Friday, January 06, 2012

SINGLE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL - To be united is not necessarily to be homogeneous

Many decades ago, during a Test match commentary on radio, I heard one broadcaster ask another a seemingly innocuous question: why does Bombay produce more Test cricketers than Calcutta? One of the proffered answers was quirky. The higher standard of cricket in western India was attributed to the Indian standard time.

The reasoning was faultless. In the winter months, when cricket is normally played, darkness comes to Calcutta far earlier than it does to Bombay. Consequently, young cricketers in Bombay have opportunities for longer game practice in the afternoons than they do in Calcutta where, ideally, the clocks should be one hour ahead of IST.

That a huge country like India should have multiple time zones may seem a no-brainer. After all, the sun rises two hours earlier in the Northeast than it does in parts of Gujarat. Yet, in the aftermath of Independence, when there was an understandable preoccupation with ‘national unity’, a political decision was taken to collapse the longitudinal variations in a unified time zone centred on Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh. The decision was reiterated in 2004 when Kapil Sibal, who was then minister of science and technology, told Parliament that the IST should persist because “the expanse of the Indian State was not large”.

That a breadth of more than 2,000 km covering 28 degrees of longitude should be regarded as “not large” by a minister may appear astonishing. But like the so-called ‘national dress’, which emerged out of Jawaharlal Nehru’s own sartorial preferences, the IST is a relic of the early post-Independence years when ‘national unity’ was often equated with homogenization.

The thrust towards homogenization didn’t stop at symbolism. The 1950 Constitution was nominally federal in character. In reality, however, the antipathy to regionalism and the fear of secessionism made the Congress leadership retain the paramountcy clauses of the 1935 Government of India Act. Coupled with the establishment of the Planning Commission (a body that is outside the Constitution), which became the instrument of centralization, the political system was weighed heavily against the states. The Centre had the powers to dismiss state governments, thwart state legislations and possessed overriding powers in subjects under the concurrent list. And although the distribution of Central revenues was decided by the Finance Commission, the principle of a redistributive Centre meant that New Delhi retained enormous discretionary powers to either favour or discriminate against a state.

The over-centralized system proved functionally adequate as long as the Congress was the dominant party and held power in both the Centre and the states. Differences, when they arose, were resolved across the table through informal discussions between party colleagues. Yet, grievances persisted. Eastern India, for example, was miffed by the freight equalization of coal and steel — a decision that negated the locational advantages of Jharkhand and West Bengal. In addition, the licence-permit-quota rajenabled powerful politicians and influential lobbies to defy the logic of the market.

Things have no doubt changed with the end of the Congress’s monopoly of power and the dismantling of an overbearing regulatory regime after 1991. After a long and bitter political struggle that spanned some 25 years and some helpful interventions by the judiciary, the powers of the Centre to dismiss state governments have been regulated and codified. We are unlikely to see whimsical interventions that, for example, marked the dismissal of state governments in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. At the same time, the Centre remains an irritant in allowing political considerations to decide what state legislation to approve and which ones to keep in abeyance. In recent months, environment has emerged as a point of friction with the Centre choosing to become the final arbiter for clearances.

Liberalization of the economy, too, has helped the economic growth of the states. Before 1991, it would have been inconceivable for Ratan Tata to make a snap decision and shift the manufacturing unit for his low-price car from Singur in West Bengal to Gujarat. Indeed, the rapid development of Gujarat as a manufacturing centre under Narendra Modi would have been out of the question had the politicized licence-permit-quota rajbeen in place — a hostile Centre would never have given the necessary clearances. That foreign direct investment has taken place mainly in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat (and not in Rae Bareli and Amethi) owes everything to the fact that decisions are being taken by corporates and not the Planning Commission.

India, it would seem, has blundered from over-centralization to a position where states are accorded greater respect. However, this emerging equilibrium is in danger of being disturbed by trends within the Congress. In today’s India, with most state governments in the control of non-Congress parties, the Centre has found itself somewhat reduced in stature. To compensate for this loss of clout, the United Progressive Alliance government has chosen to undertake Delhi-designed mega welfare schemes embodied in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the proposed food security bill. Inspired by European welfarism, the schemes are premised on the one-size-fits-all philosophy, a trademark of the earlier Planning Commission.

Traditionally, critiques of Sonia Gandhi’s Lady Bountiful schemes have centred on their likely impact on the precarious fiscal deficit. There are also concerns that large sums of money may be diverted away from the real beneficiaries, thanks to an incompetent and venal State machinery. However, beyond fiscal and delivery concerns, a larger issue needs to be addressed. Is it appropriate that the Centre should apportion to itself the role of principal welfare agency?

The answer should be in the negative. State governments have a greater connection with localities and a greater accountability to the people than babus in the ministry of rural welfare in Delhi. Why should the labour market in Punjab be distorted by a scheme that only serves to drive up agricultural prices? Why shouldn’t Gujarat be permitted to have welfare schemes for the poorer tribal districts, instead of having one imposed on the whole state? If Orissa and Chhattisgarh already have effective distribution of subsidized rice to poor families, why should a Food Security Act be imposed on it?

Mamata Banerjee raised some of these larger questions when she questioned the right of the Centre to design a lokayukta scheme for the states. She had earlier raised similar questions over the imperious manner in which the Centre proceeded with the Teesta waters treaty with Bangladesh, which affected West Bengal directly. For raising the federal issue, Mamata was dubbed petulant and difficult. But who was being difficult? Mamata for upholding the rights of states? Or a Centre that proceeded on the assumption that a ‘big democracy’ has the divine right to guide ‘little democracies’?

In six decades, India has travelled a long way. The concerns over ‘national unity’ that seemed all too real in 1947 are no longer valid. Today, the feeling of Indian-ness is deep-rooted and complemented by a vibrant metropolitan culture. Secessionism doesn’t have the same emotional appeal it had in the past, except perhaps in the Kashmir Valley located in a state that, ironically, accords the greatest measure of autonomy to its people. What does have an appeal is the desire for economic growth and personal betterment. It is in this context that excessive centralization and its associated inefficiencies become an impediment.

The debate on federalism is circumscribed by the uncritical acceptance of many of the national symbols of power. There is a need for greater scepticism and intellectual audacity. We could start by asking whether the IST needlessly leads to the cricketing potential of eastern India remaining unfulfilled.

The Telegraph, January 6, 2012


zen babu said...

Good article, but tons of false dichotomies. Its failures apart, what provision of NREGA implies that Gujarat cannot operate welfare schemes of its own in poorer tribal districts (in fact it does something very similar anyway).

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