A child born in Uttar Pradesh is ten times more likely to die in her first year than a child born in Kerala. As far as the infant mortality rate is concerned, the two states are as far apart as the United States and South Sudan. The life expectancy in Uttar Pradesh is also a good ten years lower than that in Kerala.
Yet, in October last year, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath, went to Kerala and said that the state must take lessons from Uttar Pradesh on providing healthcare and running hospitals. The statement was particularly baffling considering that just a few months earlier 30 children had died in a government hospital in Gorakhpur due to the administration’s failure to maintain a supply of oxygen.
As absurd as Adityanath’s brazenness seems, it has a clear political context. While India’s northern states are lagging far behind in terms of development parameters, they enjoy much more political power, not only because of their access to Hindi, but also because of their larger populations. For long, the Indian north and south have been on divergent paths. The south is developing at a faster rate, and the north is seeing much faster population growth. These trends, if they continue, are likely to worsen the political imbalance between the two regions. An example of this is the recent controversy over the fifteenth Finance Commission’s recommendations. By carrying out population control, southern states have accrued an advantage in terms of per capita allocation of central funds, which these recommendations threaten to take away. With their prominent history of subnationalism, the southern states’ anxiety over their presence in the Indian union is likely to grow worse.
The shift in India’s demographics over the past few decades has been rapid. In 1961, Tamil Nadu had a population of 33 million while present-day Madhya Pradesh had a population of 23 million. By 2011, Madhya Pradesh had overtaken Tamil Nadu in terms of population. Similarly, Rajasthan had a population of 20 million in 1961 while Kerala had a population of 16.9 million. In 2011, Rajasthan had a population of 68 million compared to Kerala’s 33 million. That is, while Kerala has not even doubled its population, Rajasthan has more than tripled its population in the same period.
Population growth is often exponential, especially when two societies have had a significant difference in fertility rates for a generation. When the fertility rate falls, the ratio of young people falls too. There are fewer children born who in turn have even fewer children of their own. The opposite is true for societies with the higher fertility rates. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, the ratio of population that is under 15 years of age is 33 percent, while in Kerala’s case, it is 20 percent. Not only will each woman in Uttar Pradesh, statistically speaking, produce more children than her Kerala counterpart, there are more young people as a percentage of population in Uttar Pradesh. There are 65 million children in Uttar Pradesh today who are under the age of 15. They are likely to have 82 million children of their own over the next two decades. In this time, Kerala children of today will likely have a mere 5.5 million children of their own.
Even as the population of the northern states shoots up, development in the region has been relatively slow. In 1961, Tamil Nadu had a per capita income that was 25 percent higher than that of Madhya Pradesh. By 2016, the average Tamil Nadu citizen was more than twice as rich as an average citizen of Madhya Pradesh. In the past 50 years, states such as Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka have had faster economic growth and slower population growth, and have experienced greater improvements in development indicators, compared to most of their northern counterparts. Improvement in one indicator in particular, that of female literacy, correlates with a fall in the fertility rate.
This divergence between the two regions is unique in a federal structure. In almost all other federal structures, the place that is growing richer will be the one to experience a higher population growth because of economic migration—the states of Texas and California in the United States are examples. In India, however, high population growth is driven by high birth rates in poorer regions, often attributed to poor female literacy.
The phenomenon is raising several problems, the most serious of these being the erosion of the impact of each voter in states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The number of parliamentary seats each state has is frozen till 2026. Mathematically speaking, the higher the number of people per constituency the lower the impact each voter has. Owing to the divergence in population growth, a voter in Tamil Nadu currently has a 20-percent greater impact on a Lok Sabha constituency election than his or her counterpart in Madhya Pradesh.
Voters in northern states are going to demand that their votes have the same power as those of their southern counterparts. However, voters from states or constituencies where the opposite is true are likely to argue that the increasing impact of their vote is a natural reward for their governments’ successful policy implementation. When the Delimitation Commission—a body tasked with redrawing the boundaries of various Lok Sabha and state assembly constituencies—revisits the issue in 2026, a conflict between the north and the south is inevitable.
We are already witnessing a version of the same problem with the recent recommendations of the fifteenth Finance Commission—a body formed to define the financial relations between the central and state governments. Until the thirteenth Finance Commission, the baseline for the allocation of central funds was the 1971 census. Theoretically, therefore, those that have managed to control their populations since 1971 would enjoy a slightly higher allocation on a per-capita basis. The fourteenth Finance Commission introduced the partial use of Census 2011 data in the allocation formula. The fifteenth Finance Commission seeks to use Census 2011 fully as the basis for allocation. Much like the unfreezing of the delimitation exercise, this will erode the carefully accrued advantage for each citizen. For the voters and citizens of southern India, this feels like punishment for success. Northern states may think this is a routine bureaucratic process that is both normal and required given they have a greater number of people to take care of.
Another aspect of the devolution of central taxes is centrally sponsored schemes. Typically these schemes involve building roads to villages that lack connectivity or building houses for people who do not have houses. Most southern states, particularly Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which happen to be two of the most urbanised large states, already completed such public works in the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, the money allocated to these schemes bypasses them. There are few central schemes that cater to urban planning, as most of them target rural areas. If one looks at the budget documents of various states, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are three of the top five states in terms of raising their own revenue to meet their budget expenditure. Karnataka’s own revenues form 49 percent of its overall expenditure while Bihar’s own revenues account for a mere 22 percent of its spending. Thus, Kannadigas pay local taxes to run their state over and above paying central taxes that are possibly re-routed elsewhere.
There are several other inconveniences of being in the Indian union. The National Food Security Act, for instance, passed in 2013, forces states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala to adopt a less generous version of their existing Public Distribution System, or PDS. Choosing against the national PDS means risking a loss of grants. The imposition of Hindi has been an issue for decades.
The size of India’s larger states and their disparate cultures complicates their presence in the Indian union. Tamil Nadu is as large as Germany in terms of population. Karnataka is larger than Italy. Unsurpisingly, their residents see themselves as in-group and north Indians as out-group. The centuries-old history of sub-nationalist movements in many of these states—the Aikya Kerala movement or the Dravidian Movement, for instance—bear this out. These movements may have started out in opposition to oppression by the dominant castes in their own states, but they soon swapped the Brahmins out for the rulers in Delhi.
For these states, the idea of a unit of society that is bigger than they are, such as India, needs a compelling narrative to support it. Increasingly, India, instead of selling such a narrative to these societies that are culturally distinct and economically prosperous, seems to be doing the opposite.
The inconvenience of this alliance makes it imperative that India revisit several fundamental questions about its federal structure. What is the nature of its federal union? Is it a hard union, such as, say, the United States? Or is it a useful coming together of disparate states with their own complex and large societies, such as the European Union? Or is it something in-between or beyond these two? Do the terms of this union need to be renegotiated? Or is the union not worth preserving at all?
Since its inception, India has never asked people for their consent to be governed. Even in places where an explicit referendum on the matter was either promised or seemed warranted, such as in Kashmir and Hyderabad, the country never conducted one. How long can that continue? It is unnatural, if human history is any guide, for a country of 1.3 billion to be centralised to the level that India is aiming for and still remain a liberal democracy, especially when there are multiple cleavages that appear impossible to paper over.
Nilakantan RS lives in Chennai and works as a data scientist.