To Achieve True Self-Reliance, India Must Become A Nation-State Of 1,000 Janapadas
A self-reliant India cannot take the form where a country of a billion people is disproportionately dependent on four-five megacities.
Here is an alternative.
From Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation delivered yesterday (12 May), one thing becomes clear: his biggest takeaway from the Covid-19 pandemic is the importance of being self-reliant as a nation.
In fact, this is a lesson other countries, especially the western ones, are also learning.
They are realising their mistake of shipping away their supply chains entirely to China in exchange for cheap labour.
US President Donald Trump has been a proponent of reversing that trend for a long time and won in 2016 promising to do exactly that. The Brexit vote reflected the same sentiment.
Steve Bannon, Chief Executive of Trump’s 2016 campaign and the former Chief Strategist for the US President, has termed this movement in the West as economic nationalism.
He is also a big fan of PM Modi since 2013 because Modi talked about ‘India First’.
Bannon recently praised him for standing up to China consistently and not selling India and Indians to the Communist Party of China for short term economic gains.
Be it Modi, Trump or other world leaders, slowly but surely, the message of self-reliance is emerging as the new mantra in the first half of the 21st century, finally replacing globalisation which was the consensus in the second half of the 20th.
The question now is—how do we go about becoming self-reliant? Can we feel assured only by replacing global supply chains with national ones? Certainly not.
Take Maharashtra for instance. It is the economic lifeline of India but in this crisis, it is paralysed the most and will take longer than other states to resume work like normal times.
Many states in the country can run to their full economic capacity but they still won’t be able to compensate for the loss to the GDP that is being caused due to shutting down of a city like Mumbai or Pune.
This is why the most important lesson of Covid-19 pandemic is not just that we need to be self-reliant as a country but that we have to diversify risks and become self-reliant at the very local level.
We have to build 100s of Jaipurs, Surats, Lucknows, Chandigarhs, Punes, Nagpurs, Gurgaons, Noidas rather than simply relying too heavily on select few metros with rising population density and crumbling public infrastructure.
India’s problem isn’t that there is too much urbanisation but that there is too less and, more problematically, limited to a few pockets.
But this won’t happen by centralised planning. A scheme run from New Delhi won’t create 100 or 500 new cities, let alone the smart ones. This is where the most important aspect comes into play: the governance.
India must become a nation of 1,000 republics, each with a population of 10-15 lakhs, run by popularly elected leaders.
Each republic or ‘Janapada’ must be allowed a certain degree of autonomy in not just executive governance but in framing laws on subjects of local importance and in resolving legal matters in their own courts.
The local governance structure can be uniform everywhere to begin with (one elected executive with office, one small assembly to frame laws and one court for civil and criminal matters, etc). But these Janapadas may be allowed to evolve and change governance structures as per their local traditions and cultures.
This will ensure that we can run 1,000 controlled governance experiments simultaneously rooted in India’s values.
Rather than central and state lists for subjects, we can have a separate list for these Janapadas which can be allowed to have autonomy in certain areas which ideally shouldn’t have a uniform regulatory framework.
These can include agriculture, water conservation, education, public health, including sanitation, welfare, local development works that people run behind MLAs and MPs for, housing, etc.
Taxes collected from their areas of jurisdiction can be used to run the aforementioned operations.
At present, the mode of governance in India mandates the centre devolving money to states which in turn devolve it further down to districts and villages. But a truly self-reliant India means that these Janapadas of 10-15 lakh populations also become self-reliant and don’t have to depend on charity from above for sustaining themselves.
A governance structure focused on these Janapadas as the building blocks of self-reliant India will foster competitive spirit to develop their areas for the benefit of their own people.
This new system would certainly weaken the power of chief ministers as many subjects of taxation and control devolve down but the biggest loser will be the Centre.
And that’s the way it should be.
The national executive should only look after subjects of national importance like security of the country, intelligence agencies, foreign affairs, energy security, etc. It shouldn’t worry about losing its taxation powers to states and Janapadas for it is also shedding its responsibility on many areas of governance which it has failed to deliver on precisely because of the centralised nature of Indian State.
These small units would be able to take care of their weak and vulnerable population by their own welfare policies financed by local taxation (say House tax). The Janapada population would be ready to shell out more taxes if it knows that they are being used in their own communities.
You would be reluctant to pay even Rs 5 if you don’t see where it’s going but you would happily pay Rs 10 if it goes in say financing the school in your village which is relatively accountable to you.
The leader at the Janapada level will be readily accessible to the population and more shame-prone in delivering for them. Those aspects of governance which are related to day-to-day lives of the general public should be resolvable close to their native places. They should not look up to state or national capitals for things that can be easily executed in their nearest city.
Carving out these 1,000 republics shouldn’t be difficult. We have over 720 districts already. We just need to add 300 more and we are done.
Alternatively think of parliamentary constituencies. We have 543 of them. Just double that number and we have 1,100 odd Janapadas, two per Lok Sabha constituency.
What I am proposing of course needs drastic changes in our constitution but that is exactly what we need. We can’t afford incremental tweaks.
But that’s not what is revolutionary about the Janapada model.
The revolutionary part is trusting the vast majority of the country to run their lives as they see fit, as per their local tradition and culture.
The revolutionary thing is letting go of the power from the national and state capitals to local communities and regions who know best how their capabilities can be channelled in service of the country.
The revolutionary thing will not be to create self-reliant India but to create 1,000 such mini-Indias which can sustain themselves for long periods of time without outside help.
This is the India that laid the foundation for our golden period in the ancient past. This is what we must return to if we have to succeed.
Some worry that we were defeated by invaders because we were fragmented in 1,000 republics and if this will lead again to our balkanisation. On the contrary. There is a reason why despite all the diversity of language, culture and whatnot, India remained one throughout centuries. Having different governance structures can be the least of its problems.
Political unification of India is an irreversible reality now unlike the fragile past world of monarchies. We have had civilisational unity for millennia. The national unity is increasingly strengthening and is a work in progress. So, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
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