United States of South India: Can a southern collective get us a better deal from Delhi?

The politics of the South has made it economically comparable to Hong Kong, while the atavistic politics of the North has dropped it far down the scales.
United States of South India: Can a southern collective get us a better deal from Delhi?
United States of South India: Can a southern collective get us a better deal from Delhi?

Isn’t it time the South received it's due?

After all, 20% of the population contributes a full 30% of India's tax revenues. This is the money that runs the country.

The South also delivers a fourth of India's GDP.  It is not only an economic bellwether with low unemployment, a high rate of industrialisation and a per capita GDP that is over double that of the Hindi belt, it is also leaps ahead on human development and social indicators.

Child development indices are double to 7 times higher than the Hindi states, literacy rates tend towards an average of 80% with a 10-point difference against the North, and accessibility to health and hygiene facilities is radically better.

The gulf in human development is so stark that while fertility rates in the South are closer to that of Western Europe, much of the North is still getting their act together on basic issues like birthing babies without losing mothers.

The bottom line is that the development politics of the South has made it economically comparable to Hong Kong, while the atavistic politics of the North has dropped it far down the scales in the last six decades.

Like a Shakespearean drama though, the heroes with higher state GDP per capita, that is, Net State GDP per person, receive a lower devolution from centre to state, of state revenues. The South is effectively slammed for having scaled up its per capita incomes to the top 10 in India and scaled down poverty to half that of the rest of India

A measly fifth of the population sponsors India's tax revenues to the tune of a third of the total, and in return, the five Deccan states get a paltry 18% of funds allocated back from the centre.

Source: Business Standard

The state allocations speak to the quantum of skew. While Tamil Nadu gets about 40 paise for every rupee it generates for the centre, Uttar Pradesh fattens itself on Rs 1.8 per rupee it generates. It should be remembered that Uttar Pradesh had a distinct economic and social advantage over the southern states coming out of British rule, which it has simply squandered away through mis-governance and profligacy. The South, in turn, for prioritising education, health, economy and social reform, as governments should, receives the proverbial slap.

Little wonder then that Chief Ministers across the southern states, regardless of political dispensation have cried foul for years now. The Andhra CM took the most fun route and urged locals to resort to rapid reproduction to compensate. The Telengana CM played victim and pleaded for special allocations while the Tamil Nadu CM has resorted to aggressive posturing on the GST.

Going beyond states and in keeping with the gross disproportion, the Urban Development Ministry allocated Rs 20,000 crores in 2016 for the development of Delhi alone. That, is more than the cumulative allocations for Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kochi. This, when the cities of the South are the top job creators for India with massive immigration for both the formal and informal sectors, levying a heavy strain on infrastructure and urban development.

In putting India ahead of narrow regional interests and generating extraordinary tax revenues to fund Delhi, UP, Bihar, MP and the overpopulated, under-educated, under-delivering, and over-pandered Hindi belt, the south carries a heavy cross year after year. For this achievement, the south gets a fiscal allocation downside, as vote-bank electioneering of the north overrides federalist policies.

Moral? The lower the per capita income and higher the population, the greater the reward. In other words, a Dakshin Bharat Cess.

Below is the Fourteenth Finance Commission's own admission of percent of states' GDP transferred by centre, with a 2-5x tilt towards UP or Bihar or MP.

Adding salt to the economic injury, the South gets a step-motherly treatment culturally as well. Funds for the preservation and nurturing of its unique identity and autonomy are negligible to non-existent.  The propagation of Hindi, for example, just one of the official languages of India, gets thirty times the amount allocated for all other languages combined!

What is taken from the South and what is returned for its development reeks of bias. What then is the solution when democratically rendered justifications, pleas, complaints, negotiations and bargains have failed to strike a chord for decades?

Secession? No. The Indian nation is sacrosanct and India only wins when all Indians have a decent life, education, health care, jobs and social dignity. All means all. Women. Dalits. Muslims. South and North. East and West. We must allocate resources equitably for the development and progress of one and all including and especially the weakest of us. We must march ahead, but hand in hand with the most ravaged, forsaken members of our society. As a fraternity.

That said, the asymmetry thus far is unreasonable and disproportionate, not only in rewarding incompetent governance and delivery failures, but doing so with an accompanying dose of prejudice, vested interests and parochial politics. To make matters worse, the “All roads lead to Delhi” model of uber-centralisation with blatant infringement into state subjects like education, and meddling with state functions like their administrative bureaucracy or land acquisition, makes it apparent that the centre abuses its powers, roles and resources. Such an overbearing presence not only hampers governance in states, it actually applies the brakes on progress.

The argument is thus in favour of strong regional governments, as the data overwhelmingly indicates that successive central governments have failed as trustees of the covenant of federalism. The centre must focus on national security, foreign affairs, genuine integration of states, especially Kashmir and the North-East, the provision and enabling of a common currency and market, some common laws and inter-state infrastructure. Leave governance and resources to the states.

To force this, no one southern state can ever have a voice that outshouts the collective Hindi chorus. To be passive though, is to acquiesce to centralism and imperialism over federalism and states' rights. That leads right to the doorstep of aggregation as a democratic instrument to combat majoritarianism.

What is needed is a formation, a collective, a union, whose consolidated voice speaks loud and clear for the South Indian states and forces a course correction.  A union that stays whole regardless of the changes in political dispensation in individual states, whose goals and objectives remain long term and strategic regardless of short-term and local vagaries, whose mission is the development and progress of the economy, society and culture of South India, and in whom are vested southern interests, as a part and parcel of India.

The amplified bargaining power of the collective within the whole is the stake that the South must wager. The South must embark on a mimicking of a majority or at least a minority with decisive swing vote. Maharashtra would be wise to join in this endeavour, with nothing but an upside for its people, but a central affiliation of its government would foreclose this path.

This proposition might seem radical or far-fetched at first glance, but it is no novel concept. Indeed, it is not a constructed but a natural concept of southern regional identity, with a common language family and social linkages that span centuries, and widely-accepted notions of cultural oneness.

The EU or African Union have arrangements for trade, borders and markets but within India, southern combine must forge better economic and social protocols with the governments of the centre that overtly and unfairly favour their vested interests in populous states.

The reality today favours such a shift. The South has compelling economic and political clout to leverage, including a large number of Lok Sabha seats that will force the centre to dialogue. Where any one southern state has barely 30 Members of Parliament, the combine will muster a compelling 129 against 208 in the Hindi belt. Political diplomacy has enshrined a good degree of parliamentary representation for the south through constitutional amendment, and despite falling fertility rates, there is no reason the schedule for delimitation will not be postponed again.

The Southern collective must happen and extract its pound of flesh. Yes, it will take a mammoth effort of statesmanship, a steely resolve to the south Indian cause, and above all the pragmatism of politics from all five states to conceive and devise such a beast, but it is not beyond the pale. Unless there is an attempt to force the pendulum all the way to the other pole, it will not alight anywhere close to a balanced centre. After all, the redoubtable leaders have already given the nod.

“I feel more and more that we must function more from below than from the top... too much of centralization means decay at the roots and ultimately a withering of branches, leaves and flowers.” Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru

“We want to promote co-operative federalism in the country. At the same time, we want a competitive element among the states. I call this new form of federalism Co-operative and Competitive Federalism.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.

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