Pataliputra: The New Capital?

Pataliputra: The New Capital?

by Harsh Gupta - Tuesday, June 2, 2015 12:30 PM IST
Pataliputra: The New Capital?

India’s government should consider relocating to the Patna-Gaya-Nalanda triangle, and rejuvenate growth in eastern India. 

Straight away, here is the recommendation: gradually move India’s capital from New Delhi to south of what is Patna today. Create a new union territory called Pataliputra, which can house the executive/secretariat. The Parliament and the Supreme Court can be housed in or near Bodh Gaya and Nalanda, or some such similar combination. The first instinct of many will be to consider this as a massive Tughlasque distraction, but there are compelling reasons to consider this idea:

  1. The per-capita income of central-eastern states like Bihar, U.P., W.B, Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, Orissa, Assam (Bihar and eastern U.P. being the lowest) is a quarter to a half of states like Maharashtra, Haryana and Tamil Nadu.
  2. This part of India has 400+ million people, ~1/3rd of India’s population – and such massive inequality (along with inhuman levels of absolute poverty) cannot be ignored if India is to become a middle-income nation soon.
  3. Many spatially large democracies – America, Canada, Australia, Brazil – do not have their political capitals based in their largest few cities.
  4. The average resident of Delhi would benefit by a reduction in property prices without any significant decrease in long-term economic growth – and many state properties there can be auctioned to partially fund the new capital.
  5. India is not just any nation-state; it is a civilizational state. In the truest sense, our modern republic is the successor state of the Mauryan, Gupta and Pala kingdoms (which mostly had their capital in Pataliputra) and not that of the Delhi Sultanate, Mughal Empire or the British Raj. 
  6. Creating a new capital can be the flagship idea of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 100+ Smart Cities Project (Mr. Modi, MP from nearby Varanasi, should consider announcing this before the Bihar assembly polls)
  7. Finally, creating a new capital in the heart of Central-Eastern India – along with the economic boom and the political spotlight that would inevitably follow – would be a body blow to Maoist terrorism.

The North, West and South are now in a virtuous cycle of growth – the East needs urgent attention

Bangalore is becoming India’s Silicon Valley. Mumbai continues to have Dalal Street and Bollywood. Chennai and Hyderabad (along with, I am sure, Andhra’s new capital under Naidu’s leadership) will continue to attract great investments in manufacturing and services. Rajasthan, parts of M.P., western U.P, and all of Haryana are being lifted by the Mumbai-Delhi corridor. Gujarat and Punjab remain industrial and agricultural powerhouses, respectively – though of course a lot remains to be done. Normalcy (and tourism rupees) is slowly returning to even Kashmir, and of course Uttarakhand received a significant boost by proximity to Delhi and various tax incentives.

When one travels a thousand kilometers south-east from Delhi though, it is as is if one enters a different millennium. The area from Allahabad to Bhilai on one side to Cuttack and Guwahati on the other is the area that is, depending on your perspective, “holding India back” or one which “never got a fair deal in the first place”. There is some truth in both the assessments. The people here, especially compared to those in southern and western India, are still focused on the million mutinies of class, caste, and faith on the one hand – and yes at the same time, Nehruvian Delhi’s centralizing policies (like freight equalization to take one example – ironically opposed by the Bengali communists, the very people who destroyed Kolkata and by extension retarded the growth of Eastern India) further delayed industrialization here. Despite the region being extremely rich in history as well as having very fertile land, massive natural resources and a diligent, dense population – its socio-economic indices are around the same as (and often behind) that of sub-Saharan Africa.

But it does not have to be this way; the Bay of Bengal is nearby to provide sea access, there are large cities in the region which can finally get their act together after having tried every shade of collectivist economics, and finally the people here are looking forward to a bright future based on their industriousness, their education and their hard work. After centuries, they have started hoping and realistically expecting a life better for their children than theirs has been – and they are ready to put up with sweat, blood and tears to achieve that. They just need that one push beyond the escape velocity of despondence. Of course, the only long-term, sustainable way out for this region – and the rest of India – is economic liberty, better governance, pro-market policies and a minimum but effective state. Such reforms on the path of liberalization are happening across the country – not as fast as some of us may want, but the direction is certainly correct.

However, there is one “statist” or government-driven game-changing idea that can dramatically change the fortunes of eastern India: shift India’s capital back to east India, specifically to the south of Patna by creating a new mega-city/union territory there, and calling it Pataliputra to inspire the country as it starts picking up speed in its marathon of global re-emergence.

Eastern India is socio-economically similar to Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa had a per capita income of almost $1700 in 2013. Bihar, U.P. and Assam had per capita incomes of less than 1000 USD in 2014 according to statistics here, and Jharkhand, M.P., Chhatisgarh, W.B., Orissa, Tripura, Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya all have per-capita incomes lower than $1700 (in this tabulation, India’s per capita current income is $1626; today it is around $2000 – but the number has gone up for Africa as well). One can always adjust the numbers a bit – for example, the African numbers would be lower if South Africa is taken out of the consideration – but the fundamental point here remains. In purchasing power terms, both the Eastern Indian and the Sub-Saharan African numbers would be significantly higher, and then one can again quibble a bit about the relevant multipliers.

Similar comparisons can be done around various health and education indices – and depending on the exact variable, one region or the other may come out ahead. I have not spent too much time digging into these numbers, but the bottom line is: things are bad – really, really bad. Most of this region is also below the average income of India as a whole, and India is not a very per-capita rich nation to begin with. Finally, we are not talking of a sparsely populated region that we can ignore in the way the Chinese ignored their western, interior regions for some time. Bihar’s population is more than 100 million, and eastern U.P and West Bengal are also approaching that number, respectively. Then one can add Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, and large parts of North-East India and depending on what you include or not, we are looking at more than a third of India’s population (and 5% of humanity).

NCR is now a mega-city, a demographic and economic behemoth for India. Why burden it as the national capital as well?

Aaah, Delhi. What used to be a relative backwater before the 1982 Asian games is now arguably India’s biggest metropolis with the best urban infrastructure in the country. Of course, the pollution is again getting unbearable and their are real problems around safety for women, but nobody can deny Delhi’s charm and pull in today’s age as it continues to swallow Gurgaon, Noida, and more areas from neighboring states. No longer a “parochial” city of refugees from Western Punjab, it is a magnet for migrants from all corners of India. There may be some favoritism based on domicile, but Saddi Dilli is for everyone – at least, there is no major “sons of the soil” movement going on here. But to understand the boom in Delhi, one must go further behind 1982, and at least till 1911. Five score and four years ago, the British – our then colonial masters – began the process of shifting India’s capital from Kolkata (Calcutta) to Delhi (and eventually “New” Delhi). There were various reasons for that – the British Indian empire which began in Bengal had expanded all over India, the British wanted to show themselves to be the successor state of the Mughal Empire, and finally the fact that Bengali Hindus were getting a bit too “revolutionary” about newfangled ideas like nationalism may also have something to do with this (in the very same year, the partition of Bengal was partially reversed after dramatic protests).

Over the decades, Delhi – and the surrounding regions that constitute the National Capital Region – has become a veritable economic juggernaut, easily lapping Calcutta, Madras/Chennai and other towns and now having moved ahead of Mumbai/Bombay too on some indicators. It is India’s largest “dry port” – the biggest mandi where risk-seekers of all stripe try to make their fortunes, and whether they succeed or not, this pull certainly has had positive spillovers for the Haryanvis, Punjabis, West UP-ites and perhaps soon “North-East” Rajasthanis. Land prices have increased astronomically, various lower-level direct or indirect government jobs may have gone disproportionately to “North Indians”, and umpteen number of connections and “social capital” has helped denizens of Delhi. None of this is a conspiracy of course, or takes away from the hard work of those who have achieved success. It is just that, perhaps, people in other parts of India should also get such chances – especially if they are from much poorer areas. Moreover, Delhi will now continue to boom – capital or no capital. Shifting the national capital may reduce property prices for the aam aadmi, and maybe some pollution as well. Along with, who knows, that notorious “jaanta hai mera baap kaun hai” culture (or its equivalent euphemisms). Let us auction myriad properties in Lutyens’ Delhi, convert some of them into museums, and gradually but purposefully, shift India’s capital. Almost everyone in Delhi will benefit.

What about lessons from history, and from other countries?

Let us start with international comparisons. The U.S. capital is in Washington D.C, which is much smaller than New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and perhaps a couple of urban areas in Texas as well. The Canadian capital is in Ottawa, and again that is smaller than Toronto, Vancouver and perhaps Calgary (precise calculations always depends on what suburbs are counted). Australia? Again, Canberra is smaller than Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Brazil? Brasilia is smaller than Rio and Sao Paulo. Only in China and Russia – the other two countries larger than India (India’s land size is the seventh largest in the world) – are Beijing and Moscow mega-cities in their own right. Maybe, that tells us something? In authoritarian countries, political power never wants to be too far from economic power, to lubricate all kinds of cronyism and of course to keep the citizens down as subjects. Of course, six examples do not a theory maketh, but is it really surprising that in quasi-socialist India, Delhi overtook Bombay, Calcutta and Madras?

OK, what about Indian history? Now, this maybe a more controversial argument as any “civilizational” argument is akin to dog whistle for some self-professed liberals (and no, most of them are not liberal in any true sense unfortunately). The fact remains that while India did directly inherit the British Raj structure, and the Prime Minister makes annual speeches from the Mughal Red Fort, India’s soul lies not in these colonial memories but in its ancient kingdoms – especially the Hindu-Buddhist-Jain Mauryan Empire which first united most of modern India (and beyond). The Mauryans of course had their capital in what is today Patna. So did the Guptas, during which India had its “Golden Age” ostensibly. And indeed so did the much-forgotten Palas, the Bengal-focused empire that grew to be almost pan-Indian but is often forgotten at the altar of North-Indian-biased historiography. As someone whose family migrated from the “North” to the “East” where I was born and raised, I have been annoyed at the Delhi-centrism of our historians who cannot seem to care about what happened in South India, East India or West India. The Ahoms, the Vijayanagar empire, the Rashtakuta – just to take three random examples off the top of my head – have never received half as much attention as “great” kings whose writ never ran much beyond Delhi or Lahore or later Agra.

Now, that the Nalanda University project seems to finally have capable leadership under a former Singaporean minister, and Mr. Modi is using India’s Buddhist “soft power” in Korea and Mongolia, we can finally consider moving India’s capital to a region around South Patna-Nalanda-Bodhgaya.

What kind of timeline and costs are we looking at?

The details need to be worked out – I do not have the answers, certainly not right now. But we can use our common sense. Yes, such a project will be expensive – but India needs to spend on hard infrastructure, especially urban-based, in eastern India anyway. And yes, it will take at least a decade (The British took two decades to properly shift from Calcutta and Delhi, and those were simpler times in many ways). However, with focused attention from the highest quarters, can get the project executed much earlier. Mr. Modi can give the Republic Day speech from Delhi in 2019, and say he will speak on Independence Day that year from “New” Pataliputra if given a fresh mandate. All ideas have risks and complications, but this one may just work out very well. After all we live in the age of Skype and Facebook, not in the age of Tughlaq’s Daulatabad. The logistics will not be the roadblock on this one.

NOTE: The views expressed are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Swarajya. 

Harsh is an investor, and the coauthor of two books - latest being 'A New Idea of India'.
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