Can India’s Diversity be Better Represented Via Multiple Capitals?

The demand to either shift the capital out of New Delhi or have a second capital or rotating capitals is not new. 

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
Image of India Gate, New Delhi, used for representational purposes.
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“I’m certainly in favour of some of the (national) capital’s activities taking place in other cities; for example, the Supreme Court and Parliament sitting in different parts of the country would be wonderful, but the situation of two capitals would be administratively chaotic and hugely expensive, and would be an unnecessary extravagance. A better solution would be to relocate the capital altogether away from Delhi, somewhere closer to the centre of the country as Mahatma Gandhi had originally proposed.”
Dr Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP & Author, to The Quint

New Delhi’s aspiration of becoming the centre of power, the national capital of undivided India, was fulfilled 90 years ago, on 13 February 1931. It was worth the wait — after all, the wait was not short: Twenty years had passed.

Even though King George V had laid the foundation of the new capital of undivided India during the 12 December 1911 Delhi Durbar, it was 20 years later that he, during a visit to the country, officially declared that Calcutta would be replaced by New Delhi as the national capital.

But it was the Viceroy and Governor-General of India, Lord Irwin, who finally inaugurated New Delhi as the capital of British India on 13 February 1931.

In recent years, however, arguments have emerged from various quarters to either shift the capital of India to a ‘more suitable’ city, or to have a second/multiple national capitals.

Demands to Shift India’s Capital or Have Multiple Capitals

The latest demand to replace New Delhi as India’s capital, or to at least consider having multiple national capitals, has come from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. In January 2021, while addressing a rally in Kolkata on Netaji’s birth anniversary, Banerjee said:

“I believe that India must have four rotating capitals. The English ruled the entire country from Kolkata. Why should there be only one capital city in our country?”

Other leaders and entities have made similar demands in the past as well.

In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 5 January 2018, the Karnataka Minister for Large and Medium Industries RV Deshpande had noted that “India needs a second capital urgently” for the “deeper integration of South India into the scheme of overall development”. Touting Bengaluru as a desirable second capital, the Congress minister had said that such a move would give “voice to the aspirations of millions of south Indians” who often feel alienated, and this would help them integrate into the national mainstream.

The topic — of Delhi being ill-suited to holding the position of India’s sole national capital — gained steam yet again, about a year hence. This, when the Supreme Court of India, on 25 November 2019 — while hearing a matter concerning air pollution in Delhi and the Delhi Chief Secretary’s admission that 45 percent of the city’s solid waste was not being lifted by civic bodies — commented:

“Is this not worse than internal war? Why are people in this gas chamber (Delhi)? … you better finish them with explosives… it would be better to go rather than suffer from diseases like cancer”. 

One of the judges had even remarked: “Delhi is worse than hell”.

Back in 2012, in a letter to the then PM Manmohan Singh on 19 June, a group of professionals, including doctors, advocates and teachers, requested the Union government to consider moving the national capital out of New Delhi to Mumbai. This, or at least declare Mumbai as India’s second capital.

Is It Pragmatic to Have More Than One National Capital?

Now for the big question: Is this demand — to have multiple national capitals in India — practical?

The question of whether India needs one or two or four capitals depends on what India envisions as the future of ‘governance’ for itself.

If there is a desire to truly implement ‘maximum governance with minimum government’, a greater devolution of powers would be required. Also important to note that India had two capitals both during Mughal rule and British rule. Under the Mughal regime, Delhi was one capital and Srinagar the other. Under the British, one capital was Calcutta, the other, Simla.

Devolution of powers does not, however, necessarily mean doing away with New Delhi as the national capital — but rather, to develop regional centres which work with greater cohesion with the Centre. And not in a way that would lead to institutional weakening but one where there is greater integration and coordination between state and federal structures.

It would be a revamped government, one with more agility and awareness of the implementational realities and challenges — both at the Central and state levels — and a greater awareness of ground realities, people’s expectations and aspirations, and the State’s successes and failures.

Moreover, it would be the ultimate realisation of cooperative federalism and potentially leading to greater strategic cooperation at the regional level.

“In the age of e-governance, when governments are using digital technologies for internal administrative processes, delivering public services, planning and monitoring as well as grievance redressal, a ‘capital’ can have an honorific status without needing the paraphernalia of capital cities that were built in the past centuries. The ‘seat’ of power is no longer a piece of furniture in a specific location. Countries can choose to have single or multiple capitals as per their functional and symbolic needs. The ‘architecture’ of the State in 21st century democracies need not mimic the grandeur of colonial or post colonial capitals, unless the intention is to perpetuate those associations. It needs reinvention.”
Jagan Shah, Architect & Urbanist, to The Quint

India is considered as having asymmetric federalism; so it has also witnessed demands from states to have multiple capitals within states — in order to accommodate diversity, and not just between states but within them too. Hyderabad is the latest to harp on this issue, and its government has made vociferous demands for three state capitals.

Ambedkar’s Case for a Second National Capital

Dr BR Ambedkar, in his book, ‘Thoughts on Linguistic States’ (1955), dedicated an entire chapter (chapter XI) to the subject of multiple national capitals and representation, titled ‘India and the Necessity of a Second Capital’, and subtitled ‘A Way to Remove Tension between the North and the South’.

Ambedkar had dismissed Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay as capitals. He famously noted:

“... Is there a fourth place one could think of? I find Hyderabad to be such a place. Hyderabad Secunderabad and Bolarum should be constituted into a Chief Commissioner’s Province and made a second capital of India. Hyderabad fulfils all the requirements of a capital for India. Hyderabad is equidistant to all states. From the defence point of view it would give safety to the Central government. It is equidistant from all parts of India. It would give satisfaction to the South Indian people that their government is sometimes with them. The government may remain in Delhi during winter months and during other months it can stay in Hyderabad. Hyderabad has all the amenities which Delhi has and it is a far better city than Delhi. The only thing that is wanting is a Parliament House which the Government of India can easily build. It is a place in which Parliament can sit all the year round and work, which it cannot do in Delhi. I do not see what objection there can be in making Hyderabad a second capital of India. It should be done right now while we are reorganising the states.”

A Case for Multiple National Capitals: Precedents

Countries have often moved their capitals for different reasons, so the idea of shifting the capital of a city has been around for a while. In a similar vein, the idea of having more than one national capital is also not novel. South Africa, an oft-cited example, has three capitals: Pretoria is the administrative capital, Cape Town is the legislative capital and Bloemfontein is considered the judicial capital.

Closer home, Malaysia has two capitals — Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, the latter being its administrative centre; Sri Lanka also has two national capitals — Colombo and Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte.

Now, coming to the topic of shifting national capitals from one location to another.

Let’s take the example of Brazil. Rio de Janeiro used to be the capital of Brazil since the colonial era way back in 1763 and remained the capital of independent Brazil from 1822 until 1960, when it was replaced by Brasilia, which was about 1,100 km away.

Most recently, in 2019, President Joko Widodo proposed the relocating of Indonesia's capital city to the province of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo.

Egypt too has a new administrative capital under construction, 45 kilometres away from its current capital Cairo.

But is it really all that easy to move a capital, leave alone maintain more than one national capital?

The costs are steep and budgets are unrealistic, an issue raised by detractors of the proposal for a shift in India’s national capital. For instance, Egypt is spending over USD 45 billion to build its new administrative capital. Indonesia’s new capital is said to cost a whopping USD 33 billion.

Let’s take British India’s case — it cost the British four million pounds to move the entire administration from Calcutta to Delhi.

Would Multiple Capitals Truly Represent Diverse Identities Within India?

We are a country of 1.38 billion, with 1,650 spoken languages and dialects, multiple religious and ethnic identities, and cultures; an example of this diversity being that not even two Bengalis may be alike in culture and custom if one has their roots in (erstwhile) East Bengal and the other hails from West Bengal.

Given this reality, it seems obvious that the political demand for a new national capital, or a second capital, or multiple rotating capitals, emerges primarily from a concern for adequate representation. However, would that end be served through the means of assigning multiple national capitals or shifting the national capital to the ‘centre of the country’? Unlikely.

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