The complicated business of India’s internal boundaries

At least two generations of Indians have grown up taking India’s internal boundaries—drawn based on linguistic logic—for granted. As a colleague pointed out in an email exchange last week, the linguistic organisation of Indian states pre-dates the States Reorganisation Commission of 1955. The Hindi-speaking province of Bihar was carved out of the Bengal presidency in March 1912 by the British colonial government. After independence it was the agitation by the Telugu-speaking people spread across three political units that galvanised the process that ultimately led to the states as we have come to know them.

The logic of language was most salient in the non-Hindi speaking regions. Unlike in linguistic states, the Hindi-speaking people were not organised into one single state, but spread across several states. Their boundaries didn’t seem to evoke much of a controversy then, nor do they do now. Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarkhand were carved out of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh without fuss, and the proposed further divisions of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh do not arouse a lot of public emotion.

It is the demand for and the decision to create a new Telangana state out of Andhra Pradesh that challenges the logic of linguistic organisations, for both states have a majority of Telugu-speaking people. To a large extent, they share the same culture. History—Telangana being part of the Hyderabad Nizam’s dominion while Andhra was under British rule—created differences in the political economies that underpin the disgruntlement accompanying their merger into one state as well as the demand for separation. Telugu solidarity was trumped by other factors.

In contrast, Tamilians, Kannadigas, Malayalees, Marathis, Gujaratis and others do not currently have issues that divide them to an extent that they demand a division of their states. Even so, there are significant linguistic minorities in many states who could—and some have—raise a demand for their own linguistic state. So even as Telangana challenges the logic of linguistic organisation, it could spur demands based on that very principle elsewhere in India.

What should we make of India’s internal political boundaries? First, there is a degree of merit in linguistic/ethnic organisation of a highly diverse polity like India’s. This allows a diverse population to be part of a larger nation-state with a reasonable degree of security over preserving its language and cultural heritage. This does come at a cost of creating linguistic-ethnic minorities who are considered too small (or too weak) to have their own states. It also comes at the cost of ignoring other factors like governability and physical geography.

Second, while it does appear that bigger and more populous states are less likely to be better governed, the solution does not automatically lie in smaller states. Despite the setting up of governmental structures at the municipal and panchayat levels, the devolution of power is choked at the level of states. State governments have a stranglehold on financial and administrative power, which leaves us with a disempowered, emaciated local government structure. (See Shankkar Aiyar’s op-ed essay). Further decentralisation to the local government level is an alternative to smaller states, at least as far as better governance is concerned. Such decentralisation is necessary even if we create smaller states.

Third, there is a case for incorporating physical geography into the logic of state boundaries. This could, for instance, turning inter-state disputes over river water sharing into intra-state policy issues. India’s abysmal record on environment management is in part due to ecosystems straddling political boundaries. Reorganising state boundaries to better align with physical features can create the conditions for better environmental governance. While this might be a difficult proposition where linguistic and ethnic emotions are running high, it might be possible in the Hindi-speaking regions.

Finally, however states are organised, there must be greater emphasis on the representation ratio. Just how can one Member of Parliament represent over 3 million people, as the MP for Outer Delhi does? A Lok Sabha MP, on an average, represents 1.3 million voters. A legislator in Karnataka, on an average, represents around 200,000 voters. While it is impractical to raise the number of seats in parliament and legislatures in accordance to population growth, it is dangerous to let the representation ratio get out of hand. Smaller states can, but not necessarily will, address this problem.

Unfortunately, the demand for political reorganisation tends to arise only from cultural insecurity and grievance, causing the political system to respond accordingly. Respecting linguistic diversity at the sub-state level, empowering local governments, managing representation ratios and respecting ecological zones—factors that are likely to lead to better governance outcomes—just don’t arouse the same passions.

Let’s not forget that decades after Independence, India is still not a common market. It is important that the enthusiasm for smaller states should not undermine progress towards one.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.