Restore Ambedkar’s Constitution, Decolonise Governance
The tyranny of political expediency has ruptured the scheme of governance provided for in the Constitution.
On 25 November, 1949, concluding his eloquent defence of the draft of the Constitution of India, BR Ambedkar made a poignant observation. He said: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man-one vote and one vote-one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man-one value.”
Ambedkar then posed a question that he had obviously been agonised about. He asked: “How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?” Ambedkar went on to caution: “If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”
The spectre Ambedkar worried about persists nearly seven decades later. The echoes of the question are resonating across the political landscape. The anger among Dalits (and tribals) is about the persistence of inequities of the social structure. It is also about the systemic dysfunction that perpetuates denial.
At a macro level, the rage among Dalits (and tribals) is a representative amplification of angst across castes and disadvantaged classes on the failure of the State to deliver on the most basic of public goods and services assured explicitly in the Constitution of India and implicitly in the Directive Principles.
The Socio-Economic Census report is a testimony of the failure of governance. Rural India has nearly 32.5 crore persons who are illiterate – that is roughly the population of United States. Less than four percent are graduates, only one in 10 has a salaried job and over half are employed as casual labour.
The biggest failures are in education and healthcare. In the period between 2005 and 2017, India’s expenditure on the social sector – Centre and states together – has gone up from Rs 1.72 lakh crore to Rs 9.84 lakh crore. Spend on education and health has gone up from Rs 1.2 lakh crore to Rs 6.6 lakh crore.
India’s ranking in human development indicators in the same period moved from 127/177 to 131/188.
The failures are manifest as fault lines, in caste clashes, class conflict and an emerging narrative about north-south confrontation.
The causality is embedded in the casual approach to structural deficiencies. The tyranny of political expediency has ruptured the scheme of governance provided for in the Constitution – in the enlargement of the role of the Centre and the diminishing of the role of the states.
Theoretically speaking, every square mile of the nation is ruled by the states (barring the union territories). Governments in the states are voted and empowered to deliver development. In practice, that is not quite so linear.
Over the past six decades, the Centre has altered the structural anatomy to appropriate the powers of fiscal and policy autonomy.
Effectively, the Centre dominates the design of policies over which states have little or no say. States are required to implement these policies and the Centre has little control over outcomes. Governance suffers from a bipolar disorder of authority and accountability – the poor administration of centrally sponsored schemes and the implementation of the Right to Education Act, 2009 are prime illustrations.
The authors of the Constitution had mapped out the forms and functions of governance into three buckets—a Union List, a States List, and a Concurrent List—an instrumentality borrowed from the colonial structure of the Government of India Act of 1935, to ensure a strong Union.
Ambedkar explained: “We have by our laws given certain rights to provinces, and reserved certain rights to the Centre. We have distributed legislative authority; we have distributed executive authority and we have distributed administrative authority.”
The structure of federalism was discussed and deliberated on at length by the founding fathers of the Constitution. Elaborating on the structure Ambedkar had said: “The basic principle of Federalism is that the Legislative and Executive authority is partitioned between the Centre and the states not by any law to be made by the Centre but by the Constitution itself. This is what Constitution does. The states under our Constitution are in no way dependent upon the Centre for their legislative or executive authority. The Centre and the states are co-equal in this matter.” Ambedkar said this in November 1949.
The moral imperatives which anchored the spirit of federalism and the cogency of logic were thrust aside very soon. Through a series of amendments to the Constitution – especially the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 17th, 24th, 29th, 40th, 42nd, 80th, 86th and arguably the 101st, and the insertion of Schedule 9 enabling avoidance of scrutiny – the Centre materially altered the structure and encroached into the domain of states. It is significant that most of the amendments arrived when a single party was in power in the centre and in most of the states. It is also noteworthy that these were propelled by political expediency and systemic sloth.
The amendments led to the expansion of the Centre’s say, or veto if you please, on land, forests, administration of justice, population control, weights and measures, and education – subjects that were originally on the states list. In 2018, among the biggest departments at the central government in Delhi are those which are state subjects.
Indeed, the biggest items on the Union Budget are often subjects that pertain to subjects with the states.
During the debates in the Constituent Assembly, Sir A Ramaswamy Mudaliar (Mysore State) expounding on the need for autonomy argued: “Let us not lay the flattering unction to our soul that we are better patriots if we propose a strong Centre and that those who advocate a more vigorous examination of these resources are people with not enough of 'national' spirit or patriotism.” The sentiments have come to haunt the current political narrative, in the backdrop of the north-south schism.
The lazy justification deployed was about national imperatives, the lack of capacity in the states to design interventions.
The fact is, most transformative initiatives emerged from the states.
- The Milk Revolution took birth in the 1950s in Gujarat
- MGNREGS evolved from the employment guarantee scheme first introduced in Maharashtra in the 1970s
- The mid-day meals were born in Tamil Nadu in 1982, the National Food Security Act owes its etymology to NT Rama Rao’s Rs 2/kilogram rice scheme of 1984
- Computerisation of the public distribution system was first tried in Andhra Pradesh
- The RTI revolution germinated in Rajasthan in 1994, the Prime Minister’s rural roads scheme was born in Maharashtra.
Fact is, the many failures of governance are located in flailing autonomy, the duplicity of politics and duplication in administration. Ambedkar had contended “industrialisation of India is the soundest remedy for the agricultural problems of India.” Industrialisation was stalled first by the licence raj of the Mahalanobis era and in post-1991 era by permission raj. The intent of Make in India and Ease of Doing Business are both stranded in the multiplicity of clearances that permission raj forces investors in states to seek from the centre.
Ambedkar also argued in favour of urbanisation. He had asked: “What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?” The fact that in 2018, a young man in Uttar Pradesh had to approach the court to be able to exercise his private right to ride a horse during his marriage procession illustrates the prescient relevance of the question. But escape from the “sink” is stalled. World over urbanisation has proven to be a force multiplier for growth and development. Urban India has been consistently sold proverbial lemons, a mission then and a smart slogan now.
As India observes Ambedkar’s 127th birth anniversary, it would be pertinent to examine how many of the amendments, which have distorted the original scheme envisaged by the founding fathers, have delivered the proclaimed outcomes – in environment, land rights, education, population control et al.
How many of them were politically expedient and how many are morally defensible?
There has been much debate about the induction of the phrases socialism and secular in the preamble – which incidentally was left untouched even when the Janata Party overturned the many of the amendments of the Emergency era, the rendering of the implicit as explicit. There has also been considerable litigation and legislation on the dilution of property rights. But the bigger damage has been the diminishing of efficiency in governance through centralisation. It is time the figment of policy designers – of the Centre being the repository of all wisdom and therefore power – was dismantled.
As Ambedkar himself had warned: “There is great danger of things going wrong. Times are fast changing. People including our own are being moved by new ideologies. They are getting tired of government by the people. They are prepared to have Government for the people and are indifferent whether it is Government of the people and by the people.”
It is time India restored Ambedkar’s Constitution, decolonised governance.
(This column was first published on BloombergQuint. Shankkar Aiyar, political-economy analyst and Visiting Fellow at IDFC Institute, is the author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution; and Accidental India. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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