By SANJAY AUSTA
Wed Apr 16, 2014
Has Gujarat , the most western lying Indian state finally fallen off India’s map to sit at the high table of developed nations in the West? It would seem so if you go by the frenzy that’s been whipped around what is being called the ‘Gujarat Development Model’, and the giant strides of progress that are said to be made in the state under the stewardship of its Chief Minister and Prime Minister hopeful Narendra Modi.
Luckily, I had the opportunity to make road journeys across this vibrant state twice in the last one year to see for myself and rejoice. Truth be told, at first I did feel that tug –a mixture of inferiority and expectancy – you feel when you fly to any Western country from India.
Gujarat was clearly happening from the word go. On the train I met three young men who were chucking their businesses in Delhi to begin anew in Gujarat. “There is no bureaucracy in Gujarat only lots of incentives that no other Indian state gives entrepreneurs ”, they said.
But away from the steel and glass, in an old part of Ahmedabad, where I went walking the next day, I got the same choking feeling you get in any Indian city where filth and noise overwhelms you and sweaty smelly men buffet you about in the milling crowds.
I saw familiar decrepit men sitting on their haunches in the typical Indian ‘shitting position’ – waiting patiently outside dhabas for God -fearing customers to buy them a meal just as you see them in Old Delhi.
Across from them, old beggars slept on a road divider buzzed by cheap drugs or the mid-day sun, unmindful of the screeching , chaotic traffic swirling about them.
Perhaps I was looking for shit and poking my nose purposely into smelly corners, I thought. So the next morning I headed out to check Modi’s famed highways.
The roads were indeed smooth and all but a far cry from what was ballyhooed in the press with rough patches erupting abruptly here and there threatening to spill the illegally gotten beer on my lap. (Booze is illegal in Gujarat. But thankfully the Indian jugaad works here too )
There is certainly nothing to make you feel you are on Route 66, cruising past the American hinterlands as the Indian media makes it out to be. At many intersections the lights simply don’t work and there is that usual pile up of traffic, with people honking mercilessly, waving arms and fisticuffs. You have to be alert for the sudden diversions, ambling cows or the loonies that drive on the wrong side of the road all of which keeps you well under the Indian speed limit.
Just off the highway in dusty old Wankaner town, I meet a man who achieved to greatness and prosperity despite the ‘system’. He epitomized the Gujarati entrepreneurial spirit which perhaps is the reason behind ‘Shining Gujarat’ rather than a Chief Minister who has been blowing his trumpet across India winning over every economist, journalist and jingoist that indeed he is the man who will save India.
Manshuk Lal Prajapati in Wankaner, like the majority of Indians had nothing. And he literally made everything out of it. He fashioned the good old clay into pots and pans and in less than 10 years has made a huge industry out of it. Today he distributes clay refrigerators, clay pressure cookers and sundry home appliances (all in clay) not only all across India but to many countries abroad.
But elsewhere it’s the same Indian despair and hopelessness. In Anand , known to the outside world as the hub of Amul industries is also the center of the largest baby factory in India, where poor, hapless Gujarati women come to sell their womb for a price.
“I had nothing to eat. My family and I would have had to consume poison had we not stumbled upon this clinic”, says Sita who gave her womb for rent for over 4 lakh rupees to a childless couple from Canada.
Gujarat’s record on health and nutrition is worse than the national average. Over 55 percent Gujarati women in the 15-45 age group are anemic. Modi had famously put the blame on the ‘’figure conscious’’ Gujarati girls who were refusing to have milk lest they get fat.
And as for the red-tape that Modi purportedly removed , it almost threatened to put a spanner in the works of a Nat Geo documentary for which I was travelling. Permissions granted weeks in advance had to be taken again they said at the check post at Gir. A second round of signatures had to be obtained at the district level. Which meant, spending more days running around government offices or paying the bribe. The crew thankfully decided to shoot in the non- exclusive zone at the other end of Gir National Park.
In Gujarat, pride is everything. But unfortunately it is also extended to the felines-the Asiatic Lions now found only in Gujarat. The lions are a pride of Gujarat, roared Narendra Modi refusing to share some of them with neighboring Madhya Pradesh(MP) as directed by the Supreme Court in April 2013. An epidemic can wipe them all out, warn conservationists, if lions are geographically sequestered in just one pocket in the country. But Modi would not have any of it. A local conservationist who had suggested the relocation of lions to MP had to run for his life when the Supreme Court order came and the angry Gujaratis confronted him.
Where sloppy journalists present loose street-talk as facts and get swayed by public perceptions, writers usually step in and do a course correction. But on a week long road trip in Gujarat last year with bestselling Indian writer Chetan Bhagat, I was horrified that the man who would later go back and write reams about ‘Rising Gujarat’ had probably not seen any of it at all. From the moment he landed in Ahmedabad to when he exited out of Rajkot, the author remained glued to his Blackberry looking up only when he was asked to pose for the camera.
However if you keep your eyes, ears (and nose) open, Gujarat is just another smelly, congested, dusty, inept Indian state stuck firmly to India’s side to its West.
Sanjay Austa is a journalist.
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