Regional Disparities in India since Independence


During the British period in India, the policy orientation of the government in India was more so to protect the British economy than to look after the welfare of people in India, with law & order, tax collection and defence being the primary objectives. Although British modernized India with rail tracks, education, etc, the indigenous industry was largely ignored, producing a period of stagnation for India’s traditional economy. With no great increase in output or productivity, regional disparities in India grew as the economy leaned towards British centres of commerce.

Regional Disparities in India Post-Independence

However, it cannot be denied that post-independence, India inherited some useful assets from the British period that could help the country to manage the situation. Although British rule left much of India impoverished, assets like the transport systems, development projects, and an administrative apparatus was a massive help in managing the huge organizational problems post-independence. Much of the development activities were carried out under the Planning and Development Department towards the end of the British period. Even though independent India’s first Five Year Plan began in 1950-51, a proper planning framework came into operation only with the second Five Year Plan, with most major projects being continuations of pre-existing development processes (Kurian, undated). In a nascent framework, addressing most regional disparities in India remained largely a continuation at the policy level in the time just after gaining independence.

The problem with the newly emerging economy in India that was steadily developing was that India is a land of great diversity, not just in culture, but also in topography, climate, natural resources, and so on. Given the immense diversity in India, which followed the exploitation of the British period where traditional progress was halted and transformed, the challenges were massive in solving regional disparities in India for economic and developmental policy. In order to deal with the massive problems arising out of the formation of a country, centralized planning was adopted (Singh, 2015). However, this did not help in solving the problem of regional disparities in India post-independence and persistent backwardness persisted in many regions of the country.

It is a general trend in the development of countries the world over for development activities to cluster around a few principal territories in a country. This creates states within countries that are relatively developed and others that are economically depressed. Even the US has this problem of regional disparity and so have socialist countries such as China and Russia. The sort of imbalanced development can exist even within states as regions less or more developed than others. Often geographical constraints, market imperfections, government policies, a lack of law & order, identity, per capita income and various socio-economic reasons can contribute to regional disparity such that some regions are more backward than other areas falling within the same nation.

India followed the same path since the early period after independence. However, what can be debated in India is whether the scale of regional disparity is higher in India than which could be properly managed to lesser effects. For example, China’s policy of economically incentivizing local level actors to form Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs) for instance has greatly contributed to reducing intra-rural inequality in China such that the Chinese government is helped in focusing on strategies to alleviate poverty within regions. In India on the other hand, intra-rural inequality remains high with many people remaining locked in poverty.

Although a major motive of planning since independence has been alleviation of intra-regional disparities in India, even with many waves of planning since independence, this remains a persistent problem. Since independence efforts have been made to locate heavy industries in backward regions for example which did not solve the problem. In fact, with accelerated economic growth in India since the 1980s, economic inequality and regional disparities in India have greatly increased. With stabilization and deregulation policies introduced since economic liberalization in 1991, the benefits arising out of economic growth have not been distributed equally among all of India’s states and regions (Parveen, 2016).

Regional Disparities in India and Human Development

Although great economic growth has occurred in India since independence, economic growth alone is not the only determinant of upward mobility. Social opportunity often needs the development of the capabilities of people whereby they can look forward to upward mobility. Development should not mean opportunity only being available in centres of economic growth which can greatly advance regional disparities in India.

This is coupled with a lack of economic emancipation when social amenities are under-utilized in many regions in India with emancipation being primarily tied to political identity. The political system in these regions will find it difficult to deliver emancipation when the infrastructure for social amenities such as education and safety are under-developed or under-utilized thus maintaining regional disparities in India for these regions.

The human development approach looks to develop the capabilities of people in a target region using social indicators such as literacy rate, mortality rate, etc to measure the social progress of a region. The concept also looks to build sustainability such that economic growth occurs concurrent to responsible use of resources. The approach looks to develop developmental indicators for a target region such that a measure of the region’s capabilities in social opportunity and sustainable development can be ascertained.

Such an approach is imperative in India where the challenge is to deliver emancipation in its widest span envisaged given the stagnation that can be produced in an economy when the benefits of growth are continuously appropriated by a few. Regional disparities in India can also act as a counter-current to the ideas of national integration and federalism in whose fundamentals the country was envisaged as a democratic republic. Regional identity is deeply entrenched in India and its demographic indicators are compacted with more often than not, human development indicators that measure social progress and quality of life.

One of India’s foremost exponents of the Human Development approach – Amartya Sen – has argued in his literature on social choice that the problem of economic inequality is the ordering of social preference by the beneficiaries of economic growth. Sen argues that this creates an information base for societies with high economic inequality that undermines human functioning to commodification (Roy, 2012). The realization of individual choice and intrinsic value is essential to productivity and relative economic equality which is undermined by only following the market mechanism. The market cannot sustain returns if it does not also systematically engage in developing the capabilities of human capital. The market mechanism can thus act to eclipse judicious policy that can look to alleviate regional disparities in India for example. Instead of largely being under the play of the market, the social capabilities of people must also be developed to alleviate regional disparity in India.

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