South India and North India are farther apart than we realise. Whether it’s education or quality of life, as the disparity grows, so does the chasm between us. This could be the next great Indian crisis. Nilakantan RS argues why –
South India: A Different Country
Consider a child born in India.
This child is, firstly, far less likely to be born in south India than in north India, given the former’s lower rates of population growth. But let’s assume the child is born in the south. She is far less likely to die in the first year of her life given the lower infant mortality rates in south India compared to the rest of India. She is more likely to get vaccinated against diseases than the average Indian newborn, less likely to lose her mother during childbirth, more likely to get childcare services and receive better nutrition.
She is more likely to celebrate her fifth birthday, more likely to find a hospital or a doctor in case she falls sick, and more likely to eventually live a slightly longer life. She will also go to school and stay in school longer; she will more likely go to college than her contemporaries elsewhere in India. She is less likely to be involved in agriculture for economic sustenance and more likely to find work that pays her more.
She will also go on to be a mother to fewer children than her peers in the rest of India, and her children in turn will be healthier and more educated than she. And she’ll have greater political representation and more impact on elections as a voter than those peers too. In short, the median child born in south India will live a healthier, wealthier, more secure and more socially impactful life than a child born in
India’s regional imbalance wasn’t always skewed in favour of the south and it was never as substantial as it now is. At the time of Independence, the southern states were indistinguishable from the rest of India in terms of their development metrics. Today, the difference in development between some of the northern states and southern states is as stark as that between sub-Saharan Africa and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
Why is the south doing so much better than the north?
Surely, it’s not historical providence or ethnic essentialism, given their similar starting points. It’s obviously not due to some policy implementation of the Government of India. That leaves policy decisions at the state level, the implementation capacity of their bureaucracies and dumb luck as other possible reasons. The capabilities of state bureaucracies are often realizations of policy decisions themselves. And luck, over a long enough period of time, is otherwise called policy vision and implementation.
So, why were states in southern India able to design better policy and implement it too? The literature credits subnationalism as one reason for the relatively better development of states in southern India.
In India, instances of subnationalism are often based on linguistic identity, given that they go back millennia. That sense of belonging in a localized geography is the glue which creates the knock- on effects that accelerate growth in various spheres, simply because we as a social species achieve great things when we have a common purpose.
Uttar Pradesh is often propped up as a counter-example to states with high levels of subnationalism. There’s no sub- nationalism in that state. Even the name, Uttar Pradesh, is generic and was decided as an afterthought. It retains the colonial, short-version ‘UP’ for United Provinces and gives it a Hindustani twist. Unlike Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where linguistic identities transcended other subgroup identities, in
Uttar Pradesh, loyalties to Hindi and Urdu served as proxies for religion. This continues to the present day in that state, where government programmes are often seen through the lens of caste groups or religious communities. Compared to, say, Kerala, the trajectory of decay in public services in Uttar Pradesh, and its consequent status as a laggard state, runs in the opposite direction. The United Provinces under British rule was a relatively well- administered province while the princely state of Travancore, which is now part of Kerala, was a troubled place.
The economic trajectory of India’s states follows the simple maxim of the modern era: the most important economic resource a country has is its people. A healthy and well-educated population with a reasonably well-run government is likely to have better economic prospects. The income levels and job prospects in south India, unsurprisingly, are significantly better than in the north.
Read more about this timely issue in South VS North by Nilakantan RS, which will be releasing this month!