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Indian federalism is unique, with the presence of a strong Centre along with shared Centre-state jurisdiction. It is often explained as a way to check secessionist tendencies in the days after Partition, or to consolidate democracy in a diverse Indian society. However, a recent paper by Louise Tillin from King’s College highlights a much older reason for adopting a more interventionist model over a decentralized one: industrial and labour policy.

Citing archival evidence, the paper says that while Partition encouraged the leaders to opt for a stronger state, the conditions for a centralized model were already present since the late colonial days. For instance, steps were made towards national labour and industrial policies much earlier through amendments to the Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935. At that stage, they were a response to rising pressures from labour unions, employers and nationalist leaders.

By the early 20th century, Bombay, the oldest centre of India’s textile industry, had started facing competition from other parts of India that had cheaper labour. Mills in Bombay had regulations for hours of work and child labour. These policies didn’t exist elsewhere, and hence industrialists in Bombay favoured national legislation. Later, Factories Acts were applied nationally to deal with this increasing competition, even as the colonial state otherwise continued to favour a free-market approach over an interventionist one.

The period after World War I saw even greater demand for nation-wide policy on labour from nationalist leaders, spurred by India’s membership of the International Labor Organization. As a result, the colonial state conceded that labour welfare should be “subject to Indian (central) legislation".

Later, in 1935, social insurance was moved under the concurrent list, giving primacy to central legislation. By 1946, when the Constituent Assembly started debating framing of the constitution, the grounds for a centralized federal polity had already been laid, the paper concludes.

Also read: Building a National Economy: Origins of Centralized Federalism in India

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