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Federalism: A Balancing Act

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Federalism: A Balancing Act
Winter School 2024 - cover - © Eurac Research

In India, elections are a celebratory event. Even a customary glance at the newspaper or digital media gives an insightful perspective to acknowledge the diversity and pluralism existing in the country with inevitable conflict arising out of it and concomitant strategic cooperation forged to advance socio-political agendas. This may sound chaotic, but that’s precisely what its federal political system encounters. Nonetheless, federalism is widely accepted as a safeguard for democracy. In this respect, federalism stands out in two distinct aspects in normative terms: first, it requires the division of (legislative and executive) power between central and regional/local governments, varieties of representation that are meant to accommodate diversity and maintain a balance of power, and at the same time, it gives rise to the complexity of the public policies which necessitate intergovernmental coordination of policies as well as the intricate challenge of conflict resolution among various constituent units, interest groups, and stakeholders.

The recently concluded Winter School on Federalism and Governance, jointly organized by the University of Innsbruck and the Eurac Research Institute for Comparative Federalism, provided ample opportunity to deliberate, discuss, and explore some of these facets in-depth. The 2024 edition of the Winter School was particularly interesting since it covered the intersection of federalism and sustainability and took a deep dive into how the federal political system in some of the largest and most populous countries, such as the United States, Brazil, EU Member States, India, and Iraq, impacts national environmental governance and natural resource management. Together these countries contribute a significant percentage of the world’s population and economy. Given their importance in this framework, any meaningful progress towards 2030’s Sustainable Development Goals and other climate-related pledges would require in-depth consideration of their domestic policies, politics, and governance, which inescapably involves navigation of the federal system.

The topic of federalism is wide-ranging and integrates scholarships ranging from constitutional law, political science, political geography, public finance, and other related fields, as was rightly represented by the transdisciplinary cohort attending the event. In particular, it was interesting how diverse representation raises the quality of the discussion, illuminates region-specific concerns, but also suffers from skewed euro-centric constructs. However, there was a significant effort to infuse some of these concerns during the event, especially the sessions eliciting colonial history and the postcolonial realities of federalism in Asia and Africa, the practice of federalism in managing natural resources in regions experiencing conflict such as Syria and Iraq, and federal challenges in post-democratic contexts. These case studies inevitably trigger critical engagement on the need for a contextual grounding that perhaps represents a marked shift from the practice of federalism in the political realities of Europe and other nations of the Global North.

At the personal level, the various experiences coalesced to form a better insight into the complexities of the federal system, but at the same time, it was indeed challenging to surmize how such wide-ranging deliberations might help advance policy research in India, particularly in the domain of natural resource management. This is more relevant as an early-career researcher and part of the Transboundary Rivers, Ecologies & Development Studies (TREADS) initiative at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, which engages with policy-relevant questions on the intersection of federalism and natural resource management, in particular water. For example, the various sessions of the event frequently pointed out three broad and interlinked features of the influence of the federal political system on environmental or climate change governance. 1. The multi-scalar nature of environmental problems and, concomitantly, how to design the division of environmental powers in a multi-scalared setting 2. How to ensure cooperation among the many constituent units towards collective action on environmental and climate governance. 3. The role of the court and institutional mechanisms for conflict resolution. Precisely, TREADS’s research has critically interrogated some of these dimensions in the context of water governance in India and how it compares with other regions, such as Europe.

Bringing Back Focus: Federalism and Water Governance

The vast topic may be overwhelming and demand specific sectoral case studies to ground a topic as broad as federalism. In this aspect, delving into inter-state river water conflicts pertaining to water allocation offers insights into how federalism influences natural resource management. In India, interstate water allocation is a high-stakes issue both at the national and subnational level, owing to its importance in accommodating a growing and emerging economy like India’s. The nation’s multi-party, multi-regional political context offers ample opportunities to examine the challenges, potential, and opportunities of Multi Level Governance (MLG) in emerging countries of the global south. The tension over the sharing and allocation of waters among different political units and sectors in India perfectly embodies what Arthur Benz eloquently describes as the “effectiveness and legitimacy dilemma”—where democracy that demands accountability and accommodation of diverse viewpoints increases external effects for intergovernmental agreements or cooperation, which is a prerequisite for an efficient federal system – leading to varied institutional tensions. Such an argument holds true in regard to India’s water management, scholars like Chokkakula (2018) have empirically shown how electoral politics is intricately linked with the hydropolitics of water sharing and allocation. At the same time, historical institutionalism (HI) matters. HI scholarships show how historical orientations and comparative contexts matter in the way federalism has been practiced across the world, and the outcomes it has produced. These arguments and observations are particularly relevant for water governance in India, where policy prescriptions and initiatives to develop robust and resilient institutional development should also be rooted in India’s distinct federal polity. Some of these concerns found place during the workshop sessions.

This push and pull of federal institutional structure was quite revealing during one of the simulation game workshops during the event – on how various groups, given their distinct geographical, territorial, and political situations, responded to which power to devolve and which governance arrangements would be suitable for the environmental management in general and on water in particular. It gave compelling evidence on various rationales for power devolution, cooperation mechanisms, and the role of the judiciary in conflict mediation.

Concluding Thoughts

Jena Bedner, one of the foremost scholars in federal studies, has raised pertinent questions on the workings of federalism. In particular, she investigates what makes certain federations stable despite the recurring episodes of inter-governmental tensions and the role of the judiciary in mediating federal disputes. She also argues that designing a ‘robust’ federal system by investing in the right kind of institutional architecture and incentive structure would ensure cooperation and improve the performance of the federation. The overall objective of the Winter School was precisely to stimulate interest in how federalism performs across different contexts, how varieties of institutional structure result in cooperative, competing, and conflicting practices of federalism, and how robust they are in dealing with environmental and climate challenges.

To supplement these conversations, various city tours, including those of the provincial parliaments, were organized to showcase how innovative policy responses can be used to diffuse the diverse and multi-dimensional nature of contestations that remain inevitable in any form of a federal system. For instance, it was refreshing to witness how the government both at the national, subnational, and local levels worked together to ameliorate various tensions through a wide-ranging program of measures between the German- and Italian-speaking communities in the autonomous province of Bolzano/Bozen, Italy. These may not have a direct correlation with water or environmental governance, but they offer a useful canvas to expand the thinking towards a broader federal framework that can be sensitive and agile to emerging environmental and climate-related challenges.

Debarshee Dasgupta

Debarshee Dasgupta

Debarshee Dasgupta is a senior research associate with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, India, and is engaged with the Transboundary Rivers, Ecologies, and Development Studies (TREADS) initiative at CPR. In his role, he researches various aspects of federal and interstate governance of water, river basin management, and disaster risks in India and South Asia. He enjoys reading books about psychology and listening to the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

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Citation

https://doi.org/10.57708/bf6wu2it9srw2anmwnbz6gq
Debarshee Dasgupta. Federalism: A Balancing Act. https://doi.org/10.57708/BF6WU2IT9SRW2ANMWNBZ6GQ

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