As the political process unravels with renewed vigour, the politics over Telangana has reached a tipping point. The outpouring of sentiments reflecting the deprivation faced by the people of Telangana has paralysed Andhra Pradesh for close to a month now. The current impasse seems to be over the status of Hyderabad, a city that has come up as a global hub and has a large population from the Andhra region. However, we know that there is broad agreement amongst political parties on the imperative to create Telangana state, and now it is not a matter of whether, but when.
Regional statehood movements such as Telangana have a larger national significance. The series of social protests for autonomy, including the one by the Maoists for the tribal population in 19 blocks of three districts in West Bengal, have opened up a political opportunity to initiate a national dialogue on federalism in India. A similar opportunity was on the horizon when the demand for Uttarakhand had welled up in the late 1990s.
The demand for Uttarakhand was rooted in the articulation, through a popular movement, of the widespread lack of development and deprivation felt by the people in the then mountain districts of Uttar Pradesh. In Telangana, too, the protests on the streets are not just electoral calculations of some parties, but a manifestation of real neglect of the region by the governments in Hyderabad and New Delhi.
What we need is not only the creation of smaller states, new capitals and new posts of chief ministers, but constitutional mechanisms to involve people in governance who have felt alienated. In the social construct of sub-national imagination, regional movements such as Uttarakhand and Telangana have significantly displaced the cultural logic based on ethno-linguistic identities for the creation of new states, and have pushed the political-economic logic to the centre stage. The sense of deprivation of the people concerned is rooted in political economy rather than some real or imagined cultural distinctions.
Looking back, the creation of ethno-linguistic states worked to an extent in the immediate years after Independence. The provinces inherited from the colonial rule defied the logic of geography and ethnic contiguity. To address these incongruities, we consolidated major ethno-linguistic groups into separate states. The first round of reorganisation of states, in the first decade after Independence, repaired some of the distortions in the body politic of India and this success became the basis for creation of more states in the 1960s. The ethno-linguistic criterion was inspired by overlapping claims over territory by hegemonic communities, such as in the creation of Andhra Pradesh.
But this did not completely succeed in eliminating multiple localised social identities rooted in historical and traditional notions of place, caste and ethnicity. And in the large states, concentration of political power in the capitals only aggravated the sense of marginalisation and increased regional socio-economic disparities. We have failed to strengthen participatory democracy by complementing the traditional mechanism of local governance of self-organised communities in most parts of rural India.
To address the concerns of regional social protests, India of the 21st century needs a federal structure that not only allows for cultural diversity, but also permits true decentralisation of political-economic power to local institutions. The present federal arrangement, enshrined in the Indian Constitution, has outlived its utility.
By merely creating smaller states we cannot address the problems of developmental disparities. For example, the creation of three new states in 2000 did not bring about any real improvement in the lives of the common man. This was primarily because the institutional mechanism of governance did not change and power remained concentrated in the capitals and in the hands of a corrupt political class and a bureaucracy with a colonial hangover. In Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, as well as other small states, governance is dysfunctional because we have not addressed the core problems, which are products of centralised, authoritative and unresponsive bureaucratic governments. Without genuine decentralisation, a smaller state is even more aggressive in encroaching upon the life-worlds of the rural and tribal peoples.
Hence, along with bifurcating a humongous state, such as Andhra Pradesh, we need to initiate a dialogue on reforming the federal structure, otherwise we will be creating yet another state that is just a replica of the larger one. For example, after almost a decade of the creation of Uttarakhand, many activists from civil society who participated in the Uttarakhand movement feel that in the absence of any meaningful decentralisation the only change that the new statehood brought to the region was that Lucknow, a corrupt power centre, came closer to home, in Dehradun. It should not be surprising that since the creation of Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, more rural and tribal communities have seen their life-worlds encroached upon by the state and MNCs. Politicians and bureaucrats in these states have accelerated the process to sell land and natural resources to fund not only the poor revenue base of these smaller states and but also to support the “pomp and ceremony” of newly acquired ministries.Hegemonic notions of developmentalism has further pushed people to the margins of existence and destroyed the local ecology.
The people engaging in the grassroots movement for local autonomy and equitable developments in Telangana and other parts of India are ready to build a more meaningful democracy. To achieve equitable development we need to reevaluate the concept of federalism with a view to keeping decision-making at the local level. The basic elements for a new approach to federalism have already been presented through the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution, passed in 1992, which provided the basis for new regional arrangements through the devolution of power in developmental planning to the local governments such as panchayats and municipalities. Full implementation of the provisions of these amendments will be an ideal first step to empower local communities to make governance responsive to the needs of the common man.
The writer teaches at Cleveland State University and is author of The Making of a Small State: Populist Social Mobilisation and the Hindi Press in Uttarakhand Movement