The Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, recently declared that Delhi hospitals were closed to non-residents of the state. Although the order was overruled by the Lieutenant Governor, it brought the debates around federalism, particularly the notion of 'state citizenship', into the spotlight.

The notion of state citizenship comes from the United States, where one is not only a citizen of the nation but also considered a citizen of the specific state in which one resides. On the matter of state citizenship in America, Ambedkar observed that individual states could legally deny certain rights to non-state citizens or residents, resulting in ‘a considerable difference in rights between citizens and non-citizens of the State.

Although Delhi is legally considered a Union Territory under the administration of the Centre, its local government has administrative powers almost equal to that of the states. The Constitution (69th Amendment) Act 1991 allowed Delhi to elect Members of Legislative Assembly who could pass laws on almost all subjects under the State List and the Concurrent List, which includes ‘public health and sanitation; hospitals and dispensaries.’

Ambedkar was strongly in favour of ensuring uniformity in the rights available to Indian citizens. In explicitly rejecting the American model of state citizenship, he made it clear that:

the proposed Indian Constitution is a dual polity with a single citizenship… of India…There is no State citizenship. Every Indian has the same rights of citizenship, no matter in what State he resides’.

India is considered a unitary nation with federal features, many of which were inspired by the American constitution. However, Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar expressed the view of the Assembly when he disavowed a proposal to adopt the American model of state citizenship as one which would ‘affect the chapters relating to fundamental rights which have been passed with the assent of everyone’. 

Many have denounced Kejriwal’s order as unconstitutional and arbitrary due to the distinction it creates between residents and non-residents of Delhi for the purpose of access to healthcare. It is noteworthy that even under the American system, state citizenship is grounds to limit certain political and economic rights for non-state citizens, and is not used to restrict the application of social welfare measures. 

While states retain the power to legislate on matters of public health, will this situation serve as a warning that the federal features of the Constitution cannot be used to deny fundamental rights to Indian citizens?

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