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The Rediff Special/Amberish K Diwanji

Smaller states: Does size matter?

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Part I: The Smaller States controversy

Among the more important questions concerning the size of states is the question of administrative ability. And along with administration comes the question of financial viability. Is there really an ideal size for both? When the British ruled India, most provinces were more or less comparable in size, roughly equal though their shapes varied. Again, after Independence, when new states were created following the suggestions of the first States Reorganisation Commission, there was not too much of a difference.

T S R Subramaniam, who was a former Cabinet secretary and a former chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populated state and fourth largest in area size, points to the days of the British raj to favour his argument that ‘Size does not matter.’

“The British administration, by any standards, was fabulous all over the country, and it mattered little whether the state was big or small, hilly or in the plains,” he said emphatically. “Let us never forget that the British administration’s mode of transport initially was horseback, and later the telegraph. But there were no difficulties. And this was because of their system of decentralisation.”

However, another former Cabinet secretary Zafar Saifullah, who hailed from the Karnataka cadre, clearly feels otherwise. “Size does matter when it comes to administration,” he insisted. Saifullah quoted the redoubtable C D Deshmukh, the first Indian governor of the Reserve Bank of India and an ICS officer: ‘What is not supervised is not done.’ “This holds true even today especially in the big states where supervision becomes physically difficult as compared to the smaller states,” added Saifullah.

In matters of administration, there is ample tangible evidence to show how the large states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan (collectively dubbed Bimaru, or sick in Hindi) have lagged behind on most development indicators – industrial, economic, and social. This argument has been cited to justify splitting the bigger states in smaller, more compact, units.

While Subramaniam agrees that the big northern states are among India’s most backward he doubts if divisions is really the answer. “The average citizen is concerned with his basic needs, which any local or district administrator should be able to satisfy and provide. This is how the British ran such a fine administration, because the district collector, police officer, and magistrate could meet 90 per cent of the district’s needs without recourse to the state capital, to senior officials or politicians.

“But what has gone wrong today is that there is too much political interference, so much so that for every small matter the district collector has to call up the state capital for confirmation of his actions. And this getting back process is what creates a time lag, a distance, and above all, a case for prejudices and biases among the political class in preferring one area or class of citizens over the other. This is what often causes specific regions to demand statehood, because they feel neglected by the state capital and its ruling establishment,” said Subramaniam.

According to the former UP chief secretary, political interference is not just at the local level but at all levels which saps the morale of the administrators. And it is not perhaps coincidental that charges of interference in day-to-day functioning is far greater in the big northern states than in the other states.

Saifullah also added that even the civil service has seen a decline in standards. “Big states have big problems, and with even the quality of civil servants deteriorating, management of big states has become extremely difficult. It is not just a coincidence that some of the biggest states are most badly administered, whereas smaller states in the north, such as Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh are efficiently run.”

Poor political leadership along with weak administration only exacerbates the problems of poverty, underdevelopment, and general backwardness. The favourite example of all is Bihar, considered India’s black hole. And yet, in what must rank as the irony of ironies, a 1956 study by an American insititue found Bihar the country’s best administered state! Today, cynics say that Bihar is the world’s first truly Marxist region “where the state has withered away.”

Subramaniam points out that creating a state is a very expensive business. “Any state will need certain insititutions such as a legislature, secretariat, Raj Bhavan, a high court, accommodation for the services, etc. What happens then is that scarce resources, badly needed for development activities and the like, are often diverted to set up the symbols of statehood, thus only harming the people,” he says.

But is financial success inferred by size? “Certainly not!” said a government official who did not wish to be named. “For instance, in the eighth plan, Bihar has used only 25 to 30 per cent of its outlay, which only goes to show the waste of resources. Haryana, on the other hand, with its extremely limited resources, is very well off.”

The Smaller States controversy, continued

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