Thursday, 10 November 2011

India’s quest for smaller states

Devendra Kothari
Professor, Population Program Management

The raging controversy over carving out a new State - Telengana -  out of Andhra Pradesh has once again thrown open the debate - whether smaller States are better. Much of the new demands are a result of uneven growth within existing super States and a perception that splitting super States into smaller ones will improve administration and governance by bringing power centres closer to the people. Are smaller States the answer in India? And this post aims in this direction. 

The provisional results of the Census of India 2011 indicates that  most populous State in the country continues to be Uttar Pradesh  with a population of 199,581,477 and the least populous State is Sikkim with a population of 607,688. The union territory of Lakshadweep, with a population of just 64,429, is the tiniest part of the country - all thirty five States (28) and Union Territories (7) put together.  The census data also indicate that slightly more than 34% of India’s population was enumerated in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Maharashtra and Bihar alone. Next seven States namely West Bengal (WB), Andhra Pradesh (AP), Tamil Nadu (TN), Madhya Pradesh (MP), Rajasthan, Karnataka and Gujarat accounted for more than 43% percent of the total population. In other words, more than three fourths of the country’s population in 2011 was enumerated in just 10 States (Table 1) and the remaining 25 States and Union Territories recorded less than one fourth of its population.

Table 1 Ten most populous states of India




Total population

(In million)

% Share in total population

Projected population

(In million)

% Share in total population

Uttar Pradesh 















West Bengal 





Andhra Pradesh





Tamil Nadu 





Madhya Pradesh 




















Sub total





India Total





Source: Census of India 2011, Provisional Population Totals; Projected figures from: The Future Population of India, Population Foundation of India and Population Reference Bureau, New Delhi.

If some of India’s larger States were independent countries they would be quite high up the list of the larger nations in the world.  For example, Uttar Pradesh with a population of 200 million is much bigger than Brazil (193 million); if UP were to be a separate country only China, India (minus UP), USA and Indonesia would be bigger than it. Maharashtra (112 million) is slightly bigger than Mexico (111m), the eleventh most populous country in the world, whereas Bihar (104 million) is bigger than Philippines (94m) and Israel (8m) put together. West Bengal (91 million) is bigger than Vietnam (90m) and Andhra Pradesh with 85 million has three million more people than Germany. MP (73m) is slightly less than Turkey, which has 74 million, while Tamil Nadu  (72m), Rajasthan (69m), Karnataka (61m)  and Gujarat  (60m) are each bigger than all the seven  countries in Southern Africa including South Africa put together.

Arunachal Pradesh (1.4m), Goa (1.5m), Manipur (2.7m), Nagaland (2m) and Meghalaya (3m) are some of the smaller States. In the mid range we have Punjab (27.7m), Haryana (25.4m), Kerala (33.4m) and Orissa (41.9m). The new States of  Chattisgarh (25.5m), Jharkhand (33.0m), and Uttaranchal (10.1m) can also be categorized as mid sized.  Then we have some really tiny Union Territories like Pondicherry (1.2 m), Chandigarh (1.1m), Andaman & Nicobar Islands (0.4m), Dadra & Nagar Haveli (0.3m), and Daman & Diu (0.2m).

It appears that there does not seem to be any one criterion for dividing India in such an unequal way. If language was the criterion, as argued by the first State Reorganization Commission in the early fifties, then UP, Bihar, MP and Rajasthan should have been one state. If agro-climatic conditions were the criterion than many of the larger states like Bihar, MP, Rajasthan, UP, AP, and even Karnataka and TN have more than one State in each of them.

The truth is that States in India were formed on no real and common basis, as argued by Mohan Guruswamy[1]. There are different reasons applicable for different States. The northeastern States were formed to suit certain tribal aspirations. Goa had its own historical antecedents. Punjab was formed to accommodate the religious sentiments of the Sikhs with the Punjabi language serving as a convenient fig leaf for it. UP and MP were formed for another reason (that is political), which hardly makes any sense. The four southern States were formed for linguistic reasons, just as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Orissa and West Bengal were. But now there is demand for separate states among these States. The Government of India has 10 applications for the creation of new States including a separate Vidharba in Maharashtra, Telengana in Andhra Pradesh, Saurashtra in Gujarat, Mithilanchal in Bihar, Bhojpur in Bihar and UP, Harit Pradesh and Bundelkhand in UP and Coorg in Karnataka, and  Gorkhaland and Cooch Behar in West Bengal, etc.  It means dividing country alone on the linguistic lines in 1956 was not a valid reason.

Also there are many other aspirants who have not yet filed applications, but are surely watching the developments on Telangana very closely. Bodoland (Assam), Kosal (Orissa), Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir), Vindhya Pradesh (Madhya Pradesh), Maru Pradesh (Rajasthan) are just a few examples. Chief Minister Mayawati’s call to divide Uttar Pradesh, with its 75 districts, into four parts appears to be a sensible decision. As per the blueprint, the eastern part of the State with 32 districts will form a new State of Poorvanchal, the 22 western districts will be grouped together as Harit Pradesh, Bundalkhand in south will take seven districts while the remaining 14 will be in the central Uttar Pradesh, the fourth State.  These statehood movements have once again thrown open the debate - whether “small is beautiful”.  In the opinion of many that existing super administrative units – states - are too large and unwieldy to be governed properly.

Have smaller States in India worked better? Such States of an earlier generation -- Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, for instance - are doing very well. The more recent examples - Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand, which were carved out of bigger entities in November 2000 - have done much better than their parents.

What is the advantage of smaller states? "The logic of creation of small states should be to lead to more efficiency and better governance," according to B. Venkatesh Kumar, a professor at the School of Management and Labor Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). "It also helps in addressing local concerns and giving more autonomy because smaller states are more responsive to local aspirations” But the smaller states first need to be economically viable, he adds[2]. Why opposition to smaller-states? According to Kumar, governments prefer larger-sized States because "it gives them political power, including more political representatives at the state-level, as well as their presence in the federal parliament, and access to economic resources arising out of a large geographical space.  Further, State break-up requires considerable costs for the new governance set-up, including infrastructure investment in the new capital.

Quite clearly we need a smaller government, which means smaller States, fewer departments and more decentralization. What should be criteria of creating smaller States? The State Reorganization Commission in early fifties sought for division of Indian Union into linguistic-based States, which was implemented in the States Reorganization Act of 1956. But in the current political scenario where the concept of inclusive growth becoming inevitable, there seems to be only one viable option: formation of a second State Reorganization Commission that will look into carving out States based on the current geo-political scenario, to accommodate the regional political and ethnical interests of the people. In addition, I feel that population size should be given due recognition in redrawing the map of India.

The population of India is projected to increase from 1210 million in 2011 to 1751 million (scenario B) in 2051, as per Population Reference Bureau[3], that is in the next forty years – an increase by 540 million. As a consequence, the total population of 10 most populous or super-states of India will increase from 927 million to 1366 million (Table 1, column 4). And this fact must be kept in mind while redrawing the map of Indian Union.  As such, division of existing super States is must. For both governance and socio-economic reasons, the total population of to be carved out smaller States should not exceed more than 50 million each with administrative friendly inter-state boundaries not like existing boundaries between Uttar Pradesh (Bundalkhand) and Madhya Pradesh.

The small States versus big States argument is an international issue. In USA, too, there has been a lot of noise though very little action. The last State created by carving out part of another is West Virginia. That was way back in 1863. But practically every State has witnessed split proposals since then. In an article titled, "Divided We Stand", The Wall Street Journal asked: “What would California look like broken in three? Or a Republic of New England?  With the federal government reaching for ever more power, redrawing the map is enticing”, says Paul Starobin.

While India's internal map may not soon start looking like the pre-independence jigsaw puzzle presented by the myriad provinces and kingdoms, the world's largest democracy could add a few more States if it takes its cue from the world's oldest democracy - USA. The 50 States the US has for its population of 300 million is almost double the number of states India has for its 1200 million-plus people. I think that the era of large ungovernable States is past. 

The next post discusses the seven billionth baby and its implications.

[1]  For details, see chapter:  “Small States and Better Government”, in India: Issues in Development by Mohan Guruswamy, Hope India Publications, Gurgoan, 2006. Also see The economics behind demand for smaller states by  Nupur Pavan Bang on her blog.
 [2] For details, see:  Website  - The Truth is Always Insane - United smaller” States of India— A necessity or a delusion.
[3] PFI & PRB. 2007. The Future Population of India, New Delhi: Population Foundation of India and Population Reference Bureau.


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