52-year-old Heru Panji from Chali village in south-eastern Gujarat feels deprived and says people like her have been left out of the state’s economic boom in recent times. HT/Arijit Sen
Heru Panji does not exactly convey the image of abject poverty and destitution. Her tribal family of five lives just about a life of sustenance from 4 acres of farmland and what her son makes in daily wages - Rs. 1,500-2000 a month - doing odd jobs. Two years ago, her village, Chali, in the impoverished Umarpada block of south-eastern Gujarat, got a concrete road that ends just short of Panji's two-room house with a thatched roof. Authorities have also laid connections for electricity and piped water.
Yet, 52-year-old Panji feels deprived and says people like her have been left out of the recent economic boom.
In poll-bound Gujarat, where chief minister Narendra Modi is seeking a record third term on the back of claims that the state developed the fastest under his tenure, the issue of relative deprivation is as much under the spotlight as is the challenge of alleviating absolute poverty.
"It is hogwash in the name of development," said Panji, pointing to a roadside water tap that she said runs dry on most days.
Water is a big issue in this election, and in Umarpada, which lies amid a patch of dry land sandwiched between the irrigated tracts of Narmada and Tapi rivers. Residents of this impoverished block, 130 km south-east of Ahmedabad, have seen their neighbouring areas get prosperous after the Sardar Sarovar Project became operational more than a decade ago. They often go there to work on the irrigated fields that grow multiple crops, while rain-dependent Umarpada mostly grows one crop. A sub-canal to bring water from the Sardar Sarovar Project had been promised to Umarpada and its neighbouring areas long ago, but there is no sign of it yet. That didn't become a flashpoint until a drought earlier this year destroyed much of the single crop - either groundnut or Tuar -- that Panji and her villagers grow.
"We are not sure if we will not go hungry," said Panji, with anger and despair depicting a heightened sense of deprivation. "Nobody cares for us. They come only when they need our votes."
Panji's is not the only voice questioning Gujarat's success on the development front. While it is true that the state's economy sizzled with a close to 10% growth over the past decade, outpacing most Indian states, the gains have been far from been evenly distributed. As a result, the tribal-dominated eastern region, where every second person living in a rural area is officially counted as poor, continues to bear resemblance with the country's much-talked about poverty corners such as the K-B-K belt of Odisha or the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.
Even in other parts of the state, the urban agglomerates appear to have cornered much of the benefit that came on the back of high growth. Despite being home to the diamond exporting hub of Surat and many manufacturing and exporting clusters, rural poverty in south Gujarat remains high at 32%, primarily because people like Panji have been overlooked.
"There has been no structural change in the composition of Gujarat's economy. In the classical sense, development means the share of manufacturing and services should grow and that of agriculture decline with time. That has not happened in Gujarat," said Hemant Kumar Shah, an Ahmedabad-based professor of economics.
On the contrary, part of Gujarat's high economic growth can be attributed to agriculture, which expanded 6% through the past decade, thanks to the Sardar Sarovar project. A closer scrutiny shows manufacturing in Gujarat didn't track a course much different from what was happening at a national level. That is why Panji and her neighbours continue to depend on agriculture and live on the margins. "There are no jobs for us," said Mehul K Dhirubhai, a 12th class graduate from Chali, whose father perhaps was named after the legendary Dhirubhai Ambani.
Business leaders give credit to Modi for ensuring quick decisions and cutting red tape that helped Gujarat take advantage of the national economic boom. He is credited for bringing in discipline in administration and creating a business-friendly environment, sustaining the growth momentum.
But that, critics say, was not enough for the people of Gujarat, especially for the less endowed.
Since there is always a strong correlation between the national trend and regional growth, "the focus should shift to income distribution, performance of public and social services, locally provided infrastructure over which the state government has far better, and possibly overriding, control," said Sebastian Morris, a professor of economics at the IIM, Ahmedabad.
That's where Modi's scorecard doesn't look so good. Gujarat's infant mortality rate, at 48 per thousand, is the 10th worst in the country, while malnutrition among children is widespread. More than a third of its adult men have a body mass index of less than 18.5 - the 7th worst in the country. It continues to have a high maternal mortality rate and the state's sex ratio declined from 921 women per thousand men in 2001 to 918 in 2011. A UNDP report in 2010 that tried to capture multiple dimensions of poverty, such as education and health conditions in addition to income levels, placed Gujarat after 8 other Indian states.
The poor showing on human development indicators is a result of both economic disparity and inadequate intervention by the state government, especially in health and education.
Courtesy high growth, Gujarat managed to cut poverty by half between 1993-94 and 2004-05, compared to a one-third reduction nationally, the impact has been uneven, especially with respect to rural poverty. The incidence of rural poverty ranged from 17% in Saurashtra to 51% in eastern Gujarat (see map), alongside huge dispersion among social groups - 57% for STs, 49% for SCs, 42% for OBCs and 14% for the rest.
These numbers are a stark contrast to the shining Gujarat story that is often sold so well outside the state.
(With inputs from Abhijit Patnaik and Zehra Kazmi in New Delhi )