The much-trumpeted ‘Gujarat model’ is in a mess in corona times. Consider the following:
- Not only does Gujarat have amongst the highest number of corona virus cases in the country but more worryingly, a mortality rate which is way above the national average (Gujarat mortality rate at 5.9 % is nearly twice that of national average of 3.09 %)
- The Ahmedabad municipal commissioner, a well regarded IAS officer and former IIT Bangalore and Infosys alumni, is suddenly removed because, according to local media reports, the government felt he was ‘testing too much’!
- A national daily reports on corona patients in an Ahmedabad hospital being segregated on religious basis. The government denies it even as the chief minister blames the Tableeghi Jamaat for the spurt in cases.
- In Surat, migrant labour have violently clashed with the police on at least three separate occasions in a month: the city of diamonds and textiles has one of the highest percentages of migrant populations in the country.
- In Rajkot, a tv journalist is assaulted and critically injured when a mob of migrant labour, incensed that their train has been cancelled, vent their ire on the local media even as the police appear helpless bystanders.
- A Gujarati website journalist is booked for sedition for reporting that there were problems between chief minister Vijay Rupani and the BJP high command.
So what has suddenly gone so wrong in a state which has been branded as a ‘model’ for 21st century India, one whose rapid ‘development’ was seen as the cornerstone for Narendra Modi’s rise to national prominence and eventually the prime ministership? Truth is, the ‘Gujarat model’ was never the wondrous paradise that the glitzy propaganda machine suggested it to be for more than a decade between 2001 and 2014. The ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ imagery which saw hundreds of MOUs being signed between top industrialists and the state government was always only one part of the story. While the state successfully cultivated a business-friendly image and took impressive strides in building up its physical infrastructure – roads, ports, power generation – and significantly enhanced its agricultural growth rate, the areas of darkness were obscured and never questioned by a mostly pliant media and hero worshipping citizenry. One of those dark spots has now come to haunt the Gujarat model: its failure to address public healthcare concerns and build a socially inclusive system of governance.
Gujarat has 0.33 hospital beds per 1,000 population as against the national average of 0.55 beds per 1000 population. Amongst large states, only one has a worse ratio: Bihar. A Reserve Bank of India report indicates that Gujarat ranks among the lowest in the country in terms of social sector investment. In terms of per capita health expenditure, Gujarat slipped from fourth in 1999-2000 to 11th position in 2009-10, with health expenditure as a percentage of Net State Domestic Product declining from 0.87 per cent to 0.73 per cent in this decade. Its infant mortality rates remain worryingly high, another reflection of poor social sector spending. Sanjeev Kumar, a researcher at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, reveals that the total number of primary health centres in Gujarat is less than even Bihar and the latter has almost three times as many rural public hospitals as Gujarat. A number of government hospitals have been handed over to favoured private sector companies in recent years.
The failure to build a robust public health infrastructure is matched by a steady decline in government investment in quality education. Gujarat spends less than two per cent of its income on education and nearly half of its work force are illiterate or have only studied upto fifth standard. Poor quality higher education has meant a growing number of unemployed engineers and science graduates. Economics professor Indira Hirway has pointed out that over 90 per cent of the workers in Gujarat are in the informal and traditional sectors with low incomes and low social security and with the wage rates amongst the lowest among the major states in the country. Should the angst of the migrant labour working in Surat’s grimy underbelly of squalor then come as any surprise? With exploitative employers refusing to pay incomes, the daily wage earners seem desperately keen to abandon their dingy workplaces for the emotional security of their village communities. That many workers have had to pay for the train fare home from their own limited means is an indictment of not just state policy but also of a mercantilist cultural ethos that has deepened class divides.
Nor should it come as a surprise that those who have sought a course correction or questioned the political authority are being ostracized or charged with sedition. Centralization of power allows for little or no space for any dissent: this is not the first time that journalists have been charged with sedition in the state for merely criticizing the government. In the Modi years, the chief minister built a larger than life image for himself, one which dwarfed all opponents and created an unchallenged personality cult around a single window clearance system. His successors have lacked Modi’s charisma but have embraced a similar autocratic mindset in decision-making.
Chief minister Rupani’s attempt to pin the blame on the Tableeghis for the corona spread is also somewhat predictable. For years, the Gujarat political establishment has nurtured a deep dislike for minority groups, bordering on paranoia and hatred: the invisible Hindu-Muslim geographical borders that shadow Gujarat’s cities have become even more obvious in recent years. A certain communal bias is ingrained so deeply in a post 2002 Gujarati psyche that it is easy to see the Muslim as the perennial ‘enemy within’. To that extent, the Tableeghis provided the perfect alibi for a government struggling to control the spread of the virus.
In a sense, the corona crisis is a wake up call for Gujarat, a state riding high on its entrepreneurial zeal and aspirational ‘neo-middle class’ dreams but also a state blighted by stark caste and communal divisions and rising income disparities. The Modi years have seen a fierce assertion of Gujarati asmita (regional pride) but have also witnessed the marginalization of those social groups who did not buy into the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ messaging. The corona challenge provides Gujarat another opportunity to revive some of its lost Gandhian values of compassion: an inclusive community spirit that rises above partisan concerns, one which doesn’t just take pride in increased capital investment but also in enhancing its human development. That would be the true Gujarat model to strive for.
Post-script: In February, the Ahmedabad municipal authorities courted controversy when overnight a wall was built to apparently hide the slums of the city from the gaze of the much-hyped US presidential visit. It has now taken a corona virus for the city’s beautification drive to be confronted with a more ugly reality.