Vantage point

Thursday, June 02, 2005

United India - Good or Bad?

There's a great debate going on at Ravi's blog about whether the British Raj was good for India. One of the points being raised is, that the Britishers deserve credit for unifying India into a single political entity. As I have mentioned in my comment there, I wouldn't give them even this credit.

But it brings me to a very interesting question that I asked Amit a few days back. Neither he nor me had any concrete thoughts on it, so i'll think aloud in this post.

The question is, has the unification of all the provinces and kingdoms into a single nation - India actually been good or bad?

i.e, is it a good thing that we are a nation of 1 billion, and not 10 nations of a hundred million each (give and take)? Is the whole greater than the sum of the parts?

One of the main reasons behind asking this question is the general consensus amongst Libertarians that power is too centralized in India. A lot of things which should be left to the states, are actually decided in the national capital, and a lot of things which should be left to local governance units are actually decided in state capitals, and so on. The basic assumption underlying our political system is 'Delhi knows best'.

Contrast this with a big country like the United States where power is distributed much more evenly, and things under federal control are limited. Each state has a lot more say in what laws its people should abide, how its tax money should be spent, etc. In turn, counties within a state too have a lot more freedom than, say, districts in India.

What if India had not been a single country, but a collection of 10 different countries? Would we be better off or worse off?

To start off the terms "we", "better off" and "worse off" need to be defined properly.

A Mumbaikar would obviously see where Hong Kong and Singapore have reached, and say that he would be much better off if Mumbai had not been a part of the Indian nation. After all, even now a bulk of the country's reveue collection comes from Mumbai.

But someone from a remote part of the country may not agree. The roads built by the NHAI in places like the North East, are probably bankrolled by Mumbai's taxes.

So the question is, as a whole, are we better off or worse off?

One aspect where we seem to be better off, ironically, is the social nature of our set-up. We are a secular country, with a reasonably fair set of laws, because we are so big, and have such a varied mix of peoples.

It is possible that if Himachal was a separate country, then gvien its almost total Hindu population, it would declare Hinduism as a state religion. It is also possible that Rajasthan may have made child marriages legal, given that a vast majority there sees nothing wrong with the practice.

When I see the number of regressive "judgements" given by some panchayats in the country, I feel glad that our social set-up was defined centrally.

And economically?

Economically, concentrating power centrally is wrong, as any libertarian would say. A large country encourages cross-subsidisation, which actually keeps certain poor sections poor forever. Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh as Chief Ministers can afford to ignore larger issues because they know that even if there is no development in the state, the centre will always bail them out. Now imagine if Bihar and UP were two countries, whom no one owed any assistance. Their leaders would have to scratch their heads and ensure growth, because they couldn't necessarily depend on anyone else to bail them out.

I would also like to think that if we were different countries, we would not be letting grains rot away just because there is no way to distribute food properly. Right now the food is rotting and people are starving because of bureaucratic tangles. If we were different countries, the food-producing ones would want to trade the food with those countries that wanted food. It would not sit in central stocks with everyone shrugging their shoulders and passing the buck.

An interesting exercise would be to compare the countries surrounding us, with the parts of our country neighbouring them.
- How is Bangladesh doing vis-a-vis West Bengal?
- How is Nepal doing vis-a-vis U.P?
- How is Sri Lanka doing vis-a-vis Tamilnadu?
- How is Pakistan doing vis-a-vis Punjab-Haryana-Rajasthan-Gujarat combined?

In what ways did our neighbours benefit by not being a part of the Indian nation state and in what ways did they lose out?

This is a fascinating topic to research and discuss, and sadly I do not have time to go into every aspect of it in detail. But I would invite fellow-bloggers to pick up one or more of the following topics and discuss them in detail -

1. Pros and cons of being a part of India on a social level.
2. Pros and cons of being a part of India on an economic level.
3. Pros and cons of being a part of India on a law&order and defence level
4. BD vs WB or Nepal vs UP....etc