India covers an area of 3.28 million square kilometres. With a population of about 1 billion, India is a country of a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, languages and cultures. It has 28 states and seven union territories (UTs), which differ greatly in terms of their natural resources, administrative capacity and economic performance. The country continues to have a high concentration of poverty. According to estimates in 1993, 320 million people (36 per cent of the total population) lived below the poverty line. In 2000-01, however, India was able to achieve a GDP growth rate of six per cent.
In 1858 the British Crown took over administration of India after a century of colonial rule by the British East India Company. A highly centralized form of government was established in which legislative, executive and financial powers rested with the Governor-General who functioned as the agent of the British government. Difficulty in exercising centralized rule led to a devolution of powers, which was accomplished via the Councils Act of 1861 and later by the Minto-Morley Act of 1909. Provincial autonomy came into being with the Montagu-Chelmsford Act of 1919 which provided for the introduction of the principle of responsible government in the provinces, although only for certain subjects.
During this period, the British government was mainly interested in containing Indian nationalism and affirming British suzerainty. The Simon Commission Report of 1930, Round Table Conferences and finally the Government of India Act, 1935 were all attempts to do this. The Government of India Act was a watershed in the present federal structure. It provided for a federation by taking the provinces of British India and the Indian states ruled by kings (known as princely states) as units. It was left to the princely states whether to join the federation or not, and when their consent was not forthcoming, the federation did not take effect as planned.
The 1935 Act divided legislative powers between the provincial and central legislatures and, within their defined sphere, the provinces were autonomous units of administration with restricted powers. To this extent, the government of India assumed the role of a federal government vis-à -vis the provincial governments, although without the princely states. The arrangement came to an end with the Second World War.
India achieved independence on 15 August 1947. The constitution was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 26 November 1949 and came into force on 26 January 1950. The constitution envisaged a strong centre. The 14 states and six union territories were divided according to the historical context in which they were governed and administered.
In 1955 a 'States Reorganisation Commission' was established. It was proposed that there be a territorial re-organization based on the following principles: preservation and strengthening of the unity and security of India; linguistic and cultural homogeneity; and financial, economic and administration considerations. The linguistic factor'because language corresponds with socio-cultural identity'was uppermost in determining the re-organization of the constituent units. It was thought that the resulting 1956 States Reorganisation Act, which re-organized the states primarily on the basis of the languages spoken in the area, might provide the solution to multifarious problems like economic inequalities, lopsided development, and the domination of certain castes or classes. Since 1956, there have been several further adjustments to the states, the most recent being the creation in November 2000 in the northeast of three new small states'Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttaranchal'carved out of existing states.
At the time the constitution was written the predominant concern of the founding fathers was the preservation of the unity and integrity of India, which had more than 600 varied princely states plus the provinces of British India at the time of independence. Nowhere in the constitution is the word 'federal' mentioned'indeed, the constitution says India is a 'Union of States' and it envisaged a strong centre. B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, has said that the use of the word 'Union' was deliberate. The drafting committee wanted to make it clear that although India was to be a federation, it was not the result of an agreement initiated by the constituent states. During normal times India functions as a federation but it can be'and has been'transformed into a unitary state during extraordinary circumstances.
India profile by George Mathew