Why India needs smaller states, maybe 50 of them

The logic behind the creation is sound. But the logic leads to the creation of more states, including more city-states with greater economic powers.

R Jagannathan July 31, 2013 13:05:30 IST
Why India needs smaller states, maybe 50 of them
Why India needs smaller states maybe 50 of them

Celebrations by pro Telangana protesters shortly after the Congress announcement: PTI

Yesterday's Congress decision to allow a new state - Telangana - to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh has a simple logic behind it: electoral math. If Telangana had not been announced, Congress would have been wiped out in both the Andhra and Telangana regions in 2014. The announcement thus is a matter of self-preservation.

If this wasn't the case, Telangana could already have been a reality by now, for the first announcement on it was made as early as on 9 December 2009 by no less a person than P Chidambaram, then Home Minister. That he reneged on the promise in less than two weeks tells another story. That it took three-and-a-half years and a full-fledged people’s agitation for the Congress to make yet another announcement on Telangana tells the story even more clearly.

However, the politics of the decision need not detain us here. The simple point is that it is a good decision even though it has been arrived at through a process of self-serving logic. Good intentions can sometimes lead to bad results (as BJP’s India Shining campaign did in 2004) and dubious intentions sometimes result in good decisions. Telangana is a case in point.

The first thing to emphasise is that Telangana is not the end. Once you accept the logic of smaller states, you have carry it through: we need smaller states and India could conceivably have at least 50 states, including city-states. In Maharashtra, it should mean not just Vidarbha, but Mumbai as a charter city, a city-state with its own rules.

Nor does the logic of smaller states end with their mere creation. We don’t just need smaller states, but more empowered states. Smaller states without greater economic and constitutional empowerment can amount to nothing. It’s like giving a hungry man a plate with no food on it. The ultimate reasoning behind smaller states is empowerment. India needs to become an Empowered States of India – ESI, to be short – and not just a Union of States, as the Constitution says without giving states enough powers.

Let’s start with the importance of small first.

First, smaller states mean key decisions will be taken closer to the ground. Just as Delhi should not take decisions on food security for Chhattisgarh, Mumbai should not decide what is good even for Vidarbha, where farmer suicides have blotted the landscape endlessly. Solutions to Vidarbha lie closer in Nagpur.

Second, administering large and diverse states is more complex and probably inefficient as well, though there can be economies of scale in some ways. Size cuts both ways. But it stands to reason that politics can be much more focused when the administrative area and population are of manageable proportions. Just as XXL size corporations become bureaucracies, XXL states are inherently inefficient.

Indian states are simply too big for their own good. Even after the creation of Telangana as the 29th state, the average Indian state will have 42 million people - though actual sizes vary widely from the 200-and-odd million of Uttar Pradesh to states such as Arunachal, with just a few thousand people scattered all over.

The European Union, with as many states as India currently (28), has an average per-country population of 18 million. The 50-state USA has an average state population of just 6.25 million.

While we need not compare apples and oranges, the short point is that smaller states bring the rulers and the ruled closer to one another physically and emotionally - and in a democracy that is a very good thing.

Why India needs smaller states maybe 50 of them

Pro Telangana Congress leaders: Reuters

Third, a key reason why smaller states are better is that smaller states reduce diversity. And that too is a good thing. High diversity makes for complex political and administrative calculations. The whole point of creating linguistic states in the 1950s was that they would improve administrative efficiency. Consider how difficult it would have been to administer the Bombay Presidency with at least two major languages (Marathi and Gujarati), or the Madras presidency (with four major linguistic groups to manage – Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam).

The logic now needs to extend downwards. Diversity is not only about language but economic and cultural diversity too. Coastal Andhra has a different economic culture compared to Telangana. Vidarbha is different from Marathwada and western Maharashtra or coastal Maharashtra or Mumbai. Resources cannot be efficiently allocated when there is so much diversity since the power structures so created will hijack them for their own ends.

Smaller states will not eliminate political or policy paralysis, but they will ensure that excess diversity is not the reason for such paralysis. The story of India’s current political logjam – where regional powers try to block or hijack central resources for their own ends - does not bear repetition in the larger states.

The other point about smaller states is empowerment. Once again, the case of Telangana is instructive.

Unlike Vidarbha or North Bengal or Jharkhand (which was carved out of Bihar), Telangana’s problem is not distance from the power centre (Hyderabad is bang in the middle of Telangana); it is a complete disconnect with the power structure that paid obeisance to politicians from the richer coastal districts of Andhra.

How did the development needs of one of the poorest regions of Andhra (Telangana, excluding Hyderabad) get ignored despite having the power centre right there?

The answer is capture of the power centre by Andhra elites with little commitment to Telangana. It is an open secret that Andhra politicians and business families own huge amounts of land in Hyderabad. The late YSR, who was opposed to Telangana, and his son Jagan Mohan Reddy, are both linked to covert land grabs.

One of the reasons why Telangana has been so delayed is that Andhra politicians with benami land holdings had to seek ways to reduce their exposure to Telangana and invest it in the remaining parts of Andhra which will now see a land price boom. Ongole, which is considered a possible new capital for the rump state of Andhra Pradesh, is already seeing a land price rise, with the government itself having bought 30,000 acres.

The logic of smaller states also needs to be extended to the idea of empowered city-states. The reason: cities are now giant administrative centres with their own requirements. The Mumbai metropolitan region, for example, has a population of 18 million – equal to the average European Union country.

Mumbai cannot be administered by politicians who get elected from outside the city. Metros need a more corporate type of governance structures to operate successfully, and the current situation, where the elected city government lacks the power to even sack the municipal commissioner (which only the state government can do) shows why the city is so poorly administered. The elected representatives thus focus on making money – since they can’t do much about governance. Even Delhi cannot have its law and order run by the Union home ministry.

In India, UP is fit for splitting into four states (Mayawati even passed a resolution to this effect, but once again, that turned out to be an election gimmick), Andhra, Maharashtra and Karnataka into three, Gujarat into two (with Saurashtra and Kutch being sliced off), Tamil Nadu and Kerala into two each, and Kashmir into three (Valley, Jammu and Ladakh). Plus there is a case to create charter cities – starting probably with Mumbai. The remaining metros can follow once the Mumbai experiment works. New city-states can also be created from scratch, and the new Andhra capital, wherever it is, provides a great opportunity for experimenting with new city governance structures.

The logic of Telangana necessarily leads to more smaller states, and more empowered city-states.

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