Saturday, August 19, 2006

Look at Gujarat

We can learn from our neighbouring state, which has no Naxalites and farmer suicides

Ajit Ranade

Maharashtra has a twin. The same day that our state was born, another also took birth — Gujarat. And it has always had the status of a junior sibling.

It has half the population, half the state GDP and 25 districts, as compared to the 35 in our state. Its Vidhan Sabha has 182 members whereas we have 288. While more than 40 per cent of our population lives in urban areas, Gujarat is much less urbanised. Migration into Gujarat from other states is also less, though much of the industrial and coastal belt attracts workers from Bihar and Orissa.

In two significant respects, however, Gujarat has an enviable record. It has no Naxalites and no recorded farmer suicides.

There are now armed Naxalites in 15 states and more than 160 districts of India, practically affecting half the nation. The prime minister recently called it the single biggest threat to India’s internal security, and said that in certain parts, Naxals have caused a virtual collapse of law and order.

The appropriate response to Naxals is a combination of effective police action and ensuring socio-economic development. That’s because Naxals are typically active in backward, tribal and forest areas. It is not as if Gujarat doesn’t have its share of tribal and backward areas. For example, the northern districts of Banaskantha, Sabarkantha and Mehsana have tribals and are backward. Why is it that Naxals have not gained a foothold there? Or even in parts of Kutch?

Maybe the answer to these questions requires a deeper understanding of the history of the Naxalite movement — but it is undeniable that Gujarat, today, is free of the Naxal virus.

The second is the phenomenon of farmer suicides. A combination of usurious debts, failed monsoons and excessive reliance on cash crops like BT cotton, which command volatile prices, are the reasons behind farmer suicides in Maharashtra, Andhra and other states.

There is also a sociological reason arising from the stigma of utter poverty and deprivation. But here too, it is surprising that Gujarat is not known for farmer distress. Yes, BT cotton is grown, yes, there are lot of indebted farmers, yes there are parched lands. But Gujarati farmers are on an average a much happier lot.

Apart from these two major themes, our neighbouring state has distinguished itself as a hub of the chemicals and textiles industry and is the largest producer of manmade fabric in the country. It is also a global centre of diamond polishing, earning a pile of foreign exchange and will soon have the world’s largest petroleum refinery. In the last few years it has been attracting more fresh investments than Maharashtra, although, the bigger twin has again overtaken it.

In fact, these two twin states accounted for 40 per cent of all new investments undertaken in India in 2005-06. Most remarkably, while our state is reeling under a Rs 1.25 trillion debt, our neighbour has been running a primary revenue surplus for the past three years.

A recent clincher, was the state’s decision to abolish remaining octroi in all municipalities. Ahmedabad’s municipality is unique in having raised money, corporate style, by selling bonds — most other cities depend only on taxes. All this despite doses of major annual calamities — like the 2001 earthquake, the 2002 riots, major droughts, and now the floods, which have caused losses of about Rs 20,000 crore.

So shouldn’t we be learning from our neighbour’s resilience and progress? Our agriculture minister agrees. He said in a recent walk-the-talk interview, for state-level development look at Gujarat!

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