Thinking small

Creating smaller Indian states could be an invitation to anarchy

By Neeta Lal (Issues)

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Published: Sat 24 Aug 2013, 10:59 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:11 PM

If the United States can prosper with 50 states, why can’t India with just 29?” a veteran Congressman riposted as we jaw-jawed over the pros and cons of India being disaggregated into smaller states.

The UPA government’s recent decision to create the country’s 29th state — Telangana — out of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, has unleashed a political storm. Just days after the announcement, regional ethnic and religious groups have upped their ante to ask for separation from their parent states. Demands for the creation of Bodoland, comprising of the Bodo-dominated areas in Assam, have intensified with supporters calling for an economic shutdown.

Violence broke out in West Bengal with a demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland. A lobby in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, is keen that the state be splintered into Purvanchal, Harit Pradesh, Bundelkhand and Awadh Pradesh. Many are advocating that central Madhya Pradesh be carved up into Madhya Bharat and Vindhya Pradesh. Apparently, the Indian government is sitting on 14 demands of separate statehood.

India last redrew its internal boundaries in 2000, with the creation of three new states – Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand-- in the northern half of the country. But the moot point is: do smaller states worked better in a pluralistic and heterogeneous country like India? If yes, then how should the states be carved up and administered? After all, India has five states with individual populations larger than Europe’s biggest nation, Germany. Even the country’s 16th largest state – Haryana -- has more people than the whole of Australia!

Besides, many of India’s 35 states and union territories are at demographic extremes. They are either monsters like UP and Maharashtra (their combined population of 320m is greater than that of the US), or minnows with barely one million people.

In a seminal paper as far back as the mid-70s, Prof Rasheeduddin Khan had argued that India be divided into 56 different states on the basis of social and cultural factors. It is a popular notion that smaller states have better development prospects as they can have a more responsive administration. However, this argument appears flawed.

Being a small state alone doesn’t guarantee good governance, economic performance and welfare of individuals. A basic research on various development parameters of the three states that were created in 2000 proves that small is not always splendid. Rather, it turns out, the new and small states, endowed with rich natural resources, have significantly lower ratings vis-à-vis the agricultural growth of the parent state. Jharkhand, for instance, hasn’t performed well on several development parameters. Worse, it has not even conducted Panchayat elections in the past 10 years.

Ironically, no template was adhered to in carving up the present Indian states. Some were formed on the basis of language, others on the influence of their political leaders while some have almost no basis. States like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and West Bengal, for example, were clubbed together on linguistic lines.

Considering India still hasn’t evolved a scientific way of creating newer states, their division plans are best put on hold. Telangana’s critics argue the state was divided purely with an eye on the 2014 elections. This is a fair criticism. The stakes for the ruling Congress party are high in creating a newer state. Shouldn’t they have held a public debate on the issue? Or consulted its coalition partners?

Nobody objects if the states are bifurcated on a scientific basis. But dividing them purely to accrue electoral gains is an invitation to chaos. The lust for political power seems to be eclipsing constitutional propriety. India’s unity may not be under immediate threat, but more and more states being disaggregated can rupture the national fabric. Eight Indian states are already under militarily governance. Around half a dozen states are fighting water wars. Re-organisation statutes divide territories, resources water, and property, amongst other things. Punjab and Haryana and Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala are still fighting over the reorganisation statutes of 1966 and 1956.

Besides, with the formation of newer states, there will be a competitive scramble for financial spoils — not based on needs, but political patronage and electoral advantage. Long story short, division of India is the antithesis to any sensible reconstruction of constitutional federalism. In such a scenario, the establishment of a second States Reorganisation Commission is in order. Creating new states willy-nilly is tantamount to winning a battle, but losing the war.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based journalist

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