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Has the ‘Gujarat Model’ failed the smartphone generation?

The youth in Gujarat are not simply unhappy or angry and dissatisfied. To anyone willing to make sense of their words, there appears to be a ‘generational disquiet’. Increasingly, caste and class are morphing into a strong demographic demand for state-aided education and jobs

india Updated: Dec 10, 2017 10:03 IST
Rajesh Mahapatra
Hardik Patel is the leader of an ongoing  movement by the Patidar community demanding reservation in government jobs.
Hardik Patel is the leader of an ongoing movement by the Patidar community demanding reservation in government jobs. (PTI PHOTO)

In 2007, when Gujarat was riding an economic boom, Gaurav Sinh Jadeja signed up for a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology at the Rajkot-based Christ College, hoping it would help him land a white-collar job. Ten years on, Jadeja is unhappy and angry, because he is far from where he wanted to be.

His dream job never came his way. He has had to return to his agricultural roots, to look after his family’s 250-bigha (100 acre) farm in Thebachada, 20 kilometers off Rajkot city. The 27-year-old has to chase sundry construction contracts from the government because farming doesn’t yield enough for his aspirational needs – a car, a smartphone and marriage to an educated, working woman.

“The youth is unhappy, because there are no jobs. The education we get at colleges is of no use. The fees we pay at private colleges leave our families indebted for years. We have nowhere to go,” said Jadeja who paid ₹2 lakh in fees at Christ College.

Jadeja’s story echoes across Gujarat, manifested in a groundswell of protests that now appear set to influence the outcome of the upcoming assembly elections in the state. A third of Gujarat’s 43 million voters are under the age of 30.

The churning of the youth in Gujarat seems to be pushing the state much beyond the ideologies of the BJP and the Congress, or a contest between Narendra Modi’s shrewd political craft and Rahul Gandhi’s audacious challenge.

This election of 2017 might just tell us that a new political voice and force is emerging and it is an impatient, energetic and angry one. Gujarat may just be the first tremor of a larger political earthquake.

Flawed Model

The growing discontent among its youth brings to the fore the flaws in the much-touted Gujarat model of development, which relied overly on high growth and markets to take care of broader development goals, with the government ignoring its responsibility to create public good.

“The biggest failure of the Gujarat model has been the lack of productive employment with decent wages,” said Indira Hirway, an Ahmedabad-based economist.

Here’s how Gujarat slipped on jobs, welfare
The annual rate of growth in Gujarat’s manufacturing output between 2012-13 and 2015-16, a sharp deceleration from the double digit expansion seen in the previous decade
Gujarat’s share in national manufacturing outputin 2014-15, up from 13.8% in 2000-01. But the state’s share in the national manufacturing workforce, at 10.3%, is proportionately much lower and hasn’t changed much during the period. It indicates that growth was mostly driven by capital-intensive industries that created fewer jobs
The current rate of closures among small and medium enterprises. It has risen sharply from an average of 5% earlier, shrinking opportunities for job seekers – a problem further exacerbated by demonetisation and GST
The average productivity of a worker in a Gujarat factory – 1.8 times the all-India average. But the average factory wages in the state are less than the national average and among the lowest when compared to similarly developed states
Accumulated debt of the Gujarat government as on March 2016. The high debt burden, 22% of the state domestic product, limits the government’s ability to spend more on education and development
Source: Handbook of Statistics on Indian States, RBI; www.livemint.com

The Gujarat model, first articulated in 2003, with the twin objectives of making Gujarat the fastest-growing state in Asia and the top destination for foreign direct investment in India, saw huge tax concessions to large corporates that came at the expense of increased government spending in critical sectors such as agriculture, education and health, Hirway said.

As a result, while Gujarat’s economy expanded several notches faster than the national economy, the state struggled to improve human development indicators. Also, the farm sector – despite contributing the most to the growth of the state’s broader economy during the boom years – slipped into a crisis precipitated by rising production costs and a stagnation in prices of key crops such as cotton and groundnut.

The hugely popular Patidar agitation led by 24-year-old Hardik Patel mirrors everything that has gone wrong with the Gujarat model. What began as a demand for reservation in government jobs has since grown into a full-blown political campaign against the ruling BJP for its failure to address the farm crisis, provide education and generate employment.

In elections held for the state assembly in 2012 and Lok Sabha in 2014, Jadeja had worked hard to secure a lead for BJP from Thebachada. Jadeja’s mother is the sarpanh of the village, which falls under the Wankener constituency in the Saurashtra region. This time around, however, he is canvassing for Congress.

“People in my village told me not to ask for votes for BJP, because they feel cheated,” he said. pointing to the non-remunerative prices for their crop, lack of development and, most importantly, rising unemployment. “This is not just our story. You will hear this anywhere you go.”

To illustrate his point, Jadeja pulled out images of Patidar protests, graphics on economic deprivation and memes on the state of Gujarat politics that he routinely receives via WhatsApp and Twitter – the social media that is the world for people like him.

Generational disquiet

The youth in Gujarat are not simply unhappy or angry and dissatisfied. To anyone willing to make sense of their words, there appears to be a ‘generational disquiet’.

It isn’t just a mismatch between aspiration and realisation. Rather, their worlds and imaginations can be put together like a picture book – YouTube, WhatsApp groups, clips on their smartphones and a range of disconnected images.

They want change because they want a better life. But how do they get the better life they deserve, is an even more interesting story. Most seem to think that a good education is a necessary way forward. And an education that is not only affordable but is a public good and not a private service. What they also want is a government job – pakki naukri.

“There are thousands of posts lying vacant in government departments,” said Nikunj Patel who lost his job at a Surat-based textile firm amid GST-triggered chaos. “Instead of filling these posts with contractual workers, they should give us a chance.”

Quite a turnaround from almost 30 years of socialist bashing. Many of the young, both girls and boys, seem to use the word reservation to describe a crisis rather than as a claim for a social entitlement.

Divyaraj Rana, who holds a master’s degree in economics, couldn’t explain the meaning of inflation because he learnt no economics at the private college in Surendranagar, one of Saurashtra’s poorest districts. A Kshatriya by caste, Rana supports Hardik Patel’s demand for a ban on private colleges.

“I paid Rs1.5 lakh for the degree. It is not my fault they didn’t teach us properly,” he said. “The government should do something about it.”

Alpesh Thakor, who has become the mascot of the Kshatriya-Thakor community in the state, has made educational deprivation a centre-point of his campaign. The 40-year-old OBC leader shot into the limelight after a successful anti-liquor campaign that forced the government to tighten rules on prohibition and made Thakor hugely popular among women. He has since joined Congress and is contesting elections from Radhanpur in north Gujarat.

Alpesh Thakor, the mascot of the Kshatriya-Thakor community in Gujarat, has made educational deprivation a centre-point of his campaign. (AFP)

Thakor stays in regular touch with Hardik and 36-year-old Jignesh Mevani, a lawyer-turned-Dalit activist who has become a rallying force for his community since the infamous flogging of four Dalits in Saurashtra’s Una town last year.

“Our goals are common,” Thakor said. “We want development of the backward classes. We want affordable and quality education for our children, jobs for our youth and prosperity of our farmers.”

Fewer Opportunities

Ever since India’s growth journey slipped into a slow lane five years ago, Gujarat has had to take a harder hit because of its manufacturing and export orientation. The growth of its economy has dipped below 6 per cent compared to an annual average of 9.4 per cent between 2000-01 and 2009-10 – the small and medium enterprises being the worst affected.

“The middle class of Gujarat, with interests in trade and business, today is experiencing a slowdown that is worse than what they experienced between 1997-98 and 2002-03,” said Sebastian Morris, a professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. The worsening state of the economy during the late 1990s, when BJP first came to power in Gujarat, forced the party to change its chief minister – Keshubhai Patel had to make way for Modi.

Shrinking opportunities in trade and business are forcing people in entrepreneurial Gujarat to turn to jobs for economic security. That’s why the Patidars, who are among the economically better- off sections of Gujarati society, are demanding reservation in government jobs.

“They would like to have jobs at a certain level that reinforce their social status and give them a sense of empowerment,” said professor Ghanshyam Shah, an expert on Gujarat’s politics and society. “Then there are people from the Scheduled Castes who are agitating because the number of jobs that come their way from the government isn’t enough. The OBCs are even worse off than the SCs when it comes to education and jobs.”

Thirty-six-year-old Jignesh Mevani, a lawyer-turned-Dalit activist, has become a rallying force for his community since the flogging of four Dalits in Saurashtra’s Una town last year. (Siddharaj Solanki/Hindustan Times)

That said, “no one is seeing unemployment as a structural problem,” Shah said, pointing to the absence of an inclusive growth strategy and how the private sector had failed to create jobs and fill the gap in education and skill development.

Increasingly, in Gujarat, class and caste seem to be collapsing into the larger vortex of a demographic demand for a stronger ‘state-aided’ transition for the young to achieve urban living and consumption via education, subsidies and support.

This ‘generational disquiet’ seems to have produced its own leadership. It would be a mistake to understand Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor or Jignesh Mevani as merely caste-based leaders. All three of them are increasingly seeking to broaden their appeal and must be seen as being more akin to a whistle that warns us of the pressure cooker politics of the coming demographic dividend.

Interestingly enough, the ruling BJP appears to be dodging this crisis of inequality in a time of shrinking economic opportunities, while Rahul Gandhi is playing out the classic Congress strategy of managing contradictions. In either case, the untidy economic and political fractures of 2017 will carry through to 2019, when India faces the next national election.