Apart from the failure to redistribute land and the subsequent neglect of the agricultural sector, the delayed mobilisation of lower castes, neglect of human development and the growing communalisation of public space are among the major factors that are invoked to explain the economic decline of Uttar Pradesh. On another level, rampant corruption, a dismal law and order situation, the breakdown of public infrastructure, the lack of proximity to major ports and labour unrest in older towns such as Kanpur have also thwarted industrial development.
An insecure New Delhi next door played a role too by exploiting social and political fault lines to block the emergence of leaders in a province that controlled nearly 120 seats in the two Houses of Parliament before the formation of Uttarakhand. The resultant lack of political stability meant insufficient attention to the problems of an unwieldy Uttar Pradesh that is more populous than Brazil.
Between December 1960 and August 2003, only one chief minister completed three years in office. There was no K. Kamaraj or MGR in Uttar Pradesh. Community-based and philanthropic initiatives, particularly in the fields of, say, education and healthcare, did not emerge to fill in the vacuum either. We can try to understand Uttar Pradesh’s economic decline by reflecting on the experience of cities like Kanpur and its neighbouring districts.
The decline of old industrial cities
In 2014, an acquaintance, who worked in the plastic industry for a few years, decided to open a small-scale plastic goods manufacturing unit around Kanpur. After wasting a few months in government offices, he realised that it would be difficult to get clearances in the foreseeable future. He tried his luck in Ahmedabad, where he managed to establish a unit. The unit combined entrepreneurial talent from Kannauj, workers from Etawah (and Bihar), and raw material from Auraiya, to produce plastic goods that were shipped back to Uttar Pradesh for sale. These districts are located within 150 km of Kanpur. This anecdote sums up the received wisdom about Uttar Pradesh’s economic decline vis-à-vis the west and south India. (A similar explanation applies to India’s decline vis-à-vis other countries.)
There is another aspect of Uttar Pradesh’s economic decline, though, that has not received much attention.
Until the 1980s, some of the engineering graduates from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, used to find jobs in the city. This changed in the 1990s when no one stayed back. After the decline of its industries, Kanpur returned to seed with undue haste. It used to be a modern city equipped with a whole range of leading higher education and tertiary healthcare institutions, an array of railway stations, an airport, power plants, numerous parks (I spent many years in a neighbourhood surrounded by a dozen parks including four named after Dasharatha’s sons), wide roads, a variety of cinema halls, libraries, reading rooms, a bustling philatelic bureau and a leading Hindi daily.
As the city’s economic decline continued, it could no longer afford modern amenities. The first to be hit was the airport. Kanpur disappeared from India’s air map without a trace. Soon, all that was left was a decrepit and overcrowded city, connected by decaying roads and overflowing drains. The vacuum was eventually filled by shabby coaching institutions, dingy private nursing homes, and a whole range of small- and medium-scale industries. But Kanpur could not maintain even its first-mover advantage in, say, the coaching sector.
A decade later, higher education institutions began to slip in national reckoning. They found it difficult to attract the best teachers as the city lacked good quality schools, hospitals, job opportunities for spouses, entertainment avenues, and connectivity. IIT Kanpur is, for instance, no longer the avant-garde undergraduate institution it used to be and is certainly not the first choice of students. More than 90 out of the top 100 rankers in the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) opt for IIT Bombay (commercial capital) and IIT Delhi (political capital). This was not the case two decades ago.
While the decline of Kanpur is visible, its impact on the surrounding districts has not received attention.
How it affects other districts
Neighbouring districts like Etawah depended on Kanpur on many counts. (Etawah is located between Kanpur and Agra and the direction of migration depended on family trees and other idiosyncratic factors. But Agra too declined around the same time as Kanpur.) An economically dynamic Kanpur used to partly absorb the surplus labour of Etawah. Migrants working in Kanpur were an important source of capital in Etawah’s labour-surplus agricultural economy. More importantly, they served as role models and conduits of information and new ideas in the district. They would leave behind books, newspapers, and magazines during their weekly visits, when they would also advise their siblings in farming and other occupations. Children of farmers would go on to stay with relatives in Kanpur for higher studies and even otherwise visit their urban kin once in a while and come back charged with new tastes and dreams.
Once Kanpur began to crumble, the educated class employed in the formal sector were the first to abandon it. They could no longer visit their villages regularly. An important conduit of role models, information and ideas collapsed. They first restricted their visits to festivals and then to life-cycle ceremonies, but the Covid-19 pandemic has put an end to even that. During festivals, the village square now wears a deserted look even as the college-bound children of the educated migrants anxiously search for rural locations for “field immersion”.
The village square is no longer the place where one met a PhD in agriculture from Chicago, a soldier who served with the Indian Army abroad, a sadhu from Gorakhpur, a telephone technician from Agra, a textile worker from Kanpur and a labour union leader and journalist from Gwalior. Children no longer have the range of role models to emulate in front of them and most sink into India’s deepening agrarian crisis.
The informal sector workers, however, continued to visit their villages regularly. Denied property rights in the slums, they maintained claim upon their agricultural land, which guaranteed basic access to food and employment, and membership of their village, which offered refuge when the urban dreams soured. Moreover, stringent restrictions on the sale of agricultural land forced migrants to maintain a documentary connection with villages.
Village communities, too, retained migrants in all possible government records, including electoral rolls, to boost their bargaining power in local politics and enhance access to headcount-linked schemes. Migrants dutifully returned to vote in panchayat elections, from as far as Mumbai. Both sides understood that once headcount-linked benefits were scaled down, the government would not increase the allocation in response to reverse migration. The relationship between villages and informal sector migrants was symbiotic. But these migrants brought back much lesser capital and even smaller dreams.
A widespread tale in Uttar Pradesh
This is the story of most of the old cities of Uttar Pradesh and their adjoining districts and countless villages.
Postscript: The economic revival of the state requires its partition into smaller states. This will have several advantages. The smaller states will be culturally and linguistically closely knit. New Delhi will not be overzealous to control them. They will be liberated from the one-size-fits-all policies of Lucknow that apply to, say, eastern as well as western parts of the state that are poles apart in terms of social and economic conditions. The fact that none of the smaller states will be the mainstay of raj/rashtra-bhasha Hindi and Hindutva, will be a huge relief because it will allow the governments to focus on real issues. These states will build new capitals that will revive the older regional cities and the adjoining districts. Policy and cultural competition among the smaller states will lead to experimentation, spurring social and economic development.
Vikas Kumar teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, and is co-author of ‘Numbers in India’s Periphery: The Political Economy of Government Statistics’ (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)