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Is it time to restructure India into smaller states?

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The creation of Telangana—almost 60 years after the people of the region voiced their misgivings about being co-opted into Andhra Pradesh—is yet another step in rationalising and restructuring the Union of States that India is meant to be.

India was never meant to be a union of linguistic states, but a union of well-governed and managed states. Thus, the demand for newer administrative units will be a continuous one, seeking to bring distant provincial governments in remote capitals closer to the people.

The creation of Telangana resulted in the surfacing of old and dormant demands. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced that it was in favour of a separate state of Vidharba to be carved out of Maharashtra. Mayawati has several times expressed a view that Uttar Pradesh needs to be broken into smaller states. Even in Tamil Nadu, Dr. S. Ramadoss of the Pattal Makkali Katchi (PMK), a very regional political party, has mooted a bifurcation of the state, with the northern districts being carved out to form a separate state.

Historically, too, there is some basis to this as the Tamil-speaking region in the past comprised kingdoms centred around Kanchipuram and Tanjore/Madurai. Jayalalithaa shrilly denounced this demand as “secession,” when the PMK had only asked for a smaller state within the Indian Union. The Chennai-centred Tamil Nadu state we now know was the creation of the British.

Similarly, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat and other linguistic states have no historical basis. The yearning for linguistic sub-nationalism is a post-independence phenomenon. Often, this linguistic sub-nationalism has been a fig leaf for secessionism, as we have seen in Tamil Nadu in the past.

The BIMARU states

Each of these states in terms of landmass or population would be larger than most countries in the world.

The biggest states of India—Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh—are also its worst-off states, and hence, the acronym BIMARU for them is most appropriate. They are also predominantly Hindi-speaking, and hence, quite clearly, there is no linguistic or historical basis for their creation and existence as they are. It would be, however, unfair to club Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, as the latter two are in an advanced state of political degeneracy with none of their institutions left with an acceptable degree of integrity.

Since there is a lot to a name, acronym-creators apparently needed Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh for imparting vividness. Yet, within their blanket linguistic conformity, these states cover a vast diversity of distinct regions, with characteristic commonly spoken languages, culture and historical traditions. Each of these states in terms of landmass or population would be larger than most countries in the world. Even without Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh is larger than Brazil, Japan or Bangladesh in terms of population. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that despite the supposed linguistic affinity, there were and still are demands for smaller states from within these large states. All the major political parties supported such aspirations, and three new states were the result.

The creation of these new states—Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand—from the BIMARU big three, and now Telangana from Andhra Pradesh, has provoked a rash of demands for similar restructuring in other areas. The demand is particularly strong in Vidharba where there has been a mother lode of discontent just below the surface for out of work politicians to seek their political fortunes. There is a demand for a Harit Pradesh, consisting of the fertile regions of western Uttar Pradesh. At the farthest corner of India, the demand for the creation of a predominantly Naga state, Nagalim, consisting of all the hilly regions inhabited by the Naga tribes has long been on the table. And then, of course, there is a demand for Bodoland out of the already much truncated Assam, and a Gorkhaland out of West Bengal. This list can be quite long and tedious.

Smaller states

What contributes most to these demands for smaller or, in some cases, larger states is a sense of strong regional affinity that is stronger than the sub-national identity, intensified by uneven economic conditions leading to wide and easily discernable disparities in development. Then, there is the perceived concentration of political power with an identifiable political elite like the Kammas in Andhra Pradesh and Marathas in Maharashtra.

Corruption, too, ceases to be an issue when all political formations are perceived to be equally venal, nepotistic and criminal.

Contributing in equal measure to these is the non-ideological political climate that has descended upon us after one foreign economic paradigm so obviously failed and its economic opposite was deemed as the only way to go. What, after all, are the differences on economic philosophy and management between the BJP, the Congress, the Telugu Desam Party and the Samajwadi Party? Or, for that matter, the CPM? Thus, when real political differences blur, other political differences have to be manufactured to fuel the political bandwagons in the competition for power. Corruption, too, ceases to be an issue when all political formations are perceived to be equally venal, nepotistic and criminal.

At a time when caste has so fragmented the polity, the demand for small states with a long and traditional affinity often cemented by a common agro-climatic reality becomes a strong motivating force to rally the disenchanted and dispossessed to a common cause. But this must not be allowed to discredit the case for smaller and more manageable states.

The 1973 model

The late Dr Rasheeduddin Khan—of Hyderabad, I would like to add—most eloquently made out this case way back in April 1973 in the Seminar, at that time edited by the late Romesh Thapar. He divided India according to its 56 socio-cultural sub-regions, and a map showing these was the centrepiece of the article. That picture still remains embedded in my mind, and whenever I think of better public administration, it is that map which always presents itself in my mind’s eye.

The Seminar map is a veritable blueprint for restructuring India. Out of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, eight distinct sub-regions are identified. These are Uttaranchal, Rohelkhand, Braj, Oudh, Bhojpur, Mithila, Magadh and Jharkhand. The first [as Uttarakhand] and last of these have now become constitutional and administrative realities.

But each one of the other unhappily wedded regions is very clearly a distinct region with its own predominant dialect and history. For instance, Maithili spoken in the area around Darbhanga in northern Bihar is very different from Bhojpuri spoken in the adjacent Bhojpur area. Similarly, Brajbhasha in western Uttar Pradesh is quite different from Avadhi spoken in the central part of the state. India’s largest state in terms of area, Madhya Pradesh, is broken into five distinct regions; Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra into four each; Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Karnataka into three each; Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Orissa into two each, and so on.

The pressure of numbers

Since 1971, India’s population has doubled to over 1.2 billion. Even at constant prices (1980-81), the gross national product has grown by 10 times. In 1971, the total money supply was Rs11,019 crore, whereas it has now grown to over Rs1,200,000 crore. In purchasing power parity terms, it would be closer to Rs60 lakh crore. As a result, naturally, the size and scope of government has also changed.

Our record so far is a cause for great concern, and is a severe indictment of the failure of the system of governance in India.

The 1980-81 budget of the Government of India was a mere Rs19,579 crore. It is now about Rs10 lakh crore. The annual budgets of state governments, too, have grown likewise. States like Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra now have annual budgets of about Rs100,000 crore each. All the states together have a total annual expenditure in excess of about Rs900,000 crore. The total gross fiscal deficit of the states alone is about the same as the Government of India’s.

The total population of India in 1947 was about 320 million. Today, we have about that number of people who are below the poverty line. In the meantime, India has become a very youthful country with 70% of its people below the age of 30, of whom about 350 million are below the age of 14. Clearly, the task of government is not only much more enormous, but also much more complex when the rising expectations, impact of new technologies and demographic changes are factored in. Our record so far is a cause for great concern, and is a severe indictment of the failure of the system of governance in India.

That “the nature of the regime determines the nature of the outcome” is a well-known adage in public administration and public policy studies. The nature of a regime is not only influenced by its constitution, guiding philosophy, and the consequent system of government, but also by the structure of the system.

Unmanageable size

We know from experience, both in the corporate world and in public administration, that monolithic and centralised structures fail when the size and scope of the organisation grows. Thus to compete with Honda and Toyota, General Motors and Ford have had to restructure into smaller and independent operating units. In public administration, this is called decentralisation. De-centralisation not only implies the downward flow of decision-making, but also greater closeness of the reviewing authority to the decision-making level.

State governments are the worst kind of centralised governments masking their regional jingoism as a demand for autonomy.

Thus, if more decision-making flows to the districts and sub-districts, the state government, which is the reviewing authority, must also have fewer units to supervise. I have always held that the real concentration of power is not with the central government but with the state governments. Thus when  persons like Mamata Banerjee or Jayalalithaa or Mulayam Singh Yadav  clamour for greater functional autonomy, they are actually calling for a greater concentration of power for themselves.

From the perspective of good governance, this is clearly unacceptable. Good government also means lesser government, responsive government, closer government and quicker government. Large centralised governments are inimical to good government. State governments are the worst kind of centralised governments masking their regional jingoism as a demand for autonomy.

In 1973, Rasheeduddin Khan wrote:

“the process of the infra-structuring of the Indian federation is not yet over. Therefore, political demands of viable sub-regions for new administrative arrangements are not necessarily antithetical to the territorial integrity of the country. For, every urge for autonomy is not a divisive, but most probably a complementary force; it would not lead to balkanization but to the restructuring of national identity; it is not a fissiparous but a normal centrifugal tendency in a federation; it should not be taken as a call for disintegration of the national sovereignty, but its re-integration.”

The Report of the States Reorganisation Commission, 1955 states:

“Unlike the United States of America, the Indian Union is not an indestructible union composed of indestructible states. But on the contrary the Union alone is indestructible but the individual states are not.”

It would be unfortunate, therefore, if demands for restructuring of India by creating smaller states is seen only as a mere political contest, where the just cause of individual socio-cultural and agro-climatic regions is a weapon in the hands of out of work politicians deprived of a share of the benefits of office.

Small states are a must if we have to keep the republic healthy and strong.

This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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