral Legislature: 

In a federation, a bicameral system is thought crucial since units may only be awarded proportional participation in the Upper House. The Indian Constitution also established a bicameral legislature at the Centre, with the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. While the Lok Sabha is made up of persons who have been elected, the Rajya Sabha is largely made up of parliamentarians who have been elected by State Legislative Assembly.

Judicial Supremacy:

Another critical characteristic of a federation is an independent court to interpret and uphold the Constitution. To resolve issues between the Union and the States, the Supreme Court of India has original jurisdiction. It has the authority to declare a statute unconstitutional if it violates any provision of the Constitution.

The supreme court also has the power to deal with the disputes between the states and the union. Article 131 states about “the original jurisdiction of the supreme court. The constitution gives express powers to the supreme court to resolve the disputes among: Union and one or more states, Union and any state on one side and one or more states on the other side, Two or more states.”2

Article 2623 discusses “adjudication of conflicts connected to interstate rivers or river valleys. Parliament has the authority to enact legislation pertaining to any dispute over the use, distribution, or control of any interstate river or river valley’s waters. Furthermore, Parliament may pass legislation prohibiting the highest court and any other court from hearing such disputes or complaints.”

Article 2634 states about the “Establishment of the Inter-State Council” is discussed in this article. Suo moto, the President may form a council in the public interest and provide it with the following duties:

  • Inquire about and advise states if they have disagreements.
  • Investigate and debate a topic in which some or all states or the union and one or more states have mutual interests.
  • Make suggestions on the issue and proposals for greater policy coordination.

Nature Of Indian Federation

Even though the Indian Constitution has opted for the Federal structure, it is hard to completely classify it as a true federation as the framers of the constitution have also incorporated the non-federal features in it. They are:

  • The Constitution describes India in Article 15 as “Union of States”. There can be two things that can be understood from this: Firstly, the states and unions have been bonded together but not with an agreement. Secondly, states can’t be separated or seceded from the union. However, the states and the union share the same constitution which would make it impossible to get out as it is a single framework. The federation is indestructible and this helps to maintain unity of the country. 
  •  The Centre appoints state governors and may take over state administration depending on the governor’s recommendations or otherwise. In other terms, the Governor is the Centre’s representative in the States. The operation of the Indian federal system clearly shows that the Governor has served as the Centre’s envoy rather than the State’s leader. The Union government now has authority over the state administration. The Union’s authority over states after the announcement of a national emergency.
  • The fairness of components in a federation is best preserved by their fair participation in the Upper House of the federal legislature (Parliament). This, however, doesn’t apply to Indian states. They are not evenly represented in the Rajya Sabha.
  • The Chief Election Commissioner, Comptroller, the Auditor General, and a few other powerful appointments are given by the union. Besides, India has single citizenship which makes all the states abide by the constitution. This feature does not give the liberty to the states to propose amendments to the constitution. However, the Union parliament can only make amendments to the constitution.
  • When an emergency is declared, our federal polity may be transformed into a highly centralized government under the terms of the Constitution. Power is legitimately centralized during an emergency. Parliament also has the authority to pass legislation on matters within the competence of the states.
  • It has been clearly stated in the constitution that the Centre’s power is superior to the state and the state has the obligation to follow the orders of the Centre. According to Article 257 (1)- “The executive power of every State shall be so exercised as not to impede or prejudice the exercise of the executive power of the Union, and the executive power of the Union shall extend to the giving of such directions to a State as may appear to the Government of India to be necessary for that purpose”.6
  • To achieve administrative system homogeneity and to preserve basic common administrative standards without jeopardizing the federal system. All-India Services, such as the IAS and IPS, has been established and remain under the supervision of the Union. The States rely heavily on the Union in financial concerns as well. States lack sufficient financial resources to satisfy their obligations. During a Financial Emergency, the Center has complete control of the state’s finances.

These are a few instances that have been mentioned to state that the central government is given a lot of power when compared to the state governments by the constitution of India. The federal principle envisages dual system of courts but Indian has unified judiciary system with the Apex court as the top most court in India.

By considering the Union list, it can be understood that the central government has been given assignments of all important subjects of the country. The state governments have limited powers and are financially dependent upon the Centre. 

The preceding discussion shows there is a tilt on behalf of the Centre at the expense of the States. The states must collaborate closely with the Centre. This lends credence to the view that the Indian Constitution is federal in form but unitary in essence.

Constitutional analysts describe it as a “semi-federal” or “quasi-federal” system.”

Quasi Federal system in India

A quasi-federal government has an unequal distribution of powers between the center and the states. India is a federation with a unitary bias and is considered a quasi-federal state due to its strong central infrastructure.

India purposely developed a sort of federalism in which the Union and State governments were reliant on each other, therefore violating the basic characteristic of a federal constitution, namely autonomous areas of authority for the Union and State governments. Other similar constitutional features to the Lok Sabha include the Rajya Sabha’s size and composition, which favors larger states; Article 3 of the Indian Constitution, which allows “the Union to alter the boundaries of a State without the latter’s assent, emergency powers, and concurrent list subjects of the Seventh Schedule, where the Union has more control than the State with some exceptions.” Rather than a process of ‘coming together,’ India’s centralized federal framework was the outcome of ‘staying together’ and ‘putting together.’”7

Issues and Challenges

India has faced a lot of challenges due to the quasi- federalism and is many challenges that might be faced as the authority of the Centre secedes the state a few reasons are mentioned hereunder:

  1. Regionalism:

This is considered to be one of the most significant challenges due to the Indian Federalism. India’s pluralist nature gives birth to a variety of characteristics, including regionalism. As the center concentrates on larger states rather than smaller states, states operate under the democratic system. Then a dispute may occur, and they may want to be split from the union.

When there was the bifurcation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh, many states’ voices have been raised when the new state was formed in 2014. West Bengal jeopardized India’s Teesta River waters deal with Bangladesh due to the prospective consequences for West Bengal. Growing regional powers may have an impact on successful foreign policy, since the federal government may yield to the wishes of a single state. 

  1. Division of Power:

In India, unlike in the United States and Australia, power is allocated via three categories mentioned in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. The Central and State Governments’ powers are specifically listed in the Union and State lists, respectively, however, the powers indicated in the Concurrent list are maintained by both sets of governments. Residuary powers are granted to the federal government. Article 200, emergency measures in Articles 352, 356, and 360, and required obedience by the States to the Centre’s executive authority in Articles 256 and 257 all amount to power centralization, which has been a significant cause of worry among the states. As a result, centralization threatens Indian federalism.

  1.  Absence Of Financial Freedom:

The division of financial and tax-related authority between the federal and state governments is referred to as fiscal independence. It is required for the nation’s progress. Though the center has the most authority, there is a financial commission whose job it is to determine the state’s part of the center’s earnings.

  1. The Governor’s Office

Under Article 155 of the Indian constitution, “the governor is the head of the state and is selected by the president of India. The president’s decision may override the decisions of the governors chosen by the president.”

  1. Integrated Services:

Courts, audits, and elections, among other services, are all linked in India. The Supreme Court, state high courts, and district courts compose India’s judicial system. Supreme Court judgments are binding on the high court, and the high court lacks jurisdiction to consider state-to-state disputes. The method for federal and state elections is the same. The election commission is in charge of it at the national level, while the chief electoral officer [CEO] is in charge of it at the state level, albeit both are controlled by the election commission.

  1. Religious Differences:

India is an excellent example of religious pluralism, which sometimes causes strife in order to undermine the federation. However, the religious process does not necessarily have to be controversial. Religion may not generate imbalances in a federation as long as there is appropriate tolerance on the side of the people and a true secular policy on the part of the government.

  1. Language Conflicts:

It was revealed in this instance that India’s constitution is not really federal in nature. The distribution of power between the center and the states is only concerned with local concerns vested in the states and the rest, which tends to maintain the country’s economic, industrial, and commercial unity. However, this was the first case in which a disagreement between both the state government and the central government was brought to the Supreme Court under Article 131.

  1. External factors:

External pressures might also pose difficulties for a federation. The involvement of neighboring countries has caused conflict in India’s North-Eastern states. China’s claim on a portion of Arunachal Pradesh along the LAC jeopardizes India’s territorial integrity. The Tamil crisis in Sri Lanka is upsetting India. In the past, the purported Pak hand in the Khalistan movement has also added to the deterioration of the Indian union.

Case Laws:

The Indian courts have considered a number of cases regarding the subject of the Indian constitution’s federal character. A few case laws have been mentioned to understand the take of judiciary upon the Indian Federalism.

  1. State of West Bengal v. Union of India8

“It was revealed in this instance that India’s constitution is not really federal in nature. The distribution of power between the center and the states is only concerned with local concerns vested in the states and the rest, which tends to maintain the country’s economic, industrial, and commercial unity. However, this was the first case in which a disagreement between both the state government and the central government was brought to the Supreme Court under Article 131.”

  1. Kesavananda Bharati v. the State of Kerala9

“It was observed in this case by some of the judges, in this case, that federalism is a basic part of the Constitution of India and it can’t be changed.”

  1. S.R. Bommai v. Union of India10

“Different judges’ opinions on India’s federal constitution varied in this case.

  1. Justice Ahmadi- since there is no use of the word “federal,” he considered it Quasi-Federal.
  2. Justice Sawant and Kuldip Singh — it is a fundamental tenet of the constitution.
  3. Justice Ramaswamy proclaimed “India to be an “Organic Federation” formed to meet the demands of the legislature.”


India is a country where there are numerous traditions, religions, and cultures.  Each state has a different language from one another. All the states despite their differences are united as one by the Constitution of India and the Centre supervises them. However, there might be issues raised due to the upper hand of the central government as the orders given by the Centre shall be followed by the state. In a quasi-federal nation, it is important for the central government to always consider the interests of the state government too.


  1. The Constitution of India 1950, art. 246.
  2. The Constitution of India 1950, art. 131.
  3. The Constitution of India 1950, art. 263.
  4. The Constitution of India 1950, art .264.
  5. The Constitution of India 1950, art 1.
  6. The Constitution of India1950, art 257.
  7. Vignesh Karthik K.R, ‘Quasi Federalism’ The Hindu (3 May 2022) < > accessed on 17 June 2022.
  8. State of West Bengal v Union of India, 1963 AIR 1241.
  9. Kesavananda Bharati v State of Kerala, AIR 1973 SC 1461.
  10. S.R. Bommai v Union of India, AIR 1994 SC 1918.

This article is written by K. Mihira Chakravarthy, a first-year BA LLB student from Damodaram Sanjivayya National Law University (DSNLU).

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