Aristotle had very famously said that it’s an injustice to treat equals as unequals, just as it’s an injustice to treat unequals as equals. We are generally agreed that inequality is an injustice, but inequality is inevitable. But the redress of inequality between people and between regions has always been a driving concern. Though the achievement of greater equity between people and regions in India was not explicitly stated in the Constitution, the very notions of a socialistic society and democracy implies a determined thrust towards just that. Unfortunately, from all available data, it’s obvious that this didn’t happen. In fact, the divisions between regions and people only deepened, a fact detailed in many studies. The notion of conferring a Special Category Status (SCS) is to engender equality between regions. It’s this notion that resulted in policies such as the freight equalisation policy of 1952, to make steel available at the same cost in every corner of this vast country, which ended up impoverishing Bihar even more. Today the disparity between states is huge. The richer states in India like Punjab or Kerala have per capita incomes that are six times more than Bihar’s
Rs 34,000. Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu is up in arms against the Narendra Modi government at the Centre for denying his state SCS, and the extraordinary funding that goes with it. It’s another matter that the Constitution doesn’t provide for SCS. But by recognising some regions, entire states or parts of states, SCS funds were given to such areas by the erstwhile Planning Commission and the National Development Council, considering the historical and cultural factors and geographical reasons that led to backwardness. Where does the residual Andhra Pradesh stand in relation to this?
Andhra, even after it got delinked from the milch cow of the unified state, Hyderabad, is still among the economically better-off areas in the country. It has a per capita income of Rs 1,42,054, against the national average of Rs 1,12,764. The other state that off and on asks for special status is Bihar, which has a per capita income of Rs 34,168. Bihar has been asking for this for decades. Bihar too, like Andhra Pradesh, lost its milch cow when Jharkhand was made a separate state. While Bihar’s case depends on the distance from the median, Andhra’s is based on the promise made in Parliament by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Today Bihar stands alone as a vast ocean of poverty and hopelessness. It sends one of the larger contingents to the Lok Sabha (40 MPs), while the other claimant, the truncated Andhra Pradesh, sends 25 MPs. Yet Andhra MPs have managed to stall the Budget Session of Parliament, while Bihar still hesitantly holds out for a similar Central largesse. Andhra has also aroused the entire political spectrum to rally behind its demand for special status, to compensate it for the “loss” of Hyderabad. As a Hyderabadi I am somewhat uncomfortable to be seen by a bunch of politicians as little different from an oil well or iron ore mine, as just a source of revenue. I have no doubt the present political dispensation in Telangana also thinks of Hyderabad not much differently.
Like all our other metropolitan areas, Hyderabad too is a pocket of relative wealth. It has a per capita income of Rs 2.99 lakhs, and the adjacent largely urban Ranga Reddy district has a per capita income of Rs 2.88 lakhs. The other districts are not very different from most other largely rural areas in south and western India. All the largely rural districts like Warangal, Nizamabad, Adilabad and Mahbubnagar, have per capita incomes of around Rs 80,000, give or take a bit, but still more than two and a half times that of Bihar. But why was Bihar in this parlous condition was still the big question? The answer was not difficult to seek. Economic growth in India, then as now, is State-driven. The money the Centre spends has a direct bearing on the economic outcomes of states and on the well-being of their people. The evidence was very clear. Right from the First Plan, Bihar and UP suffered from underinvestment by the Centre. If there was per capita development expenditure for each Plan, Bihar was always furthest from it.
When I computed the investment foregone, by getting so much less in every consecutive Plan, Bihar has been shortchanged by as much as Rs 1,80,000 crores. The Plans are now dead but the Niti Aayog still continues. Bihar is still last in terms of per capita development expenditure, and industrial and infrastructure investment. The highest-ranking states in terms of government investment get as much as six times more than Bihar in per capita terms.
Whatever be the reasons, we have over time come to accept certain stereotypes, such as the relative prosperity of Punjab is due to its hard-working and innovative peasants, while Bihar’s poverty is due to the deep divisions in its society, corruption and lawlessness. Like most generalisations, these too are seriously flawed. Clearly Punjab prospered as India made huge investments in the state. These investments were often at the cost of other regions. Take the year 1955. In this year the total national outlay for irrigation was Rs 29,106.30 lakhs. Of this, Punjab got Rs 10,952.10 lakhs, or 37.62 per cent. In contrast, Bihar got only Rs 1,323.30 lakhs, just 4.54 per cent of the national irrigation outlay. The Bhakra Nangal Dam, one of Jawaharlal Nehru’s grandest temples of modern India, planned at an outlay of Rs 7,750 lakh, alone irrigates 14.41 lakh hectares. Even after excluding this from Punjab’s irrigation plan; we see that its outlay is almost 2.5 times that of Bihar. Consequently Bihar, which has three and a half times more arable land than Punjab, has just about the same acreage of irrigated land as Punjab’s 36 lakh ha. Bihar is the third most populous state in India, after Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. In many ways, it’s the heart of India. It’s certainly the cradle of Indian civilisation, which evolved on the banks of the Ganga. And it’s clear India cannot go forward, leaving Bihar behind. But that’s just what we’ve been trying to do. Not only our national politicians have failed us, but also, more important, the politicians that Bihar sends to New Delhi have failed. They failed to articulate Bihar’s sufferings and the gross injustice done to it. They seemed to be mesmerised by the power and pelf national government offered. In the past few years, the present chief minister of Bihar has been raising this issue intermittently and has demanded a special status for Bihar and a huge inflow of capital to set Bihar on the path of equalisation with others. He asked for just Rs 60, 000 crores, just a third what Bihar should rightly claim, but even that was fobbed off. Now that he’s in bed with the powers that be in New Delhi, I wonder if that is even pillow talk now?...