03 Federalism

What is federalism?

  • Federalism is a system of government in which the power is divided between a central authority and various constituent units of the country.


  • A federation has two levels of government that enjoy their power independent of the other.
    • A government for the entire country that is usually responsible for a few subjects of common national interest.
    • Governments at the level of provinces or states that look after much of the day-to-day administering of their state.


  • Unitary system have either only one level of government or the sub-units are subordinate to the central government.


  • Both the central and state governments are separately answerable to the people.


  • The following are some of the key features of federalism :
    1. There are two or more levels (or tiers) of government.
    2. Each tier has its own jurisdiction in specific matters of legislation, taxation and administration, although different tiers of government govern the same citizens.
    3. The jurisdictions of the respective levels or tiers of government are specified in the constitution. So the existence and authority of each tier of government is constitutionally guaranteed.
    4. The fundamental provisions of the constitution cannot be unilaterally changed by one level of government but require the consent of both the levels of government.
    5. Courts are vested with power to interpret the constitution and the powers of different levels of government. The highest court acts as an umpire if disputes arise between different levels of government in the exercise of their respective powers.
    6. In order to ensure its financial autonomy, sources of revenue for each level of government are clearly specified.
    7. The federal system thus has two objectives: to safeguard and promote unity of the country, and to accommodate regional diversity.


  • Federations have been formed through two kinds of routes:
    1. Independent States came together on their own to form a bigger unit, so that by pooling sovereignty and retaining identity they could increase their security.
    2. A large country decides to divide its power between the constituent States and the national government.

What makes India a federal country?

  • All the seven features of federalism apply to the provisions of the Indian Constitution.
  • Initially, a two-tier system of government was provided by the Indian Constitution. The Union Government, known as the Central Government, represented the Union of India and the State governments.
  • A third tier of federalism was later added in the form of Panchayats and Municipalities.
  • The Constitution provided a threefold distribution of legislative powers between the Union Government and the State Governments and contains three lists:
  1. Union List:
  2. State List:
  3. Concurrent List:

How is federalism practised?

  • In India the success of federalism can be attributed to the nature of democratic politics which has ensured that the spirit of federalism, respect for diversity and desire for living together became shared ideals in our country.

Linguistic States

  • The creation of linguistic States was the first and a major test for democratic politics in India.
  • Although the Central Government resisted linguistic States for some time, the formation of linguistic States has actually made the country, more united and administration easier.

Language policy

  • The language policy is a second test for Indian federation.
  • The status of national language was not given to any one language by the Constitution.

Centre-State relations

  • The same party ruled both at the Centre and in most of the States for a long time so that the State governments did not exercise their rights as autonomous federal units.
  • Whenever the ruling party at the State level was different, the parties that ruled at the Centre tried to undermine the power of the States.
  • The Central Government would often misuse the Constitution to dismiss the State governments that were controlled by rival parties.

Linguistic diversity of India

  • As per the 2001 census, more than 1500 distinct languages have been mentioned by people as their mother tongues.
  • After the grouping, the Census found 114 major languages, out of which, 22 languages are now included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution

Decentralisation in India

  • States in India are as large as independent countries of Europe.
  • Such federal power sharing is the rationale for decentralisation of power which involves taking power away from Central and State governments and giving to local government.
  • Decentralisation resulted in a third-tier of government in India, called local government.
  • A major step towards decentralisation was taken in 1992 when the Constitution was amended to make the third-tier of democracy more powerful and effective.

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