ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Strategic Myths Surrounding J&K’s Developmental Experience

A Strategic Myth: ‘Underdevelopment’ in Jammu and Kashmir by Sehar Iqbal, New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2021; pp 200, `595.

That the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) suffered economically and in developmental terms on account of its special status is a point often made by the protagonists and votaries of the August 2019 legislative changes aimed at Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution. These were legislative hurdles, it is often argued, to the state participating fully in the opportunities available to the rest of the country. Instead, being in a separate cocoon meant that the fruits of development were cornered by a small elite with little impact on the overall development profile of the state.

This view, widely prevalent in some circles, Sehar Iqbal, a Kashmiri scholar, argues, is a “strategic myth.” At the time of its accession in 1948, J&K was one of the most backward states in the country largely on account of the feudal system that prevailed in it; even when compared to other princely states at the time, it had one of the lowest per capita incomes, literacy rates, and life expectancy in the country. Four to five decades later, the picture was significantly different. Its human development indices (HDIs) had impro­ved dramatically. This “sustained improvement,” Iqbal argues, “enabled Jammu and Kashmir to move up from the special category of states to the general category of states in the 1970s.” Overall, in the four decades post 1948,

the state’s progress with regard to human development index (HDI) indicators like per capita income, literacy, reduction in death rate etc. was remarkable, and in areas like reduction of poverty (especially rural poverty), life expectancy, and access to health care, better than the national average. Further, the progress in HDI indicators was largely similar across social groups. (p 147)

Furthermore, even in the period since 1988, despite the hurdles and costs imposed by an externally sponsored insurgency and terrorist violence and the problems associated with India–Pakistan tensions, this momentum has largely main­tained itself.

How did this happen? Iqbal’s argument is that the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (JKNC) headed by Sheikh Abdullah came to power in 1948 with a radical manifesto of change represented by the document “Naya Kashmir.” Influenced greatly by the left and the Soviet experience, “Naya Kashmir” became the guiding principle for state development policies for the JKNC government. This approach aimed at raising the standards of living and reducing inequality by a radical programme of land redistribution and debt conciliation. The conflict and uncertainty that accompanied the state’s acc­ession to India provided, somewhat curiously, a favourable set of circumstances. Iqbal explains that

the sudden collapse of the top strata of the feudal structure offered a rare historic opportunity to implement radical reforms in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The migration of the maharaja left the feudal system disunited and weakened the resistance to radical redistribution in the form of land reform and debt eradication. The establishment of the emergency administration in the backdrop of the first Indo Pak war of 1947 gave sweeping powers of legislation and action to the National Conference that had no parallel with that in any other Indian state. Till the first elections held in 1952, Sheikh Abdullah’s administration was not constrained by electoral concerns …. This left the government free to implement radical reforms and garner mass support for the coming elections. (p 154)

Thereafter,

the fact that Jammu and Kashmir had its own Constitution was the main reason why radical policy measures of the state government could not be legally challenged by the Supreme Court of India or legislation relating to these nullified by deficiencies in central legislation. (p 148)

The Big Landed Estates Abolition Act of 1950 of the state had the important feature that it did not provide for compensation.

This was unprecedented in India at the time. The success of the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act was evident in the total dismantling of the feudal system. The success of all the legislations that followed can be estimated from the fact that out of 9.5 lakh acres distributed throughout India about half (that is 4.5 lakh acres) was distributed in Jammu and Kashmir alone. (p 56)

The consequences of this along with an equally effective programme of debt reduction and conciliation were manifold—poverty reduction and higher wages for a start. The “Naya Kashmir” approach, however, had other dimensions also—increased public spending in education, health and a focus on public services delivery. Gains in life expectancy and literacy were generally well ahead of the all-India levels. There also existed an employment policy that sought to absorb educated youth into the government bureaucracy, which in time “led to the creation of the largest bureaucracy in the country” (p 29).

This cluster of changes and policies sustained itself over a long period of time. There was, despite the political breaks that happened after the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953 and the succession of governments that followed, a basic continuity at the core in terms of policy. Abdullah’s return in 1975 was followed by further land reforms and redistributive policies that added momentum to this upward trajectory of the state in terms of the many HDIs. While the author points to the endemic corruption and misgovernance associated with many J&K governments across its political spectrum, the point is that a basic thrust of policy that focused on an egalitarian and redistributive app­roach remained intact and that explains J&K’s good performance in terms of its HDI evolution.

Iqbal’s thesis and supportive arguments are an obvious and much-needed corrective to the view that J&K’s special constitutional status till August 2019 was a hurdle to its development and to people’s welfare. That the egalitarian and developmental thrust in the policy approach followed by successive state governments made a significant dent on poverty and inequality is an important takeaway from this book. It is also important to bear in mind the fact that in these aspects J&K has outperformed other states despite the extraordinary circumstances of externally sponsored conflict and insurgency that has plagued it. The sample village studies carried out by the author complement the wide range of sources utilised to give a succinct perspective of the developmental experience of the state since 1947.

Yet, there are points that this treatment raises which merited a closer examination in the book than the author provides. There is little or no discussion of the question of resource mobilisation to fin­ance the admittedly impressive achi­evements in education and healthcare that the state has exhibited. Similarly, the impact on public finances using government bureaucracy to absorb educated youth required further examination. On these questions, Iqbal remains somewhat cryptic. At one point, for instance, it is stated that

Jammu and Kashmir historically have had high levels of public spending despite recurring budget deficits. While the popular perception remains that the state is able to do this because of high levels of central financial assistance, this interpretation is simplistic. It ignores the fact that from 1948 to 1988 Jammu and Kashmir did not get its fair share of grants as a special category state. It received heavy loans instead. (p 75)

It is noted elsewhere that resources transferred by the centre were used to fund the “social sector, rather than give incentives for development of the private sector” (p 75). This of course begs the question of productive public sector investment and whether this was considered as an alternative to multiplying government employment. The larger point, however, is of the viability of state finances and in that context the quantum of central assistance being a material factor in the state developmental model.

An interesting point made by Iqbal in fact points to this very dilemma: in 2011, the HDI ranking of the state (0.53) was above the national average (0.47); the state had thus an HDI rank of 10 out of 29 states, but its economic rank was 21. Essentially, high public spending is the operative factor here. The point worth investigating is whether the state’s precarious security situation and strategic location led to high levels of central assistance that acted to boost public spending and improve its HDI ranking. This is not to take away from the significant early achievements of the state in land reform and other redistributive policies that made a real dent on inequality and rural poverty. But the larger socio-developmental model of the state also requires closer examination to get a fuller and more rounded appreciation of the state’s economic and financial history. Overall, however, the book is a valuable contribution to the current debates about J&K and its economic evolution in the past seven decades.

 

 

 

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Updated On : 8th Jul, 2022
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