Lessons from Belgium

Lessons from Belgium

K.M. Chandrasekhar

K.M. Chandrasekhar

On the face of it, India and Belgium are like chalk and cheese. India is large, populous, diverse not only in languages spoken, but in ethnicity, religion, caste, geographical features, tradition, culture, wealth and history. Belgium is a small country. I worked for three years in Brussels in the Indian Embassy. The joke then was that if we drove 40 minutes out of Brussels in any direction, we would be out of the country, an exaggeration of course, but not far from the truth.

Belgium is a beautiful country, a country with many singular features. I have stayed for some years subsequently in Switzerland,too, which is considered to be the apogee of scenic splendour in all the world. When we talk of the scenic beauty of our own Kashmir valley, we refer to it as the Switzerland of India. The beauty of Switzerland arises from its Alpine terrain, which resembles in large measure the stark, awe inspiring, sometimes terrifying swathe of the Himalayan landscape stretching majestically across our northern borders from Kashmir to Sikkim and the North East.

Belgium sits in the plains, but seldom have I seen a more beautiful stretch of country. We lived in a town house close to the Bois de Cambre, a public park surrounding a small lake at the edge of the Sonian forest, with tall trees, mainly beech and oak. In the middle of the lake was a small island, with Chalet Robinson on it, the original was destroyed by a fire in 1991. I believe it has now been rebuilt in 2006. The walkway around the lake was my favourite place, cool, calm, suffused in the peace of nature, reflecting nature’s myriad colours and moods as the seasons changed. The Bois, as it was popularly known, is the direction finder in Brussels. If you lose your way in any part of Brussels, you can always quickly find a signpost indicating the way to the Bois and thus climb out of the maze. For Brussels is an old city that has grown over centuries and not built in rectangles and squares unlike more modern cities.

At the heart of Brussels is the Grand Place, a square surrounded largely by hoary buildings constructed over the centuries largely by workers’ guilds. In the approach to Grand Place and around the square are many eating places serving food from all parts of the world including India, chocolate shops, souvenir shops. Not too far from Grand Place is Mannekin Pis, a small black statue of a boy urinating, which for some obscure reason, sends tourists into paroxysms of glee. Within half an hour of Brussels is Lac Genval, another pretty lake surrounded by woods, an old castle now converted into a hotel and quaint little eating places. At about the same distance is Waterloo, now a memorial for the battle that Napoleon lost. Venturing a bit further into the French speaking region of Wallonia, the tourist is regaled with the sights of Namur and Dinant. I lost my way once driving towards Namur and drove through vast, empty farmland, broken occasionally by little eating places advertising roasted wild fowl. And then, of course, there is Belgian beer, a thousand different brands of them, of different colours and tastes and potency. Going towards Dutch speaking Flanders, there is the famous little tourist town of Bruges, studded with canals and bridges, such that it is called Venice of the North. It even boasts of a South Indian restaurant.

While Belgium is a beautiful place, where it resembles the Indian political structure most is its adherence to the federal system of governance. With the growing feeling in India that our federal structure is under increasing threat from a rampaging central government, there is much that we can learn from the genesis and evolution of federalism in Belgium and, indeed, from other countries like Australia and from our own past economic history.

Belgium is composed of two linguistic groups, the Francophones of Wallonia and the Dutch speaking peoples of Flanders. The Belgian federal structure comprises of several levels. It is called “double federalism” because it encompasses both “region” and “communities”. There are the regions of Wallonia and Flanders, the former French speaking, the latter, Dutch, besides the capital region of Brussells. There are communities, representing the linguistic groups, primarily the French and the Dutch, but also one for the small minority of Germans. Then there are 589 municipalities, formed into five provinces. At the top of this structure is the Federal government, which has to perform a balancing act between the regions and the communities. As in India, each region has its own powers of taxation. The extent of dependence on the federal government is, however, a great deal less. The “us versus they” approach that defines the Central attitude towards States in India Is, however, not visible in Belgium

The division of power is premised on the roles assigned to different federal substructures. The communities look after functions relating to citizens - education, parts of public health, social assistance and cultural affairs, including radio and television broadcasting. The regions are responsible for economic policy, zoning, environment, housing, water policy, agriculture and parts of energy policy such as energy efficiency, renewable non-nuclear energy, R&D and market regulation. Regions also supervise provinces and municipalities. They have a great deal of authority and can negotiate directly with foreign governments. The municipalities have a legal monopoly on the distribution of energy. The role of the federal government is most delicate. All social security functions are performed by the central government. This leaves it in a difficult position as the years go by. Belgium, with its excellent health care facilities, has an increasingly adverse demographic quotient as average life expectancy steadily rises. This means that the cost of social security will increase year after year and the burden will have to be borne entirely by the federal government. The federal government has also to ensure balance between the regions which means that moneys generated in the more prosperous Flanders will have to be diverted to poorer Wallonia.

The big difference between Belgian federalism and Indian federalism is that the former is the outcome of a process of evolution through discussion and debate. This evolution has not stopped and the process undergoes modification even as circumstances change. The regions were constituted through the First State Reform in 1971. Division of functions between regions and communities took place in 1980 through the Second State Reform. Through the Third State Reform of 1989, regions received expanded responsibilities and full control over resources transferred from the federal government. Division of financial powers was further elaborated through the Fourth State Reform of 1993. The Fifth State Reform of 2001 dealt with some of the requirements of the Brussels community and the French speaking community.

India started from an entirely different premise. At the point of Independence, India was a congeries of princely states and British administered provinces, with Pakistan having broken away from the mainland. It was recognised that the formation of a federal system was necessary as India was too large and too diverse to be administered from a single point. Hence we invented a federal system that created a division of power and functions but at the same time remained strongly unitary. The Australian Oxford academic, K.C. Wheare, considered an authority on federalism, is not even prepared to accept that the Indian constitution is a federal one. He says, “The constitution establishes indeed a system of government which is almost quasi-federal, devolutionary in character, a unitary state with subsidiary federal features, rather than a federal state with subsidiary unitary features.”

Since then, India has evolved. The monopoly of the Indian National Congress over political power has been broken. Strong regional forces have grown. Awareness of regional developmental imbalance has increased. The economy has grown, our global presence has become more significant and different parts of the country have become more aggressive in their demand for a larger share of the pie. In some areas, the yearning for equitable growth has assumed extreme and militant forms, as in the areas in which Left Wing Extremists are present. With the formation of linguistic states, more people from the bottom of the pyramid have access to political power and, consequently, have become more vocal. At the same time, a tug-of-war has emerged between the Centre and the States. The recent attempt to marginalise the role of the States in the management of the pandemic, the failure to recognise the role of the States as being pivotal in the fight against it and the extreme reluctance to empower them and, even more, to trust them are factors that do not augur well for the future of India’s federal democracy. It is time the Centre and States sat together and reworked the fundamental tenets of Indian federalism. This is what Prime Minister Modi wanted when he said, “Federalism is no longer the fault line of Centre-State relations but the definition of a new partnership of Team India. Citizens now have the ease of trust, not the burden of proof and process. Businesses find an environment that is open and easy to work in.”

It is time we shed our rigidities and our prejudices and built a new federal edifice for sustained and rapid growth.