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Modi, development and the weaker sections

By Irfan Engineer

With the impending elections for the State Assembly, the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is busy re-packaging himself as the Vikas Purush (to borrow the term from Venkaiah Naidu, ex-BJP President). After Modi took over the reins of power in Gujarat in the year 2001, he essentially packaged himself as Loha Purush, a term Venkaiah Naidu might have borrowed from the description used for Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. All the might of this Loha Purush was exercised not on any powerful sections of the society but on the vulnerable and hapless minorities. Fake encounters targeting Muslims, misusing POTA on Muslim youths, Government’s failure to provide an environment in which theatre owners could screen films like Parzania and Fanaa, BJP members vilifying and castigating B.B. Lyngdoh, the then Chief Election Commissioner, and Sonia Gandhi for being Christians who meet in church and conspire for BJP’s defeat in Gujarat are some of the instances of the Loha Purush avatar of Narendra Modi.

After fighting his 2002 elections against Pakistani President Parvez Musharraf’s “Mian Musharraf mentality”, whatever that meant, Modi is now projecting his image that he is entirely for developmental agenda and inclusive growth for Gujarat Assembly Elections this year. Modi spoke on these lines while in Delhi on October 12, 2007 and even invoked Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of Ram Rajya. The publicity film prepared by the Govt. of Gujarat – “India Tommorrw – The Gujarat Miracle” projects Modi as the sole person who fought the menace of terrorism in Gujarat. The Film then focuses on development of Gujarat under Modi. Govt. of Gujarat hired a channel to project achievement of Modi, but unfortunately for them, the Election Commission directed the channel to be taken off the air as it would mean unfair advantage to BJP. Modi is therefore seeking mandate on the issues of development.

Take one of the Tribal districts in South Gujarat – Dang. Having 311 villages and a population of more than 1.5 lakhs, about 93% of the population of the district is that of the Scheduled Tribes. Hardly one percent of the population might be holding land more than 10 hectares, and more than 80% of the population is either small cultivator cultivating on rough hilly terrain, or is marginal cultivator or even worst- landless. More than half the population of Dangs migrates outside the district from October to June every year as contract workers in sugarcane plantations, or for chickoo plucking or as migrant agricultural workers in Surat Dist., Valsad Dist. or Navsari Dist. or even in Maharashtra. As contract workers, the men, women and children of the family work upto 16 hours a day just to keep the body and soul together. They migrate outside Dang as they have no employment in Dangs. As migrant labourers, they neither have access to schools, or drinking water or health facilities or other basic human needs. They literally live animal existence that too at the mercy of the landlord who may permit them to pitch temporary shelters created out of cane leaves. After working of 16 hours daily without any leave or holiday or festival for about 8 months, they return home empty handed to their villages to cultivate their marginal holdings that might not be sufficient to provide them food for the four months they survive in their village. 1/3 rd villages in Dangs do not have potable drinking water after the month of October when the rivers dry up. Some of these villages are supplied water with tankers. For the entire District there is only one degree college and about 3-4 high schools run by missionaries. There are only two Govt. High Schools. The condition of the schools in villages is pathetic as is usually the case in Scheduled Tribe areas. Temporary shed which goes for school building, no blackboard or benches with teacher coming for not more than 10-15 days during the entire year. The fifty percent population that is left behind and does not migrate consists of old people not fit to work for 16 hours a day or some who work for harvesting bamboos for pulp mills or for gathering forest produce like honey, tendu leaves, or wild roots for their survival. The district administration generates very little and negligible work on road repairs, as there are few roads, electrification etc. as very little is invested by the Govt. in building infrastructure. There is no work irrigation worth the name except a few check dams here and there. Modi’s Govt. did not do any better, perhaps did worst than Congress Govt. so far as Dangs is concerned. There is no development worth the name in Dangs.

However, Modi made a showcase of Dangs for outsiders. In order to facilitate the Sangh Parivar in organizing Shabri Kumbh, wherein they were expecting 5 lakh outsiders (mostly non-adivasis) to descent in a small village of Dangs District, Govt. of Gujarat under Modi’s stewardship diverted all the grants received from Govt. of India to build approach road to this village (otherwise not of much use after the Shabri Kumbh event), spent crores of rupees to acquire land for building road, refusing to compensate Christians whose land was acquired for construction of the road. About 75 acres of forest was cleared to build approach road to and for construction of Shabri Mata temple, a diety not known to dangis 3-4 years ago. Approach roads if take you to market or town centres lead to development. But approach roads to temples of deities which are not part of your culture make you subservient to others. How all the Govt. schemes will be implemented and funds spent in Dangs is not decided by Collector of Dangs or the District Development officer of Dangs, though they may rubber stamp it, but by Swami Aseemandji, the points person of Sangh Parivar in Dangs. Swamin Aseemanand’s decisions are in turn not based on the needs of the people of Dangs but to promote non-adivasi upper caste cultural and religious identity based on Lord Ram, Hanuman and Shabri. Drinking water, school, primary health centres can wait. The Central Govt. Funds and Schemes diverted in construction of approach road and check dams on Purna River to ensure enough water collects in a tank for 5 lakh outsiders to have a dip in the tank on an appointed day, where people have no drinking water is not only cruel joke but will ensure that for the next about a decade no substantial funds are available for welfare schemes like drinking water, health care, education and employment schemes. Showcasing of one village of Dangs as model village is the kind of development Modi Govt. is harping on. Essentially re-packaging and sticking new labels without any substance.

Dang is not the only backward district. There have been 403 farmers who committed suicides in the last four years in Gujarat from Junagadh, Rajkot, Jamnagar, and Mehsana. Though farmer’s suicide is known in Maharashtra, Gujarat managed to put wraps on the fact of farmer’s suicide in Gujarat till the same was unearth by Anhad through applications under RTI Act. Officials admitted that there were other 6055 deaths which were registered as accidental death but may be actually instances of farmers who committed suicide.

The meaning of development has been very limited for Modi and his ilk. Development is equated with more investments and building infrastructure for the Industrialists to facilitate them to make quicker and higher profits. All the investment has been mostly concentrated in the already developed golden corridor from Surat to Ahmedabad. Rest of Gujarat, accept the golden corridor and the charotar region where rich farmers hold the sway, there is very little development to show.

Modi has neither been Loha Purush nor Vikas Purush he is being made out to be. But he is good in spending in publicity and re-packaging himself.

Irfan Engineer is the Director of Institute of Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, Mumbai. His email address is [email protected]