Time to restructure India
By Prakash nanda
New Delhi, India — When the British left India in 1947, they left two bits of unfinished business. First, they split the country and created Pakistan, which was subsequently split into present-day Bangladesh. The process of partitioning the region can be considered unfinished, with India and Pakistan still fighting over control of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The second unfinished task is that of structuring the government. The country has a quasi-federal structure with power distributed between the central and various state governments. This system has not been completely satisfactory, as many states have demanded more powers from the central government. Conflicts in the state of Punjab in the 1980s and 1990s and the continuing problems in many northeastern states bordering China and Myanmar reflect this.
However, a corollary to the above has made headlines in India in recent days. The Parliament has not being allowed to function in a normal fashion due to agitation by certain members, and life in the important southern state of Andhra Pradesh has come to a halt. The reason is that people within a certain region of the state are demanding that the state be divided and they be given their own new state called “Telangana.”
Presently, India has 28 states and seven union territories. Independent India in 1947 had 16 states and some 10 union territories. But the number of states has increased over time due to the splitting of some big states and the conversion of some union territories into states. The last time cartographers were sent scurrying to redraw India's boundaries was in 2000, when three new states were added – Uttaranchal from the state of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand from the state of Bihar and Chhattisgarh from the state of Madhya Pradesh.
Some newly created states such as Andhra Pradesh, part of the original Madras state; Haryana, part of the original Punjab state; and Maharashtra and Gujarat, originally of the undivided Bombay province, are the creations of protests and hunger strikes by important national leaders.
But many of the new states were formed on the basis of recommendations by the States Reorganization Commission set up in 1955. Formed in the wake of agitation for the creation of a Telugu language-speaking Andhra Pradesh by breaking up Madras province – where Tamil was the other major language – the commission devised in 1956 the highly dubious criterion of linguistic commonality as the basis for new states.
Obviously, that formula is not working now, even in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Ironically, the protagonists of Telangana – one of whose leader’s declaration of a fast-to-death last week unnerved the central government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh enough that it announced its willingness to create a new state – are, like their counterparts in the rest of the state, all Telugu-speaking.
Naturally, the rest of Andhra Pradesh is angry. Its leaders, including those from the ruling Congress Party, are now equally determined to stall any division of the state. The result is chaos everywhere, both in state and central governments.
In fact, this is not all. The Telangana agitation has revived similar demands elsewhere. Last week Mayawati, chief minister of the Hindi-speaking Uttar Pradesh state, India’s most important state politically with 80 members of Parliament, said that she would favor the creation of three more new states – Harit Pradesh, Bundelkhand and Poorvanchal – out of the present state.
Similarly, in the state of Marathi-speaking Maharashtra, agitators for a new state of Vidarbha have got a fresh lease of life thanks to the Telangana demand.
If anything, all these demands have nullified the basic rationale for the creation of new states as given by the SRC in 1956 – linguistic uniformity. Now we have the same language-speaking people fighting for separate statehood.
This in turn raises the question as to what should have been or what should be the rational criteria for statehood in India. Many experts believe that more than language or ethic affinity, “better governance” should be the key. India needs more decentralization of power for the public good. That would be possible if it had around 50 smaller states with populations of less than 50 million – 25 million being a more favored number – and geographical expanses of less than 35,000 square kilometers.
It is being pointed out that India’s relatively smaller states, such as Kerala, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Goa and Sikkim, have made all-round progress thanks to their smaller size.
On the other hand, larger states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have not risen to their potential. In fact, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, India’s largest states, are also its poorest.
These states are tottering on the law-and-order front as well. Their records of governance are dismal and human development is poor. It is in these states that farmers are committing suicide. The only asset these states have is their huge electoral clout.
But there is also a counterview. In a diverse and pluralistic country like India, too much decentralization is not seen as a good thing. In fact, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was not in favor of small states, as he believed they could accentuate the divisiveness in the country. Some of the small states being demanded may not even have enough resources to stand on their own.
Viewed thus, it is time for another commission to evolve more acceptable criteria for statehood. Let India have 50 or more states, but they should be restructured taking into account a range of criteria such as administrative issues, socio-economic factors, language, ethnicity and geography.
In fact, there would be merit in converting metropolitan cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata into union territories or partial states, delinking them from narrow parochial forces.
But such an exercise would have to be extremely cautious, rising above petty political gains and vested interests, if it were to bond the republic rather than create additional fissures.
(Prakash Nanda is a journalist and editorial consultant for Indian Defense Review. He is also the author of “Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy.” He may be contacted at Prakash.firstname.lastname@example.org. ©Copyright Prakash Nanda.)