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Why India needs more well-managed and viable states

By Praful Bidwai
August 12, 2013 15:27 IST
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A Telangana supporterIndia’s fear of small states derives from memories of Partition and the paranoid view that it will break up under ‘too many’ states. It’s time to shed such fears and bite the ‘states’ reorganisation’ bullet. India won’t crumble under a few more Telanganas, Vidarbhas or Gorkhalands, says Praful Bidwai.

There cannot be a clearer example of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons than the decision of the United Progressive Alliance, in particular the Congress, to carve a new state of Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh 10 months before the Lok Sabha elections. The Congress made this decision for an indisputably parochial and self-serving reason: to avert an electoral rout in Andhra Pradesh, where it had the highest strike-rate of all states in 2009: 33 of 42 seats.

The Congress’s prospect turned gloomy both in Telangana -- where it had earlier joined hands with the Telanagana Rashtra Samiti -- and in Andhra Pradesh’s two other regions, Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema, often clubbed into Seemandhra, where public sentiment doesn’t favour a new state.

The anti-Telangana YSR Congress led by Jaganmohan Reddy is a formidable force in Seemandhra. In Telangana, public sentiment has turned adverse for the Congress because it dragged its feet on statehood after then Home Minister P Chidambaram thoughtlessly announced Telangana’s creation in 2009. The Congress raised high hopes -- only to betray them. It commissioned the Shrikrishna report, but sat on it for two-and-a-half years instead of preparing the ground for Telangana with it.

However, after the Telangana announcement, the Congress stands to gain on three counts. First, it can at minimum win some seats in coastal Andhra, although probably not in Rayalaseema, to which the late Chief Minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy and his son Jaganmohan belong.

Optimistically, it might even get Reddy to join hands, or merge, with it in a mutually convenient, if venal, arrangement. It’s cynical enough to use the corruption cases against Reddy to cut such a deal.

Second, the Congress can get the TRS to merge with itself, as the Samiti had done in the past, and win most of Telangana’s 17 Lok Sabha seats. (It already holds 12.) And third, it can marginalise the Bharatiya Janata Party in Telangana -- the only region where the BJP has a base of sorts.

If the Congress has been devious and cynical about Telangana, the BJP too is opportunistic and follows double standards. In general, the BJP tilts towards unitarism. But it supports smaller states when that’s expedient – e.g. Uttarakhand, and now Vidarbha. But in Maharashtra, it’s dependent on the Marathi-chauvinist Shiv Sena, which virulently opposes separate statehood for Vidarbha.

Expediency apart -- and leaving aside the irony that Andhra, India’s first state to be created on a linguistic basis, is also now the first to be divided -- the case for a separate Telangana state is unassailable. Before Independence, Telangana belonged to the Nizam’s Hyderabad state, while Seemandhra was part of the Madras presidency. The two had different systems of administration and education, with respectively Urdu and English as the medium of instruction.

In newly formed Andhra Pradesh, people with knowledge of English had a head-start in securing government jobs. Thus, Telangana with 40 percent of the state’s population, only accounts for 20 percent of its government employees, and less than five percent of departmental heads.

The British invested a great deal in irrigation in the coastal region, creating a prosperous class of landowners. Telangana saw nothing comparable and remained backward and poor -- despite being the main source of coastal Andhra’s irrigation waters.

Telangana accounts for 68 and 69 percent of the catchment areas of rivers Krishna and Godavari and hosts major dams like Nagarjuna Sagar. But it gets only 32 percent of the Krishna’s waters. Just 18 percent of the benefits of Andhra Pradesh’s irrigation canals go to Telangana, while coastal Andhra corners 74 percent.

Telangana also accounts for 45 percent of AP’s forests and most of its coal, bauxite and limestone deposits. But much of the power generated from Telangana’s collieries is exported to Seemandhra and the rest of southern India.

Coastal Andhra is industrially more developed, and much richer, than the other two regions. It is also the rice bowl of Andhra Pradesh, and grows cash crops like chillies and tobacco. Telangana has very little industry, barring in Hyderabad and its surroundings. Most of its agriculture is rain-fed, with low crop yields.

Rayalaseema is a case apart. Largely arid or semi-arid, it is Andhra Pradesh’s most backward and deprived region. It has witnessed capital flight to the adjoining districts in Karnataka like Bellary, infamous for the illegal iron ore mining rackets run by the ‘Bellary brothers’. 

Not least, Telangana is markedly different from coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema in culture, ethnic-religious composition and food habits. Unlike the Sanskritised version of Telugu prevalent in Seemandhra, the Telangana people speak a different language, wrongly called dialect, which is strongly influenced by a mixture of (Dakkhani) Urdu, Marathi and Kannada, besides Telugu.

Telangana has a distinct political history going back to the great agrarian revolt of the 1940s under the leadership of the Communist Party of India. This movement first threw up the demand for a Telangana state, which has since been repeatedly expressed in various agitations and which recently gathered further momentum.

The Telangana people believe they are victims of ‘cultural subjugation’, as well as influx into and ‘invasion’ of their land by outsiders. They are looked down upon in Seemandhra’s dominant culture, and often mocked at in the television serials produced by people from there. Whether right or wrong, perceptions and self-perceptions matter.

Another source of popular discontent in Telangana is the region’s economic domination by aggressive entrepreneurs from coastal Andhra, who control much of its industry, trade and real estate, especially in Hyderabad. These entrepreneurs have used political influence -- first through P V Narasimha Rao, India’s prime minister in 1991-95 who initiated liberalisation, and later many others -- to corner lucrative national-level contracts in infrastructure and dam construction.

Coastal Andhra businessmen, such as the GMR, GVK and Lanco groups, own and run whole new airports, chemical and pharmaceutical factories, media and film companies, and a host of other firms in diverse fields. They have made heavy investments in and around Hyderabad, and are loath to lose control over that city. Their opposition to statehood for Telangana is primarily rooted in this.

It’s to placate these interests that the UPA promises to retain Hyderabad as the joint capital of Telangana and Seemandhra for 10 years. But logically, Hyderabad should be the capital of Telangana. It culturally belongs to and lies bang in the centre of Telangana. Unlike, say, Chandigarh, Hyderabad is not at the boundary of two states; it’s remote from coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema.  

The 10-year interval would merely prolong the inevitable divorce. Worse, it would open up the dangerous possibility that coastal business interests with enormous money power will exploit discontent among Seemandhra politicians and foment violence to sabotage Hyderabad’s separation.

A far better, more honest, way to deal with the issue would be to offer Seemandhra a special package which safeguards its businessmen’s legitimate investments in Hyderabad, and funds the construction of a new capital and other institutions needed by their state -- such that Hyderabad’s separation occurs rapidly through a consensual, transparent, impeccably clean, and peaceful process.

The UPA must stop playing partisan politics with the statehood issue by using it selectively, as it has done until now. It must acknowledge that several regions/sub-regions in India have well-founded aspirations to a separate identity and statehood regardless of language. The time has come to move beyond linguistic states towards smaller units, which can be governed better.

The many complex issues this raises would best be resolved by a second states reorganisation commission, which takes a holistic view of various dimensions of statehood and evolves balanced criteria, including non- or trans-linguistic ones.

Among these are: representation for ethnic-linguistic and cultural minority groups; viability of a state as a unit that’s conducive to social development, in particular welfare of underprivileged sub-regions and strata; and equitable handling of administrative matters, including division of physical infrastructure, civil servants, judicial institutions, etc.

Representation is crucial. In a vast country like India, groups elsewhere considered large enough to become nations go unrepresented in the legislature, executive or judiciary. For instance, our nomadic tribes form four percent of the population, or 50 million people -- bigger than all but four countries of western Europe -- who are represented by a sub-critical number of MPs such as one or two. This holds true for small ethnic-cultural minorities in most states.

We must not fear an India of 40, even 60 states, each with an average of 20-30 million people. These would still be the average size of today’s typical nation-state, with 35 million people. If the world’s 10 most-populous countries are excluded, this national average falls to under 16 million. Nations with a few-million or sub-million populations are perfectly viable.

India’s fear of small states derives from memories of Partition and the paranoid view that it will break up under ‘too many’ states. This has even deterred India from creating different time-zones corresponding to longitude differences, which save daylight. It’s time to shed such fears and bite the SRC bullet. India won’t crumble under a few more Telanganas, Vidarbhas or Gorkhalands.

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