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Insecure Central ministers vs uneasy Gujarat babus

Last Wednesday, when three senior ministers from Government of India - P Chidambaram, Ambika Soni and Salman Khursheed - landed up in Ahmedabad merely to "showcase" the Centre’s contribution to Gujarat’s development, I was taking a round of Sachivalaya in Gandhinagar. Time was 3.00 pm, and the ministers were about to address the media, which is what they had come for. I entered the room of one of the senior-most bureaucrats, who was found to be frantically changing TV channels in order to catch the station which would broadcast the press conference live. Flanked by three other officials, all working under him, this bureaucrat curtly remarked: "What the hell! Our chief secretary has asked us to watch live the three ministers’ press conference." The officials had their pen and paper ready.
Amused, I walked out and moved towards Gujarat chief secretary Achal Kumar Joti's office, just a few yards away. I peeped into the conference room attached to the office - and there he sat, flanked with two of the senior-most state officials, additional chief secretary, finance, MM Shrivastav, and additional chief secretary, planning, Varun Maira, apart from two dozen others. All of them, ready with pen and paper, had gathered just for one thing, to watch the press conference live. Later, I was told that the Gujarat chief secretary, who is the head of the state administration, reached Sachivalaya an hour before the office opened, 9.30 am, only to give instructions to all state secretaries to "organize" a reply to the three ministers by watching them live on the small screen.
The ministers, apparently, had their own reason to reach out to the media in Ahmedabad. One can guess - maybe, they had come down because they thought that their Congress in Gujarat, locked in what seems to a losing battle against Modi’s BJP in the forthcoming assembly polls, was simply failing to disseminate necessary information. However, the way Narendra Modi’s babudom was made to react seemed bizarre. As a senior official, who was also involved in watching the small screen, admitted to me, "Such overreaction was a clear manifestation of lack of trust in all that Gujarat is doing to improve the social sector. We have improved in some, while we are lagging in other sectors. There is nothing to hide. However, the overreaction would not have been the chief secretary’s idea. It must have been Modi’s."
The ministers came and went away. The most controversial statement was by Ambika Soni, that Gujarat had 80 per cent malnourished children, more than the all-India average, and higher than several Bimaru states. Based on whatever babus had picked up, Gujarat government spokesperson Jay Narayan Vyas declared that Ambika Soni’s had "truncated figures". He added, the figures quoted were very old, based on National Family Health Survey (NHFS) in 2005-06, and that Gujarat’s nutrition levels were better than all-India. I agree: The Central figures were indeed old. Soni had clearly hyped the figures to suit her political one-upmanship. As one official later told me, "There are several layers of malnutrition, from severe to moderate. If you add all these up, maybe you will reach 80 per cent, but this is never done. But while we do say we have improved, there are no authentic surveys after 2005-06."
Be that as it may, it took seven long years for the Modi government to realize that Gujarat had very high malnutrition levels. I remember, it was February 2007. During an internal meeting, a top state bureaucrat, JS Rana, stunned Modi in his three minute presentation. He flashed a map of Gujarat, saying, "Do you see the green in the corner? That is Porbandar. Except this district, malnutrition levels for some strange reason are very high in most of other districts." The figures he handed over spoke for themselves. Except Porbandar, where it was 35 per cent, malnutrition in most other districts was "around 50 per cent", he said, adding, "The situation in the tribal areas is worse, followed by other parts." He commented that Vibrant Gujarat propaganda would have "no meaning" unless one addressed this problem.
Coming to the state government’s claim that the figures are "old" and nutrition levels in Gujarat today are "better" than most parts of India, there appears to be clear effort to hide the state’s failure. Modi announced at the Planning Commission meeting in early June this year that Gujarat has formed a Nutrition Mission to fight high levels of malnutrition. This was not a new announcement. A decision to form the mission was taken way back in 2010, but it has not been formed. File is pending before Modi for two years. And, if insiders are to be believed, an inter-departmental rivalry is the key to why it is not there. "First, state woman and child department was asked to set it up, then it was given to the health and family welfare department, now the view is it should be handed over to woman and child", one official conceded. There was an effort to fight malnutrition by giving soya fortified wheat flour to all below poverty line (BPL) families instead of wheat. Modi inaugurated it as "Swarnim Gift" to the poor in April 2010 by addressing live lakhs of people via video conference, allocated huge funds. What poor began getting was insect-ridden flour, and the plan was finally been put off a few weeks back.
Now, to hard facts. Latest figures from at least two authoritative reports - "India Chronic Poverty Report", published by the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), Delhi, in 2011, and "Nutrition Intake in India", a National Sample Survey (NSS) put out early this year - suggest that Gujarat’s nutrition levels are lower than all-India. The IIPA report says, "Even states with a better economic development record, such as Gujarat and Karnataka, showed close to 60 per cent of children malnourished… The highest levels of severe malnourishment were recorded in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Uttarakhand, followed by Orissa, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan." Based on figures of December 2009, the IIPA study says, all-India malnutrition level among children was close to 44 per cent.
While NSS does not give separate figures for children, it suggests that the overall situation in Gujarat is pretty bad compared to the rest of India. Based on its surveys carried out in 2009-10, NSS found that in Gujarat average calorie intake per capita (2046 Kcal in rural areas and 2096 Kcal in urban areas) are worse than the national average of 2147 and 2123, respectively. Major states which are better off include Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Haryana, Jharkhand, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The figures also point out that while the share of expenditure on food items from the total income kitty is quite high (57.7 per cent in rural areas and 46.2 per cent in rural areas), the expenditure on cereal, the main source of calorie intake, is one of the lowest - 10.7 and 7.6 per cent, respectively. Figures also show that while per capita protein intake in Gujarat has been going down over the years, fat intake has been going up!
Officials advance several reasons for poor nutrition levels. At an internal meeting, Modi himself admitted, nutrition is not a problem in the coastal areas, where people take fish. They also suggest issues like "habit" of Gujarati food being too oily. One official said, "Even better off households in rural areas of Central Gujarat tend to sell all the milk they get from cattle, instead of consuming some part of it at home." There is, however, a mismatch. No one has cared to look at issues of relationship between poverty and malnutrition. Recent NSS figures suggest that average wages per day in Gujarat for regular male employees are Rs 276.48 for males and Rs 213.10 for females. National average is Rs 332.37 for males and Rs 253.02 for females (urban and rural areas combined). Things are no better for casual labour - in Gujarat average wages for casual workers (both male and female) are Rs 83.25 in rural and Rs 106.17 in urban areas. Sociologist Prof Ghanshyam Shah believes that it "suggests there is a traditionally poor bargaining power among the workers of Gujarat."


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