Every time Uttar Pradesh makes us cringe, we are tempted to think of the state’s size. It has a mind-boggling population of 220 million people. The argument is often that it’s a state too large to be governed from one state capital, by one chief minister.
Extrapolating this argument, one might also argue that India itself is too big to govern, that it’s too big to be one country. We are witness to how Prime Minister Narendra Modi shut down the entire country for weeks, and was still unable to prevent the Covid-19 graph from climbing higher.
However, nobody talks about India’s size as a liability. It is always seen as a strength. Its size gives the country international heft, provides it economies of scale, allows it to earn tax from its richer regions and spend them on the poorer ones.
The same arguments also apply to Uttar Pradesh. If the state was divided into smaller ones, it would be a loss for the poorer regions. Poorvanchal and Bundelkhand would be begging the centre for special packages, and only getting political propaganda in return. Being part of this big entity allows Lucknow to spend revenues from the richer west on the poorer east. It allows Lucknow to think big, like building a world-class highway from Delhi to Lucknow and expanding it eastwards.
The sordid Vikas Dubey ‘encounter’ has renewed calls to divide up UP. The most recent new state to be created in India was Telangana, where a rape-accused was similarly murdered in a brazen fake encounter, just a few months ago. It was by no means an exception for the Telangana police.
Defang the CMO
If UP was divided into smaller states, it might still have fake encounters, depending on what the chief minister of the day thinks is the best way to deal with crime and its political repercussion. To end the kind of political protection and patronage Vikas Dubey enjoyed for 20 years, and to stop such medieval executions called ‘fake encounters’, we need something tougher than creating small states: police reforms. For long, there have been calls to make laws that give the police force a degree of autonomy and independence from the ruling party.
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The size of administration argument is better applied at the district level. UP’s population has increased from 13 crore in 1991 to approximately 23 crore in 2020. Yet the number of districts has increased from 63 to only 75 in the same period. It might thus be more useful to double the number of districts in UP, than to divide the state. In any case, once smaller states are created they are likely to create smaller districts. Uttarakhand, that separated from UP in 2000, has 13 districts for a little over a crore people.
UP’s dead cities won’t be much better off with smaller states, because its chief ministers will still draw political power from the rural expanse rather than the resource-thirsty cities.
In 2016, I met the mayor of Varanasi. From him, I learned how the BJP has a permanent hold over the city’s municipal corporation. As part of a pact with the Japanese city of Kyoto, he had visited Kyoto. I asked him why he wasn’t bent on turning Varanasi into Kyoto, why its streets were still dirty with pollutants flowing into the Ganga. I thought he would blame the then Samajwadi Party in power in the state, but he refused to do so. He said when he visited Kyoto he was shocked to see how powerful the mayor there was. In Varanasi, he can’t even make a decision on a new waste management plant. It is Lucknow which makes such decisions.
That doesn’t change no matter which party comes to power in Lucknow, or in the Varanasi municipal corporation. If Purvanchal was a separate state, the Varanasi mayor still would still have puny powers, and a punier budget.
No chief minister wants to relinquish their powers. To be a chief minister in an Indian state is akin to being a king. This concentration of power affects villages as much as cities. The revolution India needs requires making the Zilla Sarpanch, the elected head of a district, more powerful than the district’s MP, MLAs and District Magistrate. India is said to be run by the PM, CM and DM, and of these three the last is an unelected extension of the chief minister’s office. That’s the crux of the problem, and it will hardly change with smaller states.
But these problems are shared by all states. Why is UP considered our worst governed state? The answer lies in the history of unstable governments from 1991 to 2007. This was the period when western and southern states made good use of a newly liberalised economy. But unstable governments in UP meant politicians were busy looting the treasury because they didn’t know when the next election could come upon them.
That changed in 2007, with Mayawati winning the first single-party majority in 17 years. Since then, the state has actually improved on many counts: roads, electricity, urban infrastructure, and even policing. Mayawati, followed by Akhilesh Yadav and now Yogi Adityanath, have in their own ways taken on the mafias in politics. The reduction in political competition with clear majority governments made this possible, Vikas Dubey notwithstanding.
The other problem with UP is that it is a poor state, especially its east, just like India’s eastern regions. This means the state has limited capacity, for example, to hire manpower. A senior UP bureaucrat tells me the state has only one panchayat secretary to look after eight Gram Panchayats. Whereas a state like Andhra Pradesh has a 10 member team overseeing the development of just 2,000 households, a system that is separate from the Gram Panchayats but works closely with them.
The lack of state capacity is seen in every aspect of governance in UP, especially eastwards. There is no government department that is not under-staffed — not even the police.
The people don’t want a divided UP
An easy way to judge whether small states are a better idea, is to look at the new states that have been recently created. Data can be used to argue either way. Many would say Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have improved a lot since they were turned into new states, but so have their parent states, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Both Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand continue to suffer from a range of issues, from Left-wing extremism to deaths from hunger.
The argument that new states increase access to power for citizens, with the state capital coming closer, doesn’t really hold in the digital age. In any case, this argument is a reflection of how broken governance is at the district, tehsil, block, gram panchayat and municipal levels. Fixing this is much harder, but much more important and fruitful than creating new states. Even if UP is divided into smaller states, there will still be caste groups with their own mafia dons and the police will still be a law unto itself.
The real reason why UP may not be divided up into small states anytime soon is that there’s no demand for it from the public. The creation of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Telangana, all happened due to sub-regional movements. It was identity politics, which can no doubt be very important. If adivasis in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand feel they need a state that protects their way of life, so be it.
But in UP, even the fledgling movement for a separate Bundelkhand has fizzled out. There’s no sub-regional identity politics in UP, because the common man in the state feels UP is India, a melting pot of the north.
It is understandable that people outside UP resent the heft the state gets in national politics with 80 Lok Sabha seats. Even the Gujarati Narendra Modi had to go through UP to show he wasn’t a regional, but a national leader. The people of UP realise how they come to define the national, and thus don’t desire being broken up into smaller states.
This heft may be decried as disproportionate, but it cuts both ways. The regional parties of UP — the SP and the BSP in particular — have also acted as a check and balance on New Delhi. Too many small states will be too easy for the central government to ride roughshod over. UP’s heft in national politics actually strengthens federalism.
The author is contributing editor, ThePrint. Views are personal.
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