Modi's Gujarat in black & white

Last Updated: Fri, Dec 14, 2012 19:34 hrs

You could be forgiven for mistaking this book to be a slick publication of that master manipulator of opinion, Narendra Modi, the once and forever champion of Gujarati asmita (proud identity), even though the names of the author and the publisher should tell you otherwise. The large format, colourful appearance, neat presentation and easy-to-follow style all manage to camouflage this work of evident scholarship into a coffee-table compendium. That is not such a bad thing at all.

I am going to be a spoilsport and give away Bibek Debroy’s plot by quoting the last para: “Earlier Gujarat governments…have left a positive impact…Gujarat has had a healthy tradition of private entrepreneurship and an equally healthy scepticism of government…Gujarat has also benefitted from favourable exogenous circumstances…the present political leadership has also had a role in empowering the bureaucracy, clamping down on corruption, decentralising planning and…focussed intervention… While disentangling is difficult, it would be uncharitable and unfair to deny this…element. To put it even more bluntly, this would violate the facts and be dishonest.”

Tut, Debroy, you just resigned your coveted membership of the PLU club. No more invitations for you for the nightly episodes of Talking Heads for these perfidious utterances! The more the Gujarat chief minister cocks his many snooks, the more frenzied his army of critics, political and non-political, gets. How could an otherwise honoured inhabitant of that rarefied plane, where academe and media mingle, compliment this modern Mephistopheles and that too on the basis of balanced and nuanced research?

Debroy says at the outset that “people in Gujarat want the Gujarat story to be told. Therefore, here it is”. That is both a statement of intent and the style the author employs. (Full disclosure: I abandoned advanced preparations to write just such a book a couple of years ago. I am certain, though, that I would not have done as good a job of it as Debroy has done.) The book covers 10 major aspects, including the macro picture, fiscal considerations, physical and institutional infrastructure, education, health, welfare, distribution and social justice, environment and governance.

Each section lays out a comprehensive picture of the parameter involved, comparing Gujarat’s performance over time and to the rest of the country, including at times to that of other leading states. The data presented in neat uncluttered tables, a delightful rarity in such publications anywhere, but especially in India, allow the reader to draw her own inferences. Generous use of charts, maps and pictures further embellishes the analysis. The writing is in plain English, devoid of jargon and very lucid. It is convincingly authoritative at the same time. A sample: “There has been high growth since 2002. That growth has resulted in a sharp drop in poverty, particularly in rural Gujarat. There is no evidence of any increase in inequality in distribution of consumption expenditure. Those are objective statistical facts that cannot, and should not, be disputed.”

Debroy’s conclusions on other, more disaggregated, indicators of development are just as forthright. Gujarat has managed fiscal consolidation in state schemes. Its power sector reforms and Jyoti Gram Yojana have enabled it to achieve comfort on the power front. The water grid as an adjunct to the Narmada project ensures widespread water distribution. And Gujarat roads have all along been owners’ pride, neighbours’ envy.

The state has a plethora of imaginatively-named schemes for health care and education. In both these areas, private sector plays a dominant role, but is relatively poorly regulated. The public sector has problems of quality and access. These conditions, not unique to Gujarat, indicate areas of concern and scope for reform. The details Debroy provides in these sections are far more worthwhile than airy dismissals of Gujarat’s less than expected performance.

Tribes in Gujarat form over 17 per cent of the population. As elsewhere in the country, their position on any economic and social yardstick is below average. Yet changes are visible. A decade ago, wholesale migration of tribal families from the Panchmahals formed the backbone of construction in cities. Despite a more rapid rate of construction now, fewer children and young adults are now visible at these sites. Presumably, higher wages for adults — now averaging over Rs 200 a day, or five times the rate a decade ago — and better availability of schools for the young are the factors responsible. Debroy rightly says that other states facing extremist problems would do well to emulate this aspect of the Gujarat experience.

These bits of inferences and Debroy’s overall conclusion quoted earlier would make the unofficial state anthem, “Hail proud Gujarat!” (the heading of this review) a good alternative title to this timely and very welcome volume.

And yet, like Lady Macbeth’s lament that “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”, Gujarat’s blemish of 2002 remains indelible despite the copious development waters that have flowed through the Narmada in the decade since. Debroy does not visit this area, perhaps deliberately so. But as a long-time resident of the state who is proud to call himself a Gujarati, I cannot but help wonder ever since that fateful year as to what made the otherwise gentle Gujarati became increasingly arrogant, volatile and aggressive in the matter of dealing with Muslims. Any criticism of the rioting and its handling by the state, however justified, from outside almost certainly leads to a siege mentality even now.

I had confidently said in 2001 that Gujarat will emerge even more vibrant after the killer earthquake in less time than expected, as it has from severe droughts, dam bursts and the plague, calamities that would have overwhelmed a lesser people. It did so in record quick time. Debroy lovingly talks about his travels in Kutch. He was probably told that most areas affected by the earthquake refused to leave even a single damaged structure standing as a reminder. But the same Gujarat does not seem to be able to erase the marks of 2002 yet. For this, I cannot seek an answer from the many politicians, bureaucrats, businesses, institutions, social organisations and numerous individuals I have long worked with in Gujarat. I myself have none, and probably never will.


Author: Bibek Debroy
Publisher: Academic Foundation
Pages: 166
Price: Rs 795

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