South VS North: The Great Indian Dilemma

Nilakantan RS 

Representation image | Mathrubhumi

India's states are disparate and divergent in the extreme. Kerala at one end of that spectrum is the best state in terms of every basic measure of health and education, for instance. Its Infant Mortality Rate(6), Maternal Mortality Rate (30), Life Expectancy(75), Institutional Delivery (100%), early childhood vaccinations, ante-natal care for pregnant women (90%) and near universal literacy is comparable to OECD countries. It's also the state that registered the lowest population growth amongst India's states (56%) between the 1971 Census and 2011 Census. As a 'reward' for that progress, though, the state has suffered the steepest decline in allocation ratios in the transfer of central funds via the Finance Commission amongst all states. It has been forced to sign up to sub-optimal central programs on Health and Education. And to add to that, the state is threatened with a steep reduction in the number of MPs it sends to Lok Sabha from 2026 for its effective population control!

The difference between Kerala and Madhya Pradesh in health indicators is as wide as that between the United States and Afghanistan. In Education, the gap between Kerala and the Indo-Gangetic plains is as wide as that between upper middle-income countries and low-income countries. In terms of economic prospects India's better off southern states are three times richer than the large states of the Indo-Gangetic plains. Overall, southern India is a vastly different place from central and northern parts of the country.

This degree of divergence among India's states demands policy making and fiscal sovereignty at the state level for effective governance. After all, it's impossible for one entity to make a single policy decision that can apply to both extremes. Except, India's Union government is increasingly galloping in the opposite direction and with its centralizing 'one nation, one policy' initiative.

The solutions to the problems of India's various societies and states are often ones that are orthogonal to each other given their developmental trajectory. For example, the southern states need to focus on output metrics in education while the northern states need to get kids into school and keep them there. The southern states need to focus on chronic health issues and possibly elder care given their demographics and current achievements while northern states need to focus on pre and post natal healthcare delivery. These differences seep into almost all areas of public policy and make any centralized policy impossible.

Children making a painting on-road conveying message of control population on the occasion of world population day | ANI (File) Photo

In this scenario of increasing divergence in development and governance metrics, the additional complicating factor of divergence in population growth makes a difficult problem impossible. The population skew towards Indo-Gangetic plains, which also happens to be poorer and less developed, and has created a problem that's unique to India in some ways. Which is that the less developed states have more political power owing to population and are threatening to accrue even more political power in the near future via the unfreezing of delimitation; thereby cornering resources for themselves while starving the states that are doing well of what's their due.

The southern states are caught in this peculiar bind: they are doing well because they have achieved stable population through good governance which is exactly what threatens to rob them of political power and resource allocation. And this threat comes precisely at a time their citizens have come to expect relatively good government services from their states and are seeking to customize them even further to their changing needs.

Consider Telangana. Data shows the state has the highest negative differential in its budget between the amount of money it receives from the union versus the money it raises from its own citizens via state taxes. That is, its citizens pay the most into state taxes because their share of the union transfers aren't enough to run the state budget. This increasing burden of taxation is placed on the citizens of Telangana while simultaneously their democratic power to influence that decision-making is under threat of being diluted.

This is a question with no easy answers for the southern states. Status quo condemns them to receive less in transfers, giving more in taxes and sacrificing political power; all because they have been successful. The southern states also happen to be linguistically and culturally distinct which adds a whole new dimension of political complexity. The definition of a nation - a linguistically and culturally distinct people living in a geographically contiguous region - applies to these states better than most European countries.

Fiscal imbalance between different regions in a country is a common enough phenomenon worldwide. Most large federal structures have some version of it which is corrected through tax policy. In the United States, for example, the southern part of the country has been poorer compared to the industrial north for a very long time. Consequently, the federal government equalizes the regions by sending more federal dollars to the south. In Germany, the western part of the country is still significantly wealthier than the erstwhile Communist East. The federal structure in Germany again balances the financial resources somewhat between the regions.

The southern states also happen to be linguistically and culturally distinct | AFP

These dynamic stands true in countries as vastly diverse as Spain, China, the United Kingdom and many others. Except two important differences exist between those countries and India. The first is that the contrast between the regions in those countries isn't as vast as it is in India. The second and more important difference is: in those countries, the more prosperous regions are also the more populous regions which happen to be more urbanized and have a higher population growth owing to greater inflow of migration. Whereas in India, it's the poorer regions that are more populous and have a high population growth because of a higher fertility rate(TFR). Or, unlike in those countries, in India it's TFR that drives population growth and not migration.

The data on population growth, or the divergence in that growth, in the last half century tells a story of the Indian Union's intractable problem. The States in the Indo-Gangetic plains, with notable exceptions like Punjab and West Bengal, have, over the 40-year period between 1971 and 2011, proved Malthus right and roughly doubled their population every 25 years.

States in peninsular India, meanwhile, have converged with western societies and have had population growths that are, at times, less than a third of their northern counterparts. In a democracy we allocate power and resources on the basis of population. We also make decisions that govern people based on that allocated power.

All of which follow from and complement the basic maxim: one person, one vote. The population control policy and its uneven implementation destroy that compact. The impending unfreezing of delimitation - which threatens to take away MPs from southern India and allocate them to northern states - is the greatest exhibit of that flashpoint.

A democratically just way of organizing society into layers that will solve the resource allocation issues and sidestep the perverse incentive of population growth is a difficult problem to solve within the current structure of the Indian Union. Gamified Direct Democracy, the solution that 'South vs North: India's Great Divide' proposes, aims to solve this seemingly intractable problem by side-stepping and diffusing the powers of the Union to the extreme in an organic way by replacing the existing representative model with a more direct and participatory model of democracy.

(The author works as Data Scientist and is the author of 'South vs North: India's Great Divide)

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