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Does India need more states?

Soutik Biswas | 14:02 UK time, Thursday, 10 December 2009

A boy reading a newspaper in Hyderabad, Andhra PradeshIt is not surprising that the movement for a new Indian state has been resurrected in Andhra Pradesh.

It was here that an emotive movement for "linguistic autonomy" was begun by its majority Telugu-speaking people after independence. That led to the formation of Andhra Pradesh state and eventually resulted in India's internal map being redrawn on the basis of the language spoken by most people in a region - the process took a decade to complete, ending with Punjab state in 1966.

Though overwhelmingly successful, "linguistic states" have revealed inadequacies - and more states have been carved out since for other reasons. For one, some Indian states are unwieldy because of their size or population or both - undivided Bihar was the size of the Federal Republic of Germany; the present, truncated Uttar Pradesh has a population equivalent to Brazil's and more than Pakistan's. So there has been talk about dividing Uttar Pradesh further into four new states - Harit Pradesh, Avadh, Purvanchal and Bundelkhand.

Clearly, there are other identities in India which are not founded in language - caste or more importantly, a shared cultural identity, are some of them. Some states in the north-east were carved out to assuage tribal anxieties at being swamped by more resourceful and advantaged outsiders.

You have to visit the Telangana region to see how different it is from the rest of the state although people share the same language. Also, many say, if you have nine "Hindi-speaking" states, why can't you have two "Telugu speaking ones"?

Others say new states don't serve any purpose. They end up benefiting entrenched local elites and the middle class, and leave the poor in the lurch. They point to Jharkhand which was carved out of southern Bihar in 2000 - nine years on, many of its people have turned to Maoists, and its politicians are embroiled in some of India's worst corruption.

A number of north-eastern states carved out of Assam are accused of becoming fiefs of local elites or kleptocracies. The issues of lack of development and growing corruption are untouched. Creating financially unstable states, critics say, can lead to even more problems.People protesting in favour of a Telangana state

Others say new states remain works in progress - among them Uttarkhand and Chattisgarh, despite the latter's current woes and a strong Maoist presence. It has taken some four decades for Haryana and Himachal Pradesh to turn into successful states. And India still has relatively few states given the size of its population: with some 300 million people, the US has 50 states; India with its billion-plus people has only 28.

Clearly the federal government faltered over Telangana. It could have held all-party talks before announcing the first steps towards a new state. Instead, it made an unilateral midnight announcement, thinking everybody would fall into line.

Will all this lead to the Balkanisation of India, as some fear? Before India divided states along linguistic lines, a leading newspaper warned such a move would encourage reactionary forces. "They will lay an axe at the very root of Indian integrity," it said. The newspaper got it horribly wrong. The naysayers will possibly get it wrong this time too.

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