Federalism, a significant part of our democratic structure, derives its authority from Article 245- 263 of the Indian Constitution. Under the said articles, the power between Centre and State is explicitly demarcated into legislative, administrative and financial functions.
Furthermore, the 7th Schedule of the Constitution is sub-divided into three lists- Union List, State List and Concurrent List, which gives comprehensive details on the law-making power of the Parliament and the State Assemblies.
Despite such clear-cut divisions, the issue of Centre-State disputes has been a perennial one.
Mostly, such disputes arise when the Centre encroaches upon State’s power by making laws on matters that fall under the State list or when Centre passes any other laws, which affects the legal or Constitutional Rights of the State.
The most contemporary example of the centre-state dispute is the Disaster Management Act, 2005, which was invoked in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Act causes discontent among states as the Central guidelines are binding on them, even though public health is a state matter on which the Parliament cannot legislate.
The impetus behind the passage of Central laws that encroach State’s right arises due to the ambiguity of Article 131, which gives Parliament a leeway to amend or pass laws without worrying about repercussions.
The purpose of Article 131 of the Constitution is to uphold the spirit of cooperative federalism. Under the Article, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction to decide upon a matter of dispute between the States or between Union and State.
The pre-requisite for filing a suit under Article 131 is the existence of a dispute between the parties. Also, the dispute must involve a question of law or a question of fact that transcends a legal or a constitutional right, and should not include political conflict, unless legal rights are at stake. Prima facie, Article 131 seems unambiguous, but the legal quandary arises when we analyse cases related to it.
Over the decades, the Apex Court has taken contradicting decisions on whether a State can challenge a Central enactment under Article 131. In the case of State of Madhya Pradesh v Union of India, the Court held that Central enactments could be only challenged as writ petitions under Article 32 and 262 of the Constitution and not under the original jurisdiction of the Court under Article 131.
But a few years later, in another case, it disagreed with the previously mentioned judgement stating that Article 131 works as an addition to Article 32 to deal with Centre-State Dispute.
Furthermore, the Court explicitly mentioned that it was unable to accept that the constitutional validity of a Central Law can be challenged under Article 131.
As the Court did not have the requisite bench strength to overturn the prevision decision, it left the matter open for a larger bench to decide. However, this inconclusive situation has not been resolved yet, which allows both the judgements to be used as a precedent for future references.
This further aggravates the dispute between Centre-State, as Parliament can pass laws that infringe upon the latter's power.
The State of West Bengal v. Union of India is another such case that provides glimpses of States rights to challenge Central Laws. This case was decided way before the above-mentioned cases, so it does not specifically deal with the question of State power to contest central laws under Article 131, but its proceedings gives an answer to the dispute at hand.
The case arose in the background of West Bengal Government challenging the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957, a Central law that allowed the latter to acquire rights over coal mining lands even though the land belongs to the State.
The State contended that §4 and §7 of the Act was ultra vires. The Supreme Court accepted the original suit filed by the State under Article 131 but upheld the constitutional validity of the law made by the Centre.
As a mentioned previously, it did not venture into the constitutional validity of the enactment under Article 131, but its decision to hear State’s challenge against Centre under the said Article indicates that the Constitution does provide scope for the State to contest Parliamentary laws.
Despite having a judgement that could aid in the interpretation of Article 131, the State of Jharkhand v State of Bihar decided to overlook it entirely based on the fact that Calcutta High Court did not delve constitutional validity of Act under Article 131.
The possible way out of this legal conundrum is for the Supreme Court to set up a larger bench and decide upon the legal issues pertaining to Article 131.
First, the Court should clear out whether a State can challenge Central Laws. In doing so, the Court should rely on the Mahesh G v Union of India judgement, where it elucidated that Article 131 is attracted when there is a dispute between Centre and State in context of rights and duties that arise in a constitutional set up.
This can also help in deciding the present cases on CAA, NIA placed before the Court. Second, after accepting State's position to challenge Central laws, the Apex Court can test whether the Parliament has acted outside its scope of authority to legislate matters on state subjects and declare them ultra vires, or it can check the validity of the constitutional law using the ‘Doctrine of Basic Structure’, ‘Doctrine of Pith and Substance’, and ‘Doctrine of Colourable Legislation'.
The doctrine of the basic structure comprises of certain fundamental principles of the Constitution, which form the crux of civil society. Federal Structure is one such principle that cannot be infringed upon and hence, any constitutional amendment that violates the federal structure can be struck down in the light of this doctrine.
Further, the doctrine of pith and substance is used to ascertain the true character of the legislation when an Act is deemed to be ultra vires. This doctrine helps Courts decide whether the laws made by the legislature is beyond the power conferred to them. Also, the doctrine of colourable legislation questions the competency of a specific legislature to enact laws. If the legislature does not hold the required authority, then the law is struck down.
Hence, usage of such doctrines always acts as a deterrence on the Parliament to prevent them from making laws that abrogate the rights of the State, which also might help in mitigating the number of State-Centre disputes.
Third, despite having Articles 32 and 226 for the States to challenge the validity of Central laws, the Court needs to settle its position with regards to Article 131 immediately. In doing so, it will enhance the Supreme Court's exclusive jurisdiction to hear cases on a priority that violate the federal structure of the Constitution.
History has been witness to the fact that Centre-State disputes have been rampant. In spite of that, our judiciary has turned a blind eye to the disputes that come before it under Article 131 of the Constitution, leaving the matters for a larger bench to decide upon.
However, given the influx in the suits filed under Article 131, the Apex Court must set up a larger bench that will clear out all the ambiguities concerning Article 131.
Such an action is the need of the hour to settle the tumultuous Centre-State dispute and put an end to the discontents that arise from it.
(The author is a student at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata)