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Urban Gujarat: The incumbency riddle

Three years ago, a high-level Gujarat government document made a glaring observation, which I haven’t forgotten even today. Ever since I quoted the observation in a news story in late 2009, I have wondered: If things are really so appalling in urban areas, as the document tried to make out, then why do urban dwellers so strongly favour the ruling BJP in Gujarat? More, the urbanites’ voting share for the ruling party appears to have up after every electoral battle. 
While it may take some time for keen experts like Prof Ghanshyam Shah to analyze the data and identify a trend, even a cursory glance would show that in the last Gujarat assembly election, the saffron party won with great margins in 60-odd purely urban constituencies out of a total of 182. The victory margin ranged between over 1 lakh in Ghatlodia in Ahmedabad, where a Narendra Modi favourite won, to 17,000 in Porbandar, where a Congress stalwart was defeated. This was in complete contrast to rural Gujarat, where the two parties seem to have evened out at 50:50.
Does it mean that there is no impact of anti-incumbency in Gujarat’s urban areas? The state document I am referring to was submitted to the Government of India with the aim to garner funds for public health in urban areas. Never made public and quietly handed over to me by a senior official, the document observed, "Health indicators of urban slums are worse than that of the rural areas." Offering data, it said, the mortality rate of children below five among the urban poor was a high 7.27 per cent, compared to 5.8 per cent in the rural areas. Institutional delivery rate was 44 per cent among the urban poor, compared to 55 per cent in the rural areas. There were 47.1 per cent underweight children among the urban poor compared to 45 per cent in the rural areas. The percentage of anaemic children among the urban poor was 71.4 per cent as against 67.7 per cent in rural areas.
The document admitted, "Despite the availability of medical facilities, both public and private, in the vicinity, the urban poor is unable to access them due to their working hours, lack of information and indifference towards their health." Further: "Urban slums are located in areas with poor hygiene and sanitation." There was "lack of safe drinking water supply and safe waste disposal systems in most of the urban slums." All this contributed to "high levels of water borne diseases" and "higher risk of morbidity and mortality." These observations acquire special significance if one identifies the context – 18 per cent of Gujarat’s urban dwellers live in slums, and the percentage is rising due to pressure from migrant labourers. The slum population in Gujarat is increasing at double the pace of urban population. According to one estimate, 45 per cent of Ahmedabad today live in slums and chawls.
Apparently, nothing has changed over the last three years. In fact, a pro-Narendra Modi economist, Prof Bibek Debroy, has also noticed a urban-rural divide in poverty eradication in Gujarat. In his latest book, "Gujarat: Governance for Growth and Development", published three months back, he notes – albeit "for record" – that in the urban areas the total number of poor have actually gone up, from 4.3 million in 2004-05, to 4.5 million in 2009-10. The data also reveal that urban poverty went down by just 2.2 per cent during the period in question, which is worse than the national average of 4.5 per cent. Very slow reduction in poverty levels and simultaneous influx of rural poor in the urban areas has put Gujarat in the company of five others – Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal – where the absolute number of poor has gone up. It stands in contrast to rural areas, where there is a sharp decline in the absolute number of poor. In Prof Debroy’s calculation, poverty in rural areas during the period went down by a whopping 12.6 per cent, one of the highest in India, and the absolute number of rural poor went down from 12.9 million to 9.2 million. Based on these data, Prof Debroy concludes that the benefits of growth in the agricultural sector have "trickled down" in the rural areas. But as for urban areas, he evades making any such observation!
Appalling conditions in Gujarat’s slums has even been highlighted at other places, too. A recent Nation Sample Survey (NSS) report, "Some Characteristics of Urban Slums", suggests that the condition of slums in Gujarat is not only dismal but is worse than nine other states surveyed – Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. In Gujarat it found just 14 per cent and 29 per cent pucca houses in notified and non-notified slums, respectively.Tthe report says, "In some states like Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, West Bengal and Maharashtra, 72 per cent or more slums had the majority of their houses built with pucca materials." As for Gujarat, along with Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, its "majority of the houses are of type semi-pucca or katcha." Further, just 19 per cent notified slums have pucca roads in Gujarat, which is worse than all other nine states. As many as 59 per cent of notified and 53 per cent of non-notified slums suffer from water logging during monsoon, which is higher than all states except for Orissa. Then, Gujarat's 39 per cent notified slums and 48 per cent of non-notified slums don’t have any latrines, as against the national average of 10 and 20 per cent respectively.
If these data suggest anything, the urban poor should have rebelled against the ruling establishment long back, something that hasn’t happened. It prompted me to send an e-mail to a few experts, posing a few questions. One of them, of course, was Prof Debroy. I asked them how they explained this contradiction. Referring to the urban poor data, I asked them: (1) Why is there no anti-incumbency in urban areas, where the BJP has won more seats than what it used to earlier? (2) Why has the Congress performed better in rural areas, where poverty levels have gone down considerably and the "trickle-down effect" has worked, if one is to believe Prof Debroy? And (3) what could be the factors that influenced the voters in this rural-urban divide? While Prof Debroy hasn’t replied for reasons known to him, others have. For the sake record, I am quoting two of the reactions.
One of those who replied is Shalini Randeria, professor of anthropology and sociology of development at the prestigious Geneva-based Graduate Institute. I have known Randeria more as a class mate in school in Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, New Delhi, where we studied till 1970. An ethnic Gujarati, it was a pleasant surprise when, five years ago, sitting in the office a senior activist, Achyut Yagnik, I met her to find that she has emerged one of the best academics in her subject in Europe. Her reply was straight and simple: "This is a puzzle indeed! The statistics and people's perception diverge? That is, we as social scientists think that the numbers matter to people but often the poor are neither aware of these nor were they to be made aware of statistics would they care sufficiently. Thus, a 2.2% decrease may not make for a change in perception of the poor thought a 12.6% decrease should certainly be discernable in public perception." She also wonders "whether in rural areas the trickle-down effect worked, or Congress’ rural employment programmes worked and people see these as Central programmes rather than Modi ones." Her conclusion: "The latter would explain Congress gains in villages."
Darshini Mahadevia, professor at the prestigious CETP University, Ahmedabad, is an expert on urban policy. She says, "In rural areas where lands have been taken, promise of employment, as in case of Sanand, has not been met. Even the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has not been implemented sincerely". Coming to the urban areas, she adds, here poverty and the poor are hidden. "The glitter and glamour in the cities, partly on account of the JNNURM funding has influenced people. Those who are not poor have not looked out for the impact of liberalization on urban poor. Indian middle class in general, researchers have hypothesized, are unsympathetic to the cause of the poor. It is consumerist, aggressive in defense of the privileges it has enjoyed, socially reactionary and hence under the influence of Hindutva. Consequently, it seeks to support practices like dowry and female foeticide. Modi is a representative of this idea of development. Modi appeals to the dark basal instincts of people, as he makes them chant in a trance ‘kill’ (as he did for the last elections) or plays on the insecurities of the ‘other’. All of us always gossip about how bad the ‘other’ is and Modi plays on it. Hence, the urban population would like Modi and vote for him. They will like him in whole India, as we see the influence of rising middle classes in India. So, there is a clear explanation of why Modi has and will lose in rural India."



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