For millions of years
Mankind lived
Just like the animals

And then something happened
That unleashed the power of our imagination
We learned to talk

(from Pink Floyd’s Keep Talking from Division Bell)

And then we moved to a place where no one speaks any of the languages you speak. And we became animals again.

This trip to Barcelona is the first time I’ve spent a reasonable length of time I’ve spent in a place where no one speaks any of the languages that I speak. And I’ve been literally feeling like an animal again, absolutely incapable of communicating, pointing at things and using sign language. It seems like my experience here has been significantly diminished given my inability to speak any of the languages spoken here.

I learnt to talk Kannada when I was perhaps one, or max two. I learnt English in a year or two after that. And then my language learning stopped. I had Hindi as my second language in school, and somehow struggled through it despite scoring 90 out of 100 in my board exam (shows how pointless board exams are). I can understand Hindi, and watch Hindi movies, but I still can’t speak fluently. When I have to speak Hindi, I construct a sentence in Kannada and then translate it. And I speak it with a heavy Kannada accent, much to the mirth of people around.

I have a Bihari cook in Bangalore. He claims to know Kannada  but I’ve never tried testing that. And I try speaking to him in Hindi. It is almost like we use sign language. I point to a set of ingredients and tell him the name of what I want to eat. He cooks, and buzzes off. At least talking face to face is fine. There are occasions when I have to call him and give him instructions (“come early tomorrow” or “come late today” or “don’t come today” or some such). It is a nightmare.

It’s not like I’m absolutely bad at languages – I can pick up words  quite easily. Thanks to football watching I’ve learnt a fair bit of European history and geography and culture, and through the process I’ve learnt a fair number of words (they’re of the kind of trequartistaregistatornante, etc but European words nevertheless). I know words in several languages. Just that I have this inability to learn grammar, or how words are put together to form sentences and communicate thoughts (except of course in English and Kannada).

Fourteen years back I went to IIT Madras, and half the people in my class were Gult. That meant I had the opportunity to pick up a fair bit of both Telugu and Tamil. I did neither. I can understand both languages a fair bit, but my understanding of the languages can be described as “assembly language”. I know words and what they mean. I listen for such keywords in what people are saying and interpret based on that. And when I speak these languages, it is based on keywords – I just say out the noun and the root form of the verb and expect the other person to interpret. I’ve never managed to get beyond this!

So there are these bakeries near where I live which might have already marked me off as a weird animal who just walks in and out o them. I go in, survey what they have and if something looks interesting point to that. They pack it for me, and then tell a number. I ask for the bill – so that I can read the number, or just give them a large enough note and trust them to return me the exact change. When nothing looks interesting to me in the display I can’t talk and ask them for what I want. I just look around (perhaps like a bakery dog) and just walk away. I don’t know how to say “Sorry I don’t know what I want”, or “Thank you, but I don’t find anything interesting here”. And I’ve been visiting some of these places multiple times, doing the same thing!

The level of discourse we are reduced to when we are unable to communicate is rather remarkable! It’s like we can simply not unleash the power of imagination, it is like going back to living like animals. I don’t like it, but I don’t know how to remedy it – I simply can’t pick up new languages!

An economic view of state splits

Most commentators prefer to couch the Andhra Pradesh split in emotive terms – the people of Telangana thought they were being treated in an inferior manner by the people of Andhra, and hence wanted to break away to form a separate state, and that the people of the Rest-of-Andhra (RoA) did not want the split because of reasons of Telugu pride. This is wrong, and over-complicates the issue.

Insight: When something can be explained with simple economic reasoning, looking for other (emotional/psychological/social/…) reasons is futile.

Telangana is the region of Andhra Pradesh that had been part of the Hyderabad state (RoA was part of the Madras Presidency). Due to differing standards of governance in the “Provinces” and the “Princely States”, at the time of independence, Telangana was backward compared to RoA. It didn’t help matters that Telangana was at the receiving end of brutality by the Nizam’s Razakars during the year or so when Hyderabad state was not yet part of India.

Given the vastly differing levels of development in Telangana and RoA, and the differing cultural backgrounds, I’m not sure it made economic sense to unite them in the 1950s. Potti Sriramulu’s fast and subsequent death, however, turned the issue emotive, and there was no room for rational reasoning. And a united Andhra Pradesh was created in 1956. In any case, it was consistent with the mantra of the day to have linguistic states – administrative unwieldiness be damned.

Unless there is a concerted effort, in the natural order of things, when you have a rich part  and a poor part of a particular state or country, the rich part can be expected to grow faster than the poor part – no malice here, it is simple network effects. Andhra Pradesh was no exception to this rule, and soon Telangana was much more backward than RoA.

The state splits in 2000 when Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh were formed shows that richer parts of states usually don’t mind letting go of the poorer parts. This is especially true if there is a feeling that taxes collected predominantly from the richer parts are being used to disproportionately fund the poorer parts. There might be some emotional attachment, but economics usually rules. Then, why is it that there is so much opposition to hiving off the poorer parts of Andhra Pradesh?

Andhra Pradesh has this unique situation where the capital city (and by far the biggest city) Hyderabad is located in the poorer portion. Hyderabad being the capital city saw significant investments from people from all over Andhra Pradesh, including RoA. A significant portion of RoA investment in Hyderabad is in real estate. Now, with real estate regulation being a state subject, people normally don’t want to hold too much real estate investment outside of their home states – since they will have no control over the politics of those states. So RoA investors are freaking out that their long-term investments in Hyderabad will soon be in a different state.

In a situation such as this, prudent investors might want to pull out (rather than risk their capital in a neighbouring, and possibly hostile, state). However, the problem is that none of the investors want to set off a downward price spiral in Hyderabad. Think of the situation as one where investors from RoA are invested, but know other investors are wanting to pull out any time. But you don’t want to start the process of pulling out, since that can reduce the value of your other holdings. So you stay invested. And hope that the bubble will never burst.

The attempt by people of RoA to hold on to Telangana (Hyderabad, specifically, they don’t really care about the rest of Telangana), is an attempt to save their capital locked up in investments in Hyderabad. If Andhra Pradesh doesn’t split, nobody from RoA will want to pull out their capital from Hyderabad, and the drop in value won’t happen.

It must be pointed out here that the Congress Party’s solution of having Hyderabad as a joint capital for a number of years is unlikely to be much compensation, if Telangana holds jurisdiction over Hyderabad territory anyway. The capital of RoA investors in Hyderabad will still be under risk in that case. The other option proposed was to make Hyderabad a Union Territory,  but that wouldn’t help either – since the influence of RoA in the politics of Hyderabad would still be minuscule.

To summarize, the reason RoA doesn’t want to let go of Telangana is because they don’t want to lose political control over their own investments – in the city of Hyderabad. Issues such as “state pride” and “Telugu pride” are secondary – they have been drummed up just to get the support of the non-elite who may not be economically affected by the state division. In fact, if Telugu pride were so important why in the first place would the Gults of Telangana want a separate state?

From a policy standpoint, it is important to not let the discourse of language pride get into the way of forming smaller states. The only reasons that should matter should be economics and administrative efficiency.