ONE would normally welcome reports that the government of India is proposing to convene the Inter-State Council. But, for two good reasons, scepticism is in order. First, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not one to concede the states’ demands for greater respect for their autonomy. He is a centralist. The RSS, to which the prime minister belongs, advocated a unitary state.
The Inter-State Council is now a rude joke. Article 263 empowers the president to set up a council for “(a) inquiring into and advising upon disputes which may have arisen between states; (b) investigating and discussing subjects in which some or all of the states, or the union and one or more of the states, have a common interest; or (c) making recommendations upon any such subject and, in particular, for the better coordination of policy and action with respect to that subject.”
Astonishingly, it was adopted by the constituent assembly without debate on June 13, 1949. It was set up 40 years later and has since led a listless life. Article 263 is an exact replica of Section 135 of the Government of India Act, 1935. Considerable thought went into its drafting. Some of India’s outstanding jurists were members of the sub-committee on federal structure set up by the Round Table Conference. It observed that “in matters affecting more than one province, even where they relate to subjects classified as provincial, there must be some authority capable of resolving disputes and of coordinating policy when uniformity of policy is in the interests of India as a whole”. The central government should be that authority.
But the joint parliamentary committee on Indian constitutional reform wisely conferred this responsibility on an inter-provincial council. It said: “It is obvious that, if departments or institutions of coordination and research are to be maintained at the centre in such matters as agriculture, forestry, irrigation, education and public health, and if such institutions are to be able to rely on appropriations of public funds sufficient to enable them to carry on their work, the joint interest of the provincial governments in them must be expressed in some regular and recognised machinery of inter-governmental consultation”. The provinces must have a voice.
Experience of the working of India’s constitution prompted the study team on centre-state relations of the administrative reforms commission to opine: “The need here is for a single, standing body to which all issues of national importance can be referred and which can advise on them authoritatively after taking all aspects of the problems into account.
“The body should be a standing one and should meet at regular intervals so that all participants, armed with fore-knowledge of its meetings can make effective use of the forum.” The Inter-State Council, in its view, filled the bill. The administrative commission endorsed this recommendation in June 1969. A commission on centre-state relations endorsed this in 1988 in its report.
What emerged from all this labour was a stillborn mouse. On May 25, 1990, for the first time ever, the Inter-State Council was set up by the president by an order under Article 263. Its composition has remained unchanged in these last nearly 30 years. It comprises the prime minister; the chief ministers of all the states, and six central ministers nominated by the prime minister.
Its remit is “(a) investigating and discussing such subjects, in which some or all of the states or the union and one or more of the states have a common interest as may be brought up before it; (b) making recommendations upon any such subject and in particular recommendations for the better coordination of policy and action with respect to that subject; and (c) deliberating upon such other matters of general interest to the states as may be referred to by the chairman to the council”.
The flaws are glaring. The Inter-State Council will meet when the prime minister so decides — not when the states so demand. That explains why it seldom meets. The agenda is set by the centre under whom the Inter-State Council operates. It draws up the consensus, which it thinks a meeting of the council has reached, for the prime minister’s endorsement — which is final. Prepared speeches are delivered. There is no real exchange of views. The states complain; the prime minister replies.
At a council meeting on June 7, 1997, then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh Nara Chandrababu Naidu complained: “What is the point of chief ministers coming all the way to Delhi and making proposals if these proposals are summarily brushed aside by bureaucrats? We are all wasting our time.”
The situation has not changed. The Inter-State Council can function properly only in a vibrant federation. No government at the centre, however, would want that.