The claim that the government’s recent political actions have anything positive to do with economic development lacks any basis in experience or theory
“Audacious” seems to be an appropriate word to describe the step that the Indian government took in early August, not only dispensing with Kashmir’s special constitutional status under Article 370 but also splitting it into two, and downgrading both parts to Union Territories. The ruling party had long and openly declared its intentions for Article 370, but the manner of its implementation of those intentions was more than surprising.
There are many dimensions of the implications of what the ruling party has done. Internationally, the government’s actions may increase regional tensions, and escalate the existing level of conflict, at least in the short run. Domestically, the implications for Indian federalism, which has tried to balance the complex heterogeneity of India, especially its peripheries, seem to be negative as well. That the national government has flexed its muscles so obviously, both as a regional power and as a centre that dominates subnational units, is unsurprising, and fits with its larger project of creating a homogenised, “Hinduised” nation. Much has been, and will continue to be written on these two aspects of the Kashmir action. What deserves a little more analysis are the implications for Kashmir’s and India’s development. India’s current rulers have gone to some lengths to stress that “integrating” Kashmir into India will be good for Kashmir’s economic development. Is there a basis for this claim?
First, one has to unpack the idea of development. This goes back to recent debates in India about aggregate GDP growth versus broader goals of development, such as the enhancement of freedoms and capabilities, and amelioration of economic inequalities. Whereas those debates were sometimes posed in terms of opposing goals, it is arguable that they are complementary in the medium and long run. From this perspective, the actions in Kashmir do not seem conducive to sustained development. A population that was already feeling discriminated against and oppressed is only going to feel more so. If growth comes from investment by non-locals, it is likely to exacerbate existing inequalities.
In the case of gender inequality, the claim that Kashmiri women will especially benefit from this move (with the underlying but unspoken idea that Islam is unequal in its treatment of women) seems to be belied by internet postings that now non-Kashmiri men can marry Kashmiri women (along with buying property and take jobs there). There is a certain ugliness to the discourse that the national government’s political action has unleashed with respect to Kashmiri identity and autonomy. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that gender inequality is a regional problem in South Asia, especially its northern plains, much more so than any religion-based explanation.
More directly, if we think about the conditions for successful development, they involve investments in physical infrastructure and human capital. These will still be needed in Kashmir, but the truth is that all of those investments could have been made without any change in Kashmir’s political status. That change is a complete red herring with respect to any deficiencies in Kashmiri economic progress. The case of Punjab is illuminating here. Punjab has, at least since the 1950s reorganisation, been a state without any special status. Investments in specific infrastructure by the state and national governments allowed the Green Revolution to take hold and to flourish. But when neither level of government did enough to upgrade the state’s infrastructure to go beyond producing wheat and rice for the national public food distribution system, matters deteriorated rapidly. Inequality increased, water shortages arose, and the state was locked in an economic structure that is headed for disaster. There was no rush of private investment, despite the positive reputation of the state and its people, and Punjab has struggled with violent conflict and societal ills like drug and alcohol abuse.
Indeed, Punjab illustrates another lesson: the national policy of making Punjab subservient to the national goal of foodgrain self-sufficiency without adequate long-run resources, because it arrested Punjab’s development, contributed to political conflict. This conflict was exacerbated by Punjab being a minority-majority state, situated on a volatile international border. And none of this had anything to do with any kind of special constitutional status. All of this suggests that the promises of economic development for Kashmir are based on false premises. A centrally controlled effort, dominated by non-locals, in a situation where the local majority already feels oppressed, and where there is international military tension, is unlikely to lead to any significantly positive outcomes.
To summarise, India may indeed demonstrate its regional might by absorbing Kashmir more firmly into a centralised national polity; perhaps the government’s radical moves will lead to a recognition of the de facto “lines of control” as proper international boundaries and less conflict in the long run, after some short-run instability. India may also move further along on the current government’s project of creating a homogenised, centralised nation, culturally as well as politically (much as China has done and is doing in Tibet and Xinjiang), though that would be a depressing outcome, over any time horizon. But, the claim that the government’s recent political actions have anything positive to do with economic development, either as aggregate growth or more broadly interpreted, seems to lacks any basis in experience or in theoretical understandings of what leads to sustained progress.
Professor of Economics, UC, Santa Cruz. Views are personal.