Is small beautiful for states?

Ajay Vaishnav / Zee Research Group

Does the creation of small states help the cause of governance and development? If one chooses Jharkhand as a test case, the state has been a bad advertisement for small states.

Jharkhand was created in 2000 to meet the political aspirations of tribals within a democratic framework and bring administration closer to some of India’s most marginalised and impoverished districts in the Chotanagpur region. However, the end of Bihar’s domination hasn’t brought better governance to its people.

Not only Jharkhand performs poorly on poverty and key development indicators, the state remains a hotbed of Naxals and their anti-state propaganda along with Chhattisgarh, Orissa and West Bengal.

Census of India 2011 figures are revealing in this regard. While Jharkhand’s average literacy rate at 67.63 percent is better than Bihar’s 63.82 percent, it is poor as compared to Uttarakhand’s 79.63 percent and Chhattisgarh’s 71.04. Both states came into existence with Jharkhand in November 2000.

On infant mortality front, Uttarakhand at 36 deaths per thousand live births betters Jharkhand at 39. However, Jharkhand’s maternal mortality rate at 261 per lakh births is marginally better over Chhattisgarh’s 269. The latter’s sex ratio at 991 females per 1000 males is way above Jharkhand’s 947.

Worst of all, Jharkhand’s record of political stability can even give Italian politicians a run for their money. Political uncertainties like the latest crisis in the state following chief minister Arjun Munda’s resignation on Tuesday after recommending the dissolution of the state assembly following the withdrawal of support to his government by the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha has only worsened matters.

In its brief history of 12 years, Jharkhand has become a cauldron for coalition politics with no party getting a clear-cut majority. Alliances entered into on whimsical basis rather than either principled ideology or governance programme define Jharkhand politics. It has seen two spells of President’s Rule and eight governments including one of the shortest in India that lasted for just 11 days (the shortest being Jagdambika Pal government in Uttar Pradesh for three days in February 1998).

The longest serving government lasted two-and-a-half years with power shuffling mainly between kleptocratic elites. Take for instance, JMM president Shibu Soren and Bharatiya Janata Party’s Arjun Munda who have both been dethroned thrice by each other.

Soren’s JMM is now trying to cobble up another coalition government with Congress to hold on to power in the state. If that happens, the state will see the ninth government to take charge in the last 12 years.

The governance deficit has, in turn, affected economic freedom in the state. According to the recently released The Economic Freedom of the States of India 2012 report, released by the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, Cato Institute, in collaboration with Friedrich-Naumann Stiftung, in Hong Kong, Jharkhand is languishing at the bottom with Bihar in economic freedom.

While Chhattisgarh (from 15 to 11) and Uttarakhand (from 19 to 14) have steadily moved up in the rankings, Jharkhand has plummeted from 8 to 19, just above Bihar. It is the only state whose rating has drastically fallen by 0.09 since 2005.

Even bigger casualty emanating from the absence of a strong and stable government is alleged rampant corruption over state’s coal mining leases. Madhu Koda, a former chief minister, is being probed by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on charges of money laundering involving Rs 5,500 crore during his 23-month tenure.

Then an Independent MLA, Koda headed the state UPA government from September 2006 to August 2008. He is also accused by the ED of having indulged in corrupt practices as mines minister in the Arjun Munda-led BJP’s coalition government from August 2005 to September 2006. The CAG report too has alleged irregularities in coal mine allocation in Jharkhand under different governments including Arjun Munda’s.

Statehood offers several benefits, including more direct funding from the capital, more high-prestige political and bureaucratic positions for bigwigs, recognition of local identity and an ability to steer economic policy more effectively.

But, Jharkhand’s political elite has failed its people repeatedly on governance and addressing their grievances. Far from the ideals espoused during statehood struggle, Jharkhand has ended up illustrating the dangers of carving out small resource-rich states: they are captured by tiny, kleptocratic elites governing their forts on personal whims and fancies.