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Home > News > Columnists > Rajeev Srinivasan

Why is the South doing well?

November 13, 2006

The four southern states -- Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu -- now lead the country in a number of indices, including education. It is telling that the four traditional metropolises -- Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta and Chennai -- are now being challenged at every turn by Bangalore and Hyderabad. Indeed, I would claim that Bangalore is giving Mumbai a run for its money as the First City.

Part I of Rajeev Srinivasan's column: The South, ascendant

There is a simple question: Why? What is the reason behind the South's ascendance? An equally simple answer would be: tradition. Or cultural continuity. The South has generally hewed to its ethnic, linguistic, and cultural patrimony, without necessarily being insular. This is the very reason -- rootedness -- behind the South's current growth.

Five thousand years of Indian history are more alive in the South than the North. The grand Indian tradition of reverence for agriculture and for knowledge are nowhere more active than in the South. The civilisation that has evolved in situ that which has weathered thousands of years of El Ninos, droughts and floods, hurricanes and earthquakes, is still in place, mostly undamaged and preserved.

Many observers do give sufficient credence to the value of an unbroken civilisation, even though they may not put their finger on why this has value. I was struck by this fact when I recently read through two papers by Bruce McKern of the Stanford Business School on the competitive advantages of China and India.

The paper on China starts, 'China is one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world, with organized society existing for more than 10,000 years.' The paper on India starts, '...[In 1947 f]or the first time in almost 90 years, India's political, social and economic fate was in its own hands.' What a contrast: McKern's unspoken thought is that China's success can be explained by its hoary antiquity, but India couldn't possibly share that success factor because it is only 60 years old! Typical, but wrong, axiom.

In point of fact, Indian civilisation also goes back at least 9,000 years (to Mehrgarh's city-state in Baluchistan), and it was arguably far more advanced than China's 5,000 years ago. For instance Indian astronomers observed and cataloged celestial events in 3102 BCE, whereas the earliest Chinese observations are from circa 2000 BCE.

But we suffer from this mis-perception -- cultivated by the British and later by the Marxists -- that India has a history only since 1947, which implies that what went before was worthless. To understand India, we have to get beyond this widespread, but completely false, notion. The fact is, the South is doing well precisely because it is the most Indian part of India.

It is clear from the work of economic historians (for instance, Angus Maddison in The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective) that India, based on its inherent endowment, was an exceptional economic engine. According to Maddison's charts, India was generally the world's leading economy until the time of European Christian imperialism, which of course wreaked havoc with the social, economic and cultural fabric of India.

Thus, we need to look no further for the South's rise: it is its very Indian-ness that has been its competitive advantage. It was also fortunate in that the two big external shocks -- Mohammedan conquest and Christian imperialism -- affected South India rather less than they did the North.

For instance, Northern India experienced continuous warfare and turmoil between roughly 1192 CE and 1700 CE due to Mohammedan invasions and Hindu resistance thereto. This meant civilisation ceased to exist, as life was on a war footing. Universities were burned by the invaders; and the arts disappeared -- for instance, Northern India has no classical dances (except the court dance of Kathak), whereas the South and the far Northeast, away from the invasions, do -- and thus all creativity came to a standstill.

The South had the good fortune to be protected by that great bulwark: Vijayanagar. During the time of this empire, there was a flowering of the intellect south of the Vindhyas, while the north was engaged in warfare. For instance, there is the little-known Kerala School of Mathematics and Astronomy around 1400 CE, which invented the ideas of the calculus and infinite series.

For 300 years, Vijayanagar -- this under-appreciated, 'forgotten empire' -- ensured that traditional Indian-ness remained un-extinguished. And that is the simple answer for why the South is better off: because of Vijayanagar, which ensured cultural continuity. To support that point, in the South the areas that are most under-developed today have large Mohammedan populations: parts of Andhra, northern Karnataka, and Malabar in Kerala, places that faced jihads, violent conversions and loss of cultural continuity.

The other major catastrophe, Christian imperialism, also seems to have affected Southern India a little less harshly than the North. It is true that Mike Davis' magisterial Late Victorian Holocausts lists the many terrible famines that afflicted the Deccan under European rule (see my previous column, The predatory State) which killed many millions.

These famines were man-made, and there were more under a hundred years of European domination (31) than in the previous two thousand years (17). But the very fabric of society was not destroyed by the Europeans in the South, unlike in Bengal. The Europeans created a permanent underclass by systematically ruining the small artisans of Bengal: skilled, prosperous artisans and tradesmen were overnight reduced to paupers, landless, unskilled laborers, when the Europeans implemented massive trade barriers and hollowed out their manufacturing.

Although the Brahmaputra delta and the Kaveri delta, the economic centres of India which accounted for most of 25 per cent of the world's -- yes, the world's -- GDP in 1750, were ruined, the South seems to have come back relatively well, although there are still pockets of deprivation. What remained intact is an obsession with knowledge and with education, which has led to the South leading the country in that field -- with Chennai and Bangalore in the forefront of intellectual property creation, which is the need of the hour. (See my column India as creator of the future)

The fact of the matter is that India is not a developing country, but a re- developing country, and the South is simply re-developing faster, because it has managed to retain just a fraction more of the traditional Indian-ness. This Indian work ethic (see my 1994 column in Hinduism Today on the Hindu work ethic) is what made India such a powerhouse in centuries past, and it is the unleashing of this entrepreneurial creativity that has enabled India to grow at 8 per cent. There is no reason that the rest of the country cannot catch up with the South, and I continue to be most bullish about Bihar and Orissa, the laggards of the day.

The South is only marginally ahead, and I am glad that the South retains its distinctive cultures, language and cuisines. E pluribus unum: the diversity that the South brings, and its skills in agriculture and intellectual property, are valuable parts of the Indian cultural mix. Kudos to the rampaging South, but let it be emphasised that despite minor irritations, Southerners are emphatically Indians; to paraphrase Orwell, only more so.

Comments welcome at my blog at

Rajeev Srinivasan

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Number of User Comments: 154

Sub: Get over it people

I (a southie) have lived in the North and for about 7 years (Rajasthan, New Delhi) and visited Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. There ...

Posted by VR

Sub: Kudos to the writer

I had a realisation that if South India was not part of India we would have been as "smart" nation as our neighbour country at ...

Posted by akshat chaturvedi

Sub: 2 Peas in a Pod: Rajeev and Bal Thakeray

Rajeev Srinivasan is an ignorant man who passes for a writer who passes for a patriot. To believe the gall of this man who lives ...

Posted by Ashok

Sub: Hindi to unite India

I think Hindi should be used for all central govt communication, and local language should be used for state level business. English should be banned ...

Posted by Ashish

Sub: why south is doing well

the share of south indians in the IAS and IPS and other central services is very limited as can be seen from the statistics available ...

Posted by vijayavittal mulbagal



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