WEB | FEB 04, 2015


Skeletons in Gujarat’s Cupboard
Make-or-break local government elections are exposing the rot within the state.

Narendra Modi may have single-handedly secured an overwhelming mandate to rule India on the basis of his record in Gujarat but the fact remains that 97 of the 159 municipalities in the state are in such a despicable financial state that they are unable to pay their basic electricity and water supply bills. It is only after a change of guard in the state that skeletons securely locked for long are falling out of the cupboard, exposing the rot within.

Local self-government body elections are due in Gujarat this year. It is a ‘make or break’ election for Chief Minister Anandiben Patel who replaced Modi last year. In fact, this is the first major statewide poll after he left to takeover national responsibilities. All eyes are set on the upcoming poll engagement.

According to an official summation, the total dues of all such municipalities in the state up to March 31, 2014 added up to over Rs 540 crore. As things stand, a large chunk of these municipalities are BJP controlled and any adverse poll outcome is likely to have a direct bearing on the current chief minister’s political standing.

Saddled with a Himalayan problem, and with the debt riddled municipalities making it clear that they were in no position to pay up, the Patel government has decided to offer an OTS (one time settlement) of the total amount. This figure continues to shoot up regularly as fines for non-payment keep adding up on the already bad debts. The money would be adjusted in the books against the funds to be given to the civic bodies in lieu of the abolished octroi tax.

However, according to a published report, in the case of at least two municipalities – Halvad in Morbi district of Saurashtra region and Rapar in Kutch – even at the rate of 30 per cent, outstanding dues cannot be recovered even over 20 years.

Meanwhile, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation school board created a sensation of sorts with a circular asking all its schools (including 65 Urdu medium ones where Muslim students study) to recite Saraswati Vandana and perform puja on Basant Panchami. Schools affiliated to the Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Board had their own take on another event. The Board forced its schools to reschedule their second-term examinations by making it compulsory for them to organize drawing competitions under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan on January 30, the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

That the board was under pressure to take such a decision becomes clear from the fact that it was well aware that January 30 is celebrated as Martyrs Day and yet had gone on to draw up the examination schedule which it subsequently altered, forcing all schools to reprint the examination papers at additional financial cost. The move has not gone down well either with the parents or even the local BJP leaders who felt that the issue was subjected to needless politicization.

And as if this was not enough from January 30, all government and private secondary and higher secondary schools in Ahmedabad district has students singing two more songs as part of their morning prayer. One is “Manushya tu bada mahan hai”, a song closely identified with the RSS, and the other is “Vaishnav jan to”, a Mahatma Gandhi favourite. Apparently the two songs have been clubbed together to mute already- strident criticism of Sangh Parivar’s intervention in education.

Also not gone unnoticed is the absence of the Gandhinagar MP and the veteran BJP patriarch L.K. Advani at the Pravasi Bhartiya Diwas and Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors Summit. Both the events were inaugurated by the Prime Minister. This despite the fact that the veteran leader had, at a function attended by chief minister Patel, expressed his desire to attend if invited. Invitations went out to the US Secretary of State John Kerry but Advani did not get one.

Interestingly, when Modi was first denied a visa by the US government, Advani was one of the frontline speakers at the public meeting organized at the Kankaria football ground in Ahmedabad to protest the denial to his then protege. How times change, and people too!