View: The ‘war’ between the Centre and States has to stop


It is a “war”. A very unfortunate one. The Centre and the States are at each other’s throats making a spectacle of themselves as the country suffers. The tension between the Centre and the States is nothing new but very rarely in the past have we seen a relationship like the present one. The country misses the sagacity of leaders like late Mr Arun Jaitley who could get goods and services tax (GST) going despite the tensions.

The tensions got precipitated into a “war” on account of farm legislations. The states started protesting against something that had been on the anvil for quite some time and should have been done long ago in the interest of farmers. Then, why did they agitate? This was perhaps on account of the manner in which the bills were rushed through in the Rajya Sabha. Now, of course, it is a full-fledged agitation.

Sometimes we forget that the Centre is a geographical fiction and all action is in the states. We also forget that India is a federal country. The “distance” that exists between the Centre and the states is the cause of the failure of a number of initiatives and schemes. It is indeed ironical that a number of officers that would have worked in their respective states (especially those belonging to the Indian Administrative Service) look at states with disdain and look down upon them. One could discern such an attitude amongst some officers in Delhi.

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One of the major factors contributing to the success of schemes or initiatives has been on account of the partnership forged with the states. This was in evidence yet again when we look at the problems that beset Coal and Power sectors. Coal could come out of the crisis ‘untainted’ in 2016 but “UDAY” couldn’t go much beyond ‘dawn’, forcing the government to think in terms of UDAY 2.

Coal sector faced an unprecedented crisis in 2014 (it re-surfaced recently once again on account of the tension between the Centre and the States). 

Everyone was given to believe that this crisis was on account of alleged scams. It wasn’t so. It was just the other way around. These so-called scams were a consequence of the shortage of coal in a country. India boasts of 300 billion tonne of coal reserve with a requirement of just 800 million tonne per annum. Yet there was a crisis as the coal production did not meet the target and 25 percent of the coal was being imported.

To make matters worse, the Supreme Court, based on ‘presumptuous’ calculations of a rampaging CAG, cancelled allocation of coal blocks to private entities that were contributing around 90 million tonne per. The coal blocks had to be auctioned now and by the Central Government. It was indeed a difficult job as these coal blocks did not exist at the “centre” but in states, some of which were being ‘ruled’ by an ‘opposition’ government. National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had its government at the centre but states like West Bengal and Odisha were ruled by non-NDA parties.

Hence, a strategy was chalked out to get the states on board. It worked because states were treated as partners and, instead of riding a rough shod, a value proposition was conveyed. The states got convinced that the auction of coal blocks and the process defined for the purpose was in their interest. Such an approach is even more imperative now as almost all the coal-bearing states (West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Odissa and Maharashtra) are under non-NDA governments. Auction for commercial coal mining cannot succeed without taking these states on board.

In terms of coal production by Coal India Limited (CIL) that is still the primary contributor to coal production (80 percent), partnership with states is even more important. Coal production depends upon a number of factors but the most important amongst them are: a) Land acquisition b) Environment and forest clearance c) Evacuation of coal.

The first two factors are totally dependent upon what happens in the states. The process of land acquisition is under the control of and influenced by state governments. For environment and forest clearances, the entire groundwork is done in the states. Hence, states have to be taken on board. During the years 2014-16, a well-defined strategy was worked out. Under this strategy, no meeting was held in Delhi to resolve issues that were local in nature.

As Coal Secretary, I travelled to the states and held periodic discussions with the state-level officers and District Collectors to expedite clearance. An effort was also made to convey a value proposition to the states regarding coal mining. It worked. Coal production increases by 34 million tonne during 2014-15. This was more than the cumulative increase of four previous years. During the following year, 2015-16, the production rose by another 44 million tonne. Coal shortages were a thing of the past as no power plant was critical on account of the paucity of coal. We were even toying with the idea of exporting coal to Bangladesh. The states were happy because their power plants had a surfeit of coal and they were getting larger amount in form of royalty on account of increased production.

Coal is just one of the many such examples where cooperation between the Centre and the States is imperative. Now that States like Maharashtra and West Bengal are also going on the offensive, matters have become worse. A number of civil servants are getting caught in this political cross-fire. All this can actually derail the administration.

In the interest of the country, this ongoing “war” needs to be stopped forthwith. The initiative will have to be taken by the Centre. However, to do that the Centre has to appreciate that the States also have elected and responsible governments and that the Centre is not the sole repository of all wisdom. Those in the States will also have to own the responsibility of ending this unfortunate “war” that has the potential to derail all the development as the country is limping back after the devastation caused by COVID. The vaccination campaign was a clear example of how working in tandem can bring in desired results. This approach needs to reflect in their conduct otherwise as well.

Anil Swarup is former Secretary, Government of India and author of the book ‘Not Just A Civil Servant’. The views expressed are personal.

(Edited by : Priyanka Deshpande)


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