Sixty years ago, this month, newly independent India redrew the boundaries of its states on linguistic grounds. Fourteen new states and six Union territories were created and the previous British system was abolished.
The States Reorganisation Commission (SRC), constituted in 1953, led to the seminal Act of the same name on 1 November 1956. The first linguistic state to be created in India was Orissa (1936), primarily owing to the efforts of a local lawyer named Utkal Gourav Madhusudhan Das.
Subsequent calls for a linguistic division in independent India met with a mixed response. A first attempt through the Dar commission ended with the commission recommending against a linguistic division in India. A second commission—called JVP for its protagonists Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya—constituted to evaluate the Dar commission’s report concluded by endorsing it but left the door open for further discussion. The SRC, led by retired Supreme Court Justice Fazal Ali, overturned that thought and unequivocally recommended linguistic division. It is widely accepted that this masterstroke was one among a few strategies that have helped preserve the unity of India.
Since then, many states and Union territories have been created. Puducherry in 1956, Gujarat and Maharashtra in 1960, Goa in 1961, Nagaland in 1963, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh in 1966 and Meghalaya in 1972, and so on. Jharkhand, Uttarakhand (then Uttaranchal) and Chhattisgarh were formed in 2000. Telangana’s creation in 2014 saw, for the first time, a reversal of the linguistic principle. The Telangana region has for many decades considered itself under-appreciated and under-invested relative to the richer Seemandhra region, and this relative insecurity has won over the bonds of language that dominated the argument around the time of independence.
Do the recent splits, particularly the Telangana one, suggest the need for a wider and deeper look at another reorganization of states? In my Visible Hand column titled The States Of Our Union in August 2013, I make a basic case for a new SRC. Here is a more detailed argument, but first the current background.
There have been calls to break continentally sized Uttar Pradesh into smaller, more efficient state units. The four new states suggested—Purvanchal, Harit Pradesh, Bundelkhand and Awadh Pradesh—have the backing of Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and there may be some momentum if she returns to political power there.
Other demands, such as those for Gorkhaland, Bodoland, Kukiland and Kosal are based on a distinct culture or ethnicity or on language (Tulu Nadu, Mithila) or on relative economic neglect (Vidarbha and Saurashtra). Beyond language, the reasons for the creation of states have been anchored on unity and security, cultural specificity, administrative ease and welfare planning.
In an article written in February 2013 titled “Living Together, Separately”, in The Hindu, historian Ramachandra Guha states that the central principle for reorganizing states should shift from unity to the efficiency and quality of governance. I believe that the time has indeed come to take a detailed and serious look at constituting another SRC. One important angle should indeed be ease of administration and facility for decentralizaton. To this, I will add economic viability.
A new SRC will by definition be an institution that functions in the political economy and can therefore not simply ignore calls for language, cultural specificity or economic neglect as the basis. Re-districting in a democracy can be fiendishly complicated. However, in the interest of a strong country and a prosperous people, it should centre its recommendation on administration and economics. Neither identity nor economic neglect makes for good collating principles.
Telangana and Vidarbha are likely to struggle more when cut off from their richer siblings. Furthermore, both Telangana and Vidarbha get converted into landlocked states, a serious economic consideration and one that importantly affects their economic prognosis.
If an administrative principle were to guide the break-up of Maharashtra into two more manageable units, far better to draw a north-east south-west line that creates two states with Konkan, Khandesh, western Maharashtra, Marathwada and Vidarbha in one and the four regions (except Khandesh) in the other, with both units having access to the Konkan coast. Both states will then have a better shot at economic viability and administrative ease than that achieved by simply breaking it on an east-west Vidarbha versus the rest case.
Of course, administrative logic can be applied more exclusively for an already landlocked state like Uttar Pradesh. A populous state like West Bengal that has a long coast but is dealing with a politically explosive topic like immigration from Bangladesh will pose a bigger challenge. Even there, better to use an economic viability basis than an ethnicity basis (Gorkhaland?) for a split.
Sixty years on and with a dramatic change in context, it is time to tackle the issue of new states proactively rather than reactively. It is bound to be difficult and challenging in a vibrant political democracy but it’s better to plan it than to have it happen.
P.S. “By common endeavour we can raise the country to a new greatness”, said Vallabhbhai Patel.
Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand