(Reetika Khera is a development economist and teaches at IIT-Delhi)
At 16, a boy my age moved from Patna (Bihar) to Baroda (Gujarat), my hometown. He was gushing about the city – regular electricity supply, roads, the women using them even late into the night, unchaperoned, on two-wheelers, decked up and wearing backless cholis during garba. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Never having visited Bihar, I couldn’t understand what he was going on about.
Another time, my father was on a business trip through Punjab. On the train, he met another Punjabi businessman and they began discussing profits. When my father mentioned the cost of electricity, the other gentleman was perplexed, “You have to pay your electricity bills? How do you make a profit?” My father was as puzzled as I had been by the Patna boy’s comments.
These anecdotes are from 1989. First-time visitors to Gujarat today gush like the 16-year-old from Bihar did then. In fact, there was (and is) much to appreciate about Gujarat beyond regular electricity supply, good roads and booming industry: functional government schools, mid-day meals since 1984,anganwadis (called “balwadis”), state transport buses, public works. Gujarat was something of a pioneer – not quite a Kerala, but not far behind.
In pre-school, we got a glass of cold milk everyday (we drank it only because it was served in colourful plastic glasses!). Today, the media harps on the “free cycle” schemes initiated in some states as an incentive for girls’ schooling. In Gujarat, girls’ education has been free for the longest time, certainly since my time in classes 8-12 (even in an aided school). In university, the fee for my BA degree (1992-1995) was Rs. 36/year.
In rural areas too, things were not too bad. As protected school children, our only exposure to rural Gujarat was through “nature education camps” (to Gir forest and Pirotan Islands) and annual school picnics along the banks of the Narmada. I learnt as an adult that these picnic spots (Garudeswar, Zadeswar, Utkantheshwar) are part of Gujarat’s tribal belt, a comparatively “backward” part of the state. Yet, the roads we travelled on even at that time were better than the state or national highways I saw in Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh during field trips between 2005-2007 (recently there have been substantial improvements in these states also). Only today are these places acquiring state highways of the sort we had in the nineties. Having conducted extensive fieldwork in most major states of the country over the past 14 years, I can appreciate better the starry-eyed reaction of first-timers to Gujarat and the head-start we had.
Baroda has long prided itself for cultural diversity – regional as well as religious. In school, we were Christians, Hindus, Parsis, Muslims, Sikhs and Sindhis. I fondly recall treats on Onam, Pateti and Pongal. Today, sadly, one notes a change: in 2007, when Sanjay Dutt was convicted for terrorist interactions, my favourite seven-year old niece innocently asked “How can he be a terrorist? He’s not Muslim”. This is not to suggest that communal sentiments are new to Gujarat, but rather, that I did not encounter them in such a direct fashion until I was much older.
What I value most from my Gujarati upbringing (apart from the delicious food, which does NOT always have sugar!), was the sense of freedom and independence I acquired because it was such a safe environment. During my MA at the Delhi School of Economics (1995-7), I would arrive in Baroda by Rajdhani at 3am. It was quite natural for me to walk out to the autorickshaw stand and equally natural for the driver to ask me where I wanted to go once I was sitting inside and after turning on the meter. My parents would be fast asleep, and wake up only to let me in – i.e., they didn’t spend their night fretting. This remains a dream in Delhi even today, even for a person with my kind of social background. The freedom to move about without fear is something we took for granted.
Beyond these anecdotes, what does the data say? The accompanying table reports the Gujarat and all-India averages of five social and economic indicators in the 1990s and 2000s. The data allow us to see Gujarat’s early achievements: in the 90s, its average was better than the all-India average for each of these markers. It was among the top ten states. In the 2000s, however, it has failed to consolidate its early achievements (provision of free education, mid-day meals, child development services, diversified and high growth economy). If anything, its rank on social indicators has slipped vis-a-vis other states. Clearly, Gujarat was not built in a day – the “hard work” of building Gujarat pre-dates Modi at least by a decade.
I am not suggesting that the Congress rule for large parts of the 80s and 90s should be credited with Gujarat’s early achievements. The continuity in terms of achievements is also seen with respect to negative indicators. Corruption has been with us at least since the 80s: a common joke, in the nineties, was that “CM”, a commonly used acronym for “Chief Minister” actually stood for “Crore-Making” – the CM was reputedly making a crore a day! Most, if not all, property deals today I am told, require substantial “black” money. As elsewhere in the country, petty day-to-day corruption also exists -someone who had to undertake travel by train in an emergency got a ticket two hours before its departure by paying Rs. 1000 to a porter at the station.
Viewed through the lens of the BJP’s public-relations machinery, Gujarat is “God’s own country”. Viewed with the eyes of a person from the north Indian plains, Gujarat’s achievements have been commendable for a long time – much longer than Modi’s rule. Viewed from the south, Gujarat looks like a relatively rich state with indifferent social indicators – much worse, for instance, than those of Tamil Nadu, let alone Kerala.