India’s make-up will soon start looking different. Backward Bihar will no longer be its second most populous state. That status will go to Maharashtra, India’s most industrialised province. Uttar Pradesh, the largest state, will become further ‘Mandalised’ with the separation of Uttaranchal, which is 97 percent ‘upper caste’ in composition. And with Chhattisgarh’s severance, sprawling Madhya Pradesh will cease being the country’s single largest repository of tropical forests and minerals.
These are major changes, with more yet to come. Many new regions are already demanding statehood: from Kutch and Saurashtra in the west, to Bodoland and North Bengal in the east, from Bundelkhand and Harit Pradesh (western UP) in the north, through Malwa and Vidarbha in the centre, to Telengana and Coorg (Kodagu) in the south.
Strangely, behind this strong federalist impulse lies another reality: the extremely centralised character of India’s constitutional and political structure. India’s Parliament can alter the states’ boundaries without so much as a pretence of consultation with them, leave alone a referendum.
Nevertheless, in the long run, it is federalism, and devolution of powers that must prevail. More and more new states are generally welcome as a necessary component of democratisation. But the real issue is of how much decision-making gets decentralised within them, in devolving right to the village level. Regrettably, India’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has gone about the job in a half-hearted and hasty way, and ignored this vital aspect of downward percolation of power.
Lack of thoughtfulness marks the way the centre-state relationship issue has been played out within the NDA. Part of the reason is that the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) is uneasy with the very premise of federalism. Historically, the sangh has always been devoted to the “One Nation, One People” idea of extreme centralism. For instance, it opposed the 1956 States Reorganisation Commission which suggested the formation of linguistic states. It contended that the creation of more states would unleash “fissiparous” tendencies and lead to India’s disintegration. The sangh and the BJP have since made many opportunistic ‘adjustments’ and ‘accommodations’, but without reforming their core-ideology. Hence, the BJP’s awkwardness with the addition in the number of states.
Secondly, the Vajpayee government hasn’t made a half-way sober calculation of the economic costs of creating new states. The new states will want to be ‘compensated’ and given assistance to build new capitals, with their secretariats, administrative cadres, fleets of vehicles and other paraphernalia of statehood. The ‘parent’ states too are demanding “compensation” for their revenue losses.
Jharkhand accounts for two-thirds of Bihar’s internal resources, and for the bulk of its natural wealth and electricity generation. Bihar wants a loan waiver of INR 30,000 crores and “special assistance” of INR 179,000 crores, to prevent itself from falling prey to what RJD (Rastriya Janata Dal) President Laloo Prasad Yadav calls a future of baadh, balu our bhookh (flood, sand and hunger). Similarly, Chhattis-garh contributes to more than two-thirds of Madhya Pradesh’s revenue, and has been the state’s mining and industrial heartland as well as its rice-bowl (besides growing 70 percent of India’s production of tendu leaves, used in beedis).
This ‘compensation’ will have to come from the Centre, whose tax collection has fallen—thanks to its deplorable failure to tax the rich—to less than 10 percent of the GDP. It is unclear if and how the Centre can find the money.
Practical difficulties apart, the cultural-political rationale for new states remains unassailable. People in the three new entities, all feel culturally alienated from the ‘parent’ states, because their languages/ dialects, traditions and customs have been prevented from flourishing by the preponderant linguistic-ethnic majorities. Internally, each has an identity based upon ecological, agro-climatic and historical-cultural factors, or ethnic similarities and common habits and day-to-day practices. All of them are rich in natural resources, but feel they haven’t been receiving their due share of the economic cake.
Huge states such as UP are undesirable—administratively, culturally and politically. The very size of UP—the sixth most populous country in the world were it to be independent—makes it unwieldy to govern. Even worse, the imposition of homogenous structures of governance and cultural uniformity, means that millions of people, for instance, Bhojpuri-speakers (perhaps 20 million), or Bundelkhandis (only a little less numerous), are forced to give up their language and learn ‘standard’ Hindi.
This entails the smothering of ‘vernacular’ languages, some of which (eg Braj-bhasha) have a rich literature going back several centuries. When an Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Maithili or Chhattisgarhi is overpowered and replaced by Hindi, this Hindi is typically highly Sanskritised, upper caste-oriented and textbookish. It is intolerant of idiomatic differences, ‘local’ accents, or colourful subaltern expressions that don’t fit the sanitised bhadralog lexicon. This runs counter to the spirit of democracy and pluralism, and hence the need for political decentralisation. The forced integration of such disparate groups risks wiping out diversity and retarding the development of distinct cultures. The numbers involved here are huge by world standards: 25 million Maithils, 10 million Chhattisgarhis or five million Uttaranchalis, compared to nine million Swedes, five million Israelis, 7.3 million Bolivians or 5.7 million Burundians.
The lesson for all of South Asia is that we must break with the unitarist structures and practices imposed by erstwhile colonial regimes for administrative convenience. There is no reason why India shouldn’t have many more states-40, 50, even more. This is perfectly in keeping with the spirit and content of Indianness. A large country like India must be richly federal, and it must accommodate multiple types of federal arrangements.
However, decentralisation does not mean merely devolving power from Lucknow to Nainital, from Bhopal to Raipur, or from Patna to Ranchi, and then leaving it upto the regional or local elites to carry on. It is pointless to have bureaucrats and commercial interests of Bhopal merely replaced by the patronage-based ‘political families’ of Raipur working in league with the very industrialists who got the great trade unionist Shankar Guha Niyogi murdered. Devolution means going beyond those elites, and devolving power to the broad mass. Creating more states, then, is no magic wand.
By themselves, they cannot bring about healthy development; they are a necessary, not a sufficient, condition.
Many people in the UP hills believe that Uttaranchal is the poorest or most backward
region of the state today. In many ways, it is not. Garhwal and Kumaon have a smaller proportion (39 percent) of people living in poverty, compared to (supposedly prosperous) western UP’s 42 percent and Bundelkhand’s 62 percent. The UP Planning Department’s list of the 15 most backward districts—in per capita income, literacy, roads, etc—does not include any of Uttaranchal’s eight districts. But Uttaranchal is certainly an instance of mal-development, violent disruption of ecology and imposition of large dam projects where smaller ones are needed.
This holds a larger lesson. To be relevant to people, development schemes have to start from below and address people’s real needs. Only then will the authentic rationale of democratic decentralisation unfold. Ultimately, people-oriented decentralisation alone can empower the wretched of the South Asian soil.