The case of Puducherry shows us how Union Territories, as pockets of arbitrary power, enable an authoritarian role for the Union government while trampling upon the core of federalism and democracy.

In recent years, the Union Territory (UT) as an administrative unit has emerged as a conspicuous feature of India’s federal structure.  In 2019, the Union government notoriously reorganised the state of Jammu and Kashmir into UTs. In 2021, an amendment to the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act enhanced the authority of Delhi’s lieutenant governor (LG) while undermining the powers of the democratically elected Legislative Assembly. In 2022, the Administrator of Lakshadweep issued a controversial notification in an attempt to acquire land cultivated by local residents for generations. More recently, the Union government has cleared the way for a huge project in Great Nicobar Island, which has been opposed for its potential impact on the island’s ecology and tribal residents.

It may be argued that with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s manoeuvring of the federal structure of the country, UTs have come to hold a peculiar status. Constitutional discourses around UTs have argued that they represent the principle of ‘asymmetric federalism’, with variations in the powers of different states and UTs (with and without legislatures) in relation to the Union government. This asymmetry — a definitive attribute of the Indian federal structure — has been posited as a manifestation of “weighted and differentiated equality” among administrative units within India’s quasi-federal set-up.

This article, however, argues that constitutional principles are trampled upon in UTs. With a representative case of Puducherry — the most autonomous of all UTs — this article argues that constitutional foresight regarding UTs has failed historically, with people’s democratic rights being breached by the very design of administration.

The origin and (un)reasoning

Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe, and Yanam — four tiny coastal regions in the south of India — were under French colonial rule until 1954. They were officially ceded to the Indian Union in 1956, after a treaty of cession was signed by the two nations. In 1962, this treaty was ratified in the French parliament, and the accession of Puducherry to the Union of India was legally complete. In 1963, the Government of Union Territories Act was passed, and Puducherry was accorded a Legislative Assembly and a Council of Ministers, which was entrusted to “aid and advise the Administrator (LG) in the exercise of his functions…”

Even as Puducherry was being ceded to the Indian Union, the country was witnessing widespread nationwide agitations by linguistic and cultural groups. It was in this context, in 1956, that India undertook the enormous task of reorganising the colonial administrative architecture by forming states along the lines of “linguistic and cultural affinity”.

Since then, substantially autonomous states with boundaries drawn along linguistic and cultural lines have formed the defining feature of federalism in India. The formation of the Puducherry UT in 1963, however, stood as the antithesis of this logic of national integration. It comprised four unconnected regions — Pondicherry and Karaikal (enclosed within Tamil Nadu and separated by eighty miles), Mahe (enclosed within Kerala), and Yanam (situated further north in Andhra Pradesh). These regions had (and continue to have) more linguistic and cultural affinity with their adjoining states than with each other.

In the 1955 Report of the States Reorganisation Commission, there is a passive remark on the administrative status of Pondicherry (renamed as Puducherry in 2006) as a Territory [of the Union government], as a “transitional and flexible arrangement for the present.” In other words, there was a consensus at the time that the region’s status was transitional. But the UT status was cemented over the years, and eventually, it came to be accepted that the logic flowed from the region’s distinct colonial past. As unconvincing as this reasoning is for administrative categorisation that has serious consequences for democratic possibilities, there are other compelling reasons to reconsider the seemingly incidental constitutional status of the region.

Cultural heterogeneity

The inheritance of colonial political geography posed a significant challenge to the integration of the offshoot regions under Puducherry.  Over the years, it has become evident that the task has failed. Puducherry — the administrative capital — has always mimicked the political culture of Tamil Nadu, and the outer regions of Karaikal, Yanam, and Mahe have consistently been excluded from the political arithmetic of Puducherry UT.

Speaking about the neglect towards Mahe, Jinos Basheer, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from the region says, “Distance [from Puducherry] and language [barrier] are the keys to the neglect of Mahe. For Puducherry, Mahe [residents] are second-class citizens. Several projects in the past two decades have been discontinued due to non-availability of funds, and in the past three Budgets of Puducherry, we have received nothing but government salaries.” Shakila, a researcher who hails from Puducherry, upholds these allegations of neglect when she says that in Puducherry, politics is understood as not very separate from the political affairs of Tamil Nadu. “Puducherry follows the political pattern of Tamil Nadu”, she says.

It is rather surprising that the integration of Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe, and Yanam did not provoke reasonable concern among the national leadership at the time, about the implications of uniting these four disconnected, linguistically and culturally diverse regions as one administrative unit.

The local politics

Among the UTs, Puducherry has higher democratic powers, not only as one of three UTs with a legislature but as one more empowered than the UT of Delhi. Yet, the apparatus of governance in the UT has proven to be virtually unproductive, failing to effectively realise its democratic powers. Legislative and executive powers in Puducherry wield limited political authority, largely owing to enormous dependence on Union government grants for their functioning. This has given rise to a strange class of self-serving politicians who benefit from the patrimony of the Union government.

A crucial element of this strange exercise in democracy is the power struggle enabled on a political island. For most of Puducherry’s legislators, their offices are a means to their business ends. Reports from the Association for Democratic Reforms, for instance, have consistently ranked Puducherry among the states/UTs with the highest percentage of crorepati MLAs. As Kamal Velan, a social activist from Puducherry, puts it: “ Puducherry being predominantly a service sector economy, almost every MLA here has business connections to at least one bar or hotel.”

But a more serious trend is the inclination for a monopoly of power in this minuscule region. After its liberation from French colonial administration, Puducherry has had only two terms of local bodies in the region in the past sixty years: one in 1973, after the formulation of The Puducherry Municipalities Act, and the other in 2006, after Madras High Court ordered the conduct of local body elections acting on a public interest litigation. After the second term ended in 2010, to date, local body elections have not been held in Puducherry, despite a 2021 ruling by the Supreme Court ordering their conduct within six months. The legal battle has taken different routes since, and most recently, the Puducherry government stalled the election citing the provision of reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the local bodies. While some parts of the country have witnessed demands for reservations for OBCs in local bodies, it is highly questionable in Puducherry, considering the fact that 83% of Puducherry’s population consists of OBCs.

The real reason for deferring local body elections lies elsewhere: in the legislature’s interest to preserve their political authority undiluted. Advocate Ashokan, one of the lawyers on whose litigation the Madras High Court ordered the 2006 election, says: “In 1994, the PV Narasimha Rao-led Union government threatened the withdrawal of central grants if local body elections were not conducted. Despite losses, the government in Puducherry did not act on the order. In fact, the political leaders in Puducherry do not want a new class and generation of leadership to emerge through the ranks of municipal elections.”

An example narrated by Kamal Velan succinctly captures the way in which MLAs manufacture and retain their power in local politics. “In Kalapet town [in Puducherry], there once arose an issue when beneficiaries applied for their widow and old age pensions through a route unapproved by the MLA. All their claims were stalled, and only those who applied through the MLA had their claims approved. This sort of creates an acceptance loop on which these politicians in the region rely.”

It is very hard to connect these anecdotes and gather a clear picture of the processes through which leaders retain their power at the local level. But narratives such as these — about pensions, trade licences, domicile certificates, etc. — are widely familiar throughout the UT of Puducherry, where the legislators confiscate the everyday bureaucratic functioning of the UT to exercise their power through them.

The inclination of elected representatives or political parties to control and regulate people’s right to welfare is a dilemma common to many democracies. But in Puducherry, the legislature virtually stalls any possibilities of alternative democratic institutions, such as the local bodies. And with an overarching, extraneous and inefficient bureaucracy that is peculiar to UTs, the political parties find their source of power in these questionable institutions.

The meddling of the Union government

Over and above the state of affairs at the local level is the malaise afflicting all UTs: the inordinate power of the Union government. Despite having a more empowered legislature than all other UTs, Puducherry has not been immune from power struggles with the Union government. In the Government of Union Territories Act, 1963, the role of the legislature and Administrator (the LG) in Puducherry is rather vague and even contradictory. While the legislature carries all powers to make laws and undertake administration like all other states, their role is still to “aid and advise” the Administrator in the state’s day-to-day functioning. But certain other limitations of the legislative and executive powers are well-defined. In real terms, the LG reserves the right to withhold laws passed by the legislature, and can “act in his discretion” in the decisions on legislative bills.

This authority of the LG is now increasingly exploited by the BJP-led Union government for nearly a decade. The reign of Kiran Bedi as LG from 2016-21 perhaps etched a popular memory of Puducherry’s protest against the office of LG, but the struggle for increased autonomy for the legislature in Puducherry dates back much earlier, to the late 1970s, from when all Assemblies of the state have passed resolutions for statehood. The matter of fact is that in Puducherry, not unlike in the UT of Delhi (as the two UTs with a functioning Assembly, with elections to the J&K Assembly yet to be held since it was dissolved in 2018), the lack of autonomy and the crisis over a defined head of state, are significantly affecting the lives of people and their democratic possibilities.

But curiously, the most atrocious exploitation of power enabled in the UT has faced sparse resistance from the legislature. There are telling examples of how the Union government treats UTs as a testbed for their neoliberal reforms in the country. As Velan argues, Puducherry was one of the earliest among all states and UTs to have mandated Aadhaar enrolment en masse.

In 2019, then LG Kiran Bedi discontinued Public Distribution System (PDS) shops in Puducherry, aligning with the BJP’s long-term objective of dismantling the welfare provision. In 2020, Union Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman announced that as a model to all states, electricity distribution companies would be privatised in all UTs. In the same year, the Union government announced that the National Digital Health Mission would be launched in six UTs, including Puducherry. Later in 2021, this was rolled out to other states. In 2022, after other UTs privatised their discoms, Puducherry notified the sale of 100% of the government’s shares.

Such naked exploitation of power by the Union government is worse in the UTs without legislatures, as recently evidenced in Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar Islands. This compels the interrogation of how the UT as an administrative model enables the subversion of constitutional principles and democratic rights.

The way forward

The local political leadership and the legislature in Puducherry UT have held statehood (or Special Category status, as recently demanded by all major parties) as a solution to the administrative predicament in the region. But a lack of adequate sources for revenue generation and dependence on grants from the Union government put the region under undue financial stress, which has grown in the past two decades into an endemic financial crisis.

In this context, the fundamental question is why the vestiges of colonial political geography are being allowed to trample upon the core principles of federalism and democracy that are fundamental to our constitution. It is preposterous that colonial heritage was persuasive over the looming factor of cultural heterogeneity or long distances between the four regions of Puducherry, while constituting it as a UT. Further, the historical experience of the outer regions of Mahe, Yanam or Karaikal has been that of continued political bondage to Puducherry. And as the financial crisis in the UT has worsened in the last decade, one can witness public anger against their neglect intensifying.

In short, the constitutional foresight regarding UTs as a manifestation of asymmetric federalism has evolved into a crisis for democracy in these regions. Concerns regarding democratic and constitutional principles arise in most UTs from time to time — be it Delhi, Puducherry, Lakshadweep, Andaman & Nicobar or others. And with the BJP taking an enormous interest in the administrative category of UTs, there is much to be discussed about the varied ways in which a Union Territory as an administrative model enables subversion of constitutional principles and democratic rights.

This article is published as a part of the Smitu Kothari Fellowship of the Centre for Financial Accountability, Delhi.

This article was originally published in The News Minute and can be read here.

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