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INDIA: Smaller States Demand Self-Rule

Sujoy Dhar

DARJEELING, India, Jan 13 2011 (IPS) - In the Himalayan Mountains of eastern India’s Darjeeling locals are coping with the economic fallout of tourists cancelling their holiday plans in the area.

The tourism industry is suffering as a result of a nearly month long shutdown called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) party which aims to intensify their demand for a separate state for the ethnic Nepalese, known as Gorkhas, to be carved out of the northern parts of Bengali-majority West Bengal state.

“Gorkhaland state demand is the people’s aspiration in the region and the government in New Delhi has to make its stance clear on this demand which actually dates back to 1907,” Roshan Giri, a leader of GJM, told IPS.

“Protest through democratic means is our only weapon and so we resort to the shutdowns and hunger strikes. We will be on a fast-unto-death agitation from February 16,” says Giri.

The strike is a blow to the region’s tea and tourism industries, but the people – led by the GJM – are ready to bear the hardship if a new state for the Gorkhas could materialise. So far the demand has been steadfastly rejected by communist ruled West Bengal and the federal regime in New Delhi.

The movement for a separate Gorkhaland claimed 1,200 lives in the 1980s during the first campaign for statehood that resulted in limited autonomy being granted to the region.

The demands for a new state of Gorkhaland have been re-kindled following a Jan. 6 report by a government-appointed panel on the viability of a second Telugu-speaking state to be carved out of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh was made public.

The committee favoured a united Andhra Pradesh but suggested the creation of a new southern state – Telangana – as one of six options moving forward.

“A new state of Telangana is the only way forward,” says K T Rama Rao, a leader of Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the party spearheading that statehood movement.

“With the panel report out, now the government should bring a bill in Parliament in the next session and give us a state,” Rao told IPS. “We are continuing our peaceful, democratic movement. Unfortunately the media attention is drawn only when there is a violence.”

According to Mahesh Rangarajan, a professor of history at the University of Delhi, political cohesion and administrative efficiency are powerful arguments in favour of smaller states, though the question is “how many is too many and where does it all end.”

“Few will dispute that the economic growth of Indian states like Haryana and Gujarat were propelled by their creation after carving up larger states,” Rangarajan told IPS.

India, with its 1.2 billion people and federal framework, presently has 28 states (besides seven federally-administered union territories). The creation of these states was largely based on linguistic and cultural diversity following the end of British rule in 1947.

Of the 28 states in India, three were created in 2000. Uttarakhand was formed out of Uttar Pradesh; Jharkhand out of Bihar; and Chhattisgarh out of Madhya Pradesh.

“Government health surveys show how the very populous states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar performed better to contain child mortality since they were carved up,” says Rangarajan.

On the flip side, he cites the example of eastern state Jharkhand carved out of Bihar. “Jharkhand faces chronic political instability and frequent political defections while the promise of development of the tribal people did not materialise,” he says.

He says that Jharkhand is an example that even natural resource endowment cannot assure development.

According to K T Rama Rao, Telangana was a prosperous state till 1956 when it was merged with Andhra Pradesh.

“We now want demerger because the merger was conditional. But the promises were not honoured and the region was deliberately ignored,” says Rao. “The demand is now for self-rule and self-respect. The new state will not be a small state in a real sense, because it is a big region and it will be bigger than many existing Indian states.”

Telangana and Gorkhaland are not the only two regions seeking statehood. There are demands for states of Vidarbha to be carved out of Maharashtra in the west; and Harit Pradesh and Bundelkhand to be carved out of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

“We want statehood for a united Bundelkhand [comprising parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh states] for the all-round development of the area,” Raja Bundela, leader of Bundelkhand Mukti Morcha (BMM), has said to the Indian media.

“We are not against smaller states, but they must be based on a consensus,” says Shakeel Ahmed, an official spokesperson of the ruling Congress party.

Faced with the many statehood demands, the ruling party has suggested the creation of a second State Reorganisation Commission (SRC) to recommend altering the boundaries of existing states and creation of new ones.

But while the Congress party dilly-dallies on Telangana – fearing similar demands intensifying elsewhere – the main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) favours both Telangana and Gorkhaland states.

The BJP says the ongoing agitation for a separate state of Telangana is the culmination of the struggle of the people of the region against discrimination and injustice for over five decades.

BJP leader Arun Jaitley says while a new SRC can look into the many demands for statehood, Telangana should be immediately granted.

According to a study published by the Bombay Chamber of Commerce last year, economically smaller states have grown faster than bigger states in India.

“We find evidence that the reorganisation of states in the past has been followed by higher economic growth,” the study published in the chamber’s quarterly magazine AnalytiQue highlights.

“However, whether all of India’s large states should be broken into smaller entities requires much more analysis – on socio-economic performance, on governance, on the ability of the new states to access relevant human capital,” it says.

“Redrawing maps ought to enhance and not retard economic performance or social progress,” according to Rangarajan. “That concern remains valid, and needs continuing attention.”

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