RIGHT ANGLE – Governance, not Language, Matters

by Jan 2, 2023Blogs0 comments

The ongoing fracas between Karnataka and Maharashtra over the status of Marathi and Kannada-speaking towns and villages along their border seems to have crossed the civility. It is particularly so when the dispute is under the review of the Supreme Court. In fact, the dispute is hilarious as both the state governments are ruled by the BJP. So much so that on December 14, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had met Karnataka Chief Ministers Basavaraj Bommai and Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and had sent out a strong message that the border dispute had to be resolved “through constitutional means” and that, till the “Supreme Court gives its verdict, no State will claim or generate demand for any territory as its own”.

This directive of their own Union Homer Minister has been defied by the two state governments. The two Assemblies have passed resolutions, legitimizing their respective positions. But in my considered view, it is the Maharashtra government that has been really hyper on the issue. The ruling Shiv Sena – BJP alliance has been literally trapped by that wily fox of Maharashtra politics Sharad Pawar and his new “Hanuman” Udhav Thakrey, who started the present round of the controversy.

All told, the border dispute between the two states is a complex issue that has legal implications for the federal structure of the country. It is more than what the linguistic chauvinists on both sides mean. It raises questions about the efficacy of the creation of states on the basis of language in 1956. It may be noted that the modern State of Karnataka (which was known as Mysore till 1973) was formed in 1956 by combining Kannada-speaking regions of the erstwhile colonial provinces of Bombay and Madras, the princely state of Hyderabad, and the Chief Commissionerate of Coorg with the princely state of Mysore. And it so happens that some predominantly Marathi-speaking areas are there in Karnataka and some Kannada-speaking areas are there in Maharashtra. But then, this is not unique in the cases of these two states. There are many Telugu-speaking areas in Odisha and many Odia-speaking areas in Andhra Pradesh. Same is the case with the border areas of the states of Odishas and Bengal and the states of Odisha and Jharkhand.

It may be noted that unlike the United States, which is an “Indestructible Union of Indestructible States”, in a quasi federal country of India, only the “Union” of India is indestructible, not the States. Presently, India has 28 States and 8 Union Territories, after the Union territories of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman & Diu were combined as one single union territory on 26th January 2020. But when India became independent in 1947,there were only 16 States and some 10 union territories. Since then the number of States has gone up due to the splitting of some big States and the conversion of some Union Territories into States. Telangana became a separate state in 2014 after the splitting of Andhra Pradesh. Before that, cartographers were sent scurrying to redraw India’s boundaries 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.

Still earlier, even the undivided Andhra Pradesh was created out of the original Madras state; Haryana, out 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.

Many of such 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, ironically, 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. New demands for Statehood 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 ethnic affinity, “better governance” should be the key. India needs more decentralisation 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 favoured 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 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 and human development are said to be relatively poorer. The only asset these states have is their huge electoral clout.

It may be noted that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and B R Ambedkar, who was the chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution, were not in favour of the creation of the states on linguistic basis. Ambedkar pointed out, “The commission evidently thinks that the size of a state is a matter of no consequence and that the equality in the size of the status constituting a federation is a matter of no moment. This is the first and the most terrible error cost which the commission has committed. If not rectified in time, it will indeed be a great deal”.

Ambedkar realised that the disparity in population sizes was a ‘fantastic’ result, bound to create huge costs for the nation. His opposition to the commission’s recommendations stemmed from the imbalance of political power in the country—the large states in the north and balkanisation of the south would pit the two regions of the country against each other. The solution he offered used the size of the state and administrative effectiveness for making smaller states in the north: dividing the three large states—Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh and using the rule that ‘a population of approximately two crores which should be regarded as the standard size of population for a state to administer effectively’.

As Ambedkar clarified, “One language one state should be the rule, but people with the same language can divide themselves into many states—this promotes more uniform balance of power within the country, satisfies social needs and most importantly, creates units that can be administered with ease, leading to better growth performance for the nation.” In fact, he went into greater detail analysing his home state Maharashtra with an area spanning 1.74 lakh square miles—it “is a vast area and it is impossible to have efficient administration by a single state”. According to his analysis, economic, industrial, educational and social inequalities in the regions of Maharashtra make for a clear division of the state into four parts—Bombay, Western (Konkan), Central (Marathwada) and Eastern (Vidarbha).

But there is also a counterview. In a diverse and pluralistic country like India, too much decentralisation is not seen as a good thing. In fact, Nehru was not in favour 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. Also, a smaller state does not always mean a smaller government. In fact, here, at least in the short and medium term, the cost of administration will increase, for one would be duplicating a lot of the existing systems and resources in the new state.

As bureaucrat/columnist Srivatsa Krishna argues, it is a myth that big states do not deliver. Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have done well economically. It is pointed out in this context how even in the United States, the states which are the economic dynamo of America are the larger ones such as California, New York, Texas, Illinois, and not Montana or Wyoming. Stellar research by Michael Porter at Harvard Business School indicates that within each country there are clusters—the US has at least 400—which are the engines propelling growth, and these are spread all across the US, not correlated with a big or small state.

Krishna also makes another interesting point. Drawing from statistics, he proves that there is no overwhelming difference between the newly created states and their parent states in terms of poverty, electricity generation, irrigation and revenue generation etc. “What has been seen to consistently matter is the quality of government intervention, and it is debatable whether this improves with the size of government or with the quality of leadership, as such evidence is still nascent and mixed. There is very little to prove that a smaller state would mean a smaller government too. On the contrary, at least in the medium term, a relatively larger government would be needed to ‘duplicate’ all the existing functions in the new state”, he argues.

What the above arguments, both in favour and against the creation of smaller states, suggest is that we are yet to come across the rational criteria for statehood in India. I think that more than language or ethnic affinity, “better governance”, taking into account a range of criteria such as administrative issues, socio-economic factors, language, ethnicity and geography, should be the key. In fact, there would be merit in converting metropolitan cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, 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.

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