Samajwadi Party president, Akhilesh Yadav has emerged out of his father, Mulayam Singh’s shadow and fought many satraps within to take control of the party run by his family since 1992.
Ahead of the elections, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister’s campaign talks of economic and societal development. SP’s website highlights industrial development, women’s upliftment, and educational and infrastructural initiatives undertaken since he assumed office on March 12, 2012—quite different from the caste, communal and feudal politics that UP is fond of.
That might not be a true picture of UP, India’s most populous state, which houses more people than Pakistan, world’s sixth largest country by population.
For a state of its size, UP’s gross domestic product, the best economic indicator, is $150 billion (Rs 9,76,000 crore)—tad lesser than the GDP of Qatar, ranked 55 in the world.
UP continues to be in the “BIMARU” category (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh), known as “sick” states while others such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have come out of it. Even poorer neighbours such as Bihar, under chief minister Nitish Kumar, grew at 11% year-on-year.
Experts blame it on political will, which is missing in the state. “From Mandal (Commission protests) to Babri (Masjid demolition), to the criminalisation of politics, everything happened in UP. The politics of the state has stunted its growth,” says Sudha Pai, professor at centre of political studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
UP’s economic status has only fallen since India’s independence—its per capita income, which was 97% of the national average has slipped to 40.5% in 2014-15. The state’s economy grew at 6.56% annually, lower than the national average of 7.52%.
In its carving out lay UP’s governance challenges. Of the four regions—Western, Central, Bundelkhand and Eastern—the first and the last together hold 77% of the population. The dry and arid Bundelkhand and the rain-fed Eastern part cannot be governed by uniform policies. And because of this, it will take a lot more than just political will to fix the state.
Rajiv Kumar, economist and director, Pahle India Foundation, says, “The length, breadth and the heterogeneity of the state means each region will need a unique focus for the state to develop.”
He argues that social transition must precede economic development. For example, in Tamil Nadu, Periyar’s social and cultural movement ensured that the social pyramid was inverted and economic progress followed. But in UP, even sporadic efforts made by Kanshi Ram (Bahujan Samajwadi Party chief Mayawati’s mentor) and the Yadav clan, were aborted.
Western UP was part of the Green Revolution, but it still lags in agriculture, despite having a long stretch of the Indo-Gangetic plain. “It reflects the failure of planning… It is only in the 1980s that UP saw a healthy growth as the state shifted its focus from agriculture to industry,” Pai said.
What followed were a series of unstable and short governments, which ensured that UP got caught in a debt trap. Experts say that UP was always neglected—first during the colonial rule of the British, and later by the Congress, which was re-elected repeatedly.
Governments that came to power failed to generate jobs. According to an EPW report, only 10.79% UP workers get regular wages. The national number is almost double at 18.45%—indicating a large agrarian economy in UP.
In 2011–12, UP had 43.6% cultivating households and 11.7% farm labour households, according to EPW, but its agricultural growth peaked between the 1970s and 1980s, and has since decelerated.
That, too, was mismanaged. “It is because of the political system,” says Alka Parikh, who holds a doctorate in agriculture and allied economics (Cornell University), and is a faculty of DAIICT.
Parikh notes that UP still follows the feudal relationship between landowners and tillers. “The exploited remain exploited, as the feudal system is very strong… It needs a helping hand to take it out of this mess,” Parikh said.
Akhilesh made some efforts to revive UP. A drop in the ocean was the 302-km long Expressway, but for years, the political system had eaten up the core of the economic development like termites.
Traditional businesses, such as silk weaving and glass manufacturing have been faltering. Only 31% of small and medium businesses in the state have a rating of above average creditworthiness or better, compared to the nationwide average of 60%. Nearly a quarter of all SMEs in the state are rated as having below-average creditworthiness or worse, according to Crisil. Add to that the weak political will. To gain out of casteism, its political leaders ensured that UP never lost its “sick” status.
The difference in approach is visible in how two Delhi-bordering townships—Noida (in UP) and Gurgaon (in Haryana)—expanded. “UP has not attracted so many companies. The environment that Haryana gave in Gurgaon, UP couldn’t,” said Parikh.
Akhilesh, however, thinks otherwise—that education and technology can rid the state of its problems. He distributed 1.5 million laptops among students, and has announced smartphones if he comes to power.
On the Centre’s part, economists say there has been no bias.
“A look at the central allocation shows no bias against Uttar Pradesh. So it is not a matter of resources, but a question about intent towards good governance,” says Pronab Sen, former chief statistician of India.
“Despite its huge political clout, UP has not managed any milestones when it comes to development or growth,” he says.
Akhilesh might be moving in the right direction—by offering farmers free water supply, coming up with direct benefit transfer scheme for seed subsidy, and loan waivers. But if he wins, it is a long journey ahead before UP becomes India’s face.