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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Behind Gujarat’s urban-rural skew: Where farm distress, lack of rural vikas helped Congress snatch a region

Karsan Ahir, who works as a guard at a diamond polishing unit in Lathi, questions the “so-called vikas”.

Written by Gopal B Kateshiya | Amreli | Updated: December 26, 2017 5:13:08 am
A supporter congratulates MLA Amarish Der at the latter’s election office in Rajula town of Amreli. Express Photo by Gopal Kateshiya

Two days after the Gujarat poll results, Dadu Jajda, 40, a farmer of Moti Kheriali village in Amreli, motorcycled 14 km to Rajula to congratulate newly elected Congress MLA Amarish Der. The dedicated BJP supporter says he had no hesitation deciding his vote this time. Jajda, who has studied till Class VIII, owns 15 bighas land and had sown groundnut on eight bighas and cotton on the rest. He says while deficient rain reduced his groundnut yield to a quarter, whatever he harvested was damaged by unseasonal rain. “Some surveyors came and took photos of the damaged groundnut but I did not hear anything about compensation,” he says. “Hirabhai Solanki of the BJP is a good man, but how long can one vote for the same person?”

In Mota Agariya village, Uka Savaliya, 70, who owns 55 bighas, says he has not been paid crop insurance for eight years. “The government offered Rs 4,650 per quintal for my cotton, barely enough to cover input costs. We should be offered at least Rs 6,000 for cotton and Rs 5,000 for groundnut,” he says.

Karsan Ahir, who works as a guard at a diamond polishing unit in Lathi, questions the “so-called vikas”. “Barring the few diamond polishing units, there is no industry here that can employ youth. Youngsters in villages feel left out.”

In the narrowing of the gap between the BJP and Congress in Gujarat, agrarian Saurashtra played a major role. For the first time since 1985, the Congress holds more seats in the region than the BJP. The BJP was routed in Amreli, Gir Somnath and Morbi districts, with all five seats in BJP bastion Amreli going to the Congress with huge margins.

Amreli is dominated by Patidars, who account for nearly a quarter of the votes in the district and one-fifth of those in Saurashtra. But more than Patidar anger fuelled by the quota stir, what led to the vote against the BJP was farm distress and alienation over being left out of the vikas bandwagon.

Gujarat is the country’s largest producer of groundnut and cotton, with Saurashtra accounting for most of the production. The Centre has hiked MSP to Rs 4,450 for groundnut and Rs 4,320 for cotton, while the state has declared a bonus of Rs 50 per quintal on groundnut and Rs 500 on cotton, but farmers remain unhappy. While the BJP manifesto promised interest-free farm loans and irrigation water to every field, the Congress promised to write off loans, apart from remunerative prices and free irrigation water.

In 2015, following flash floods, the lone Congress MLA in Amreli then, Paresh Dhanani, went on a hunger-strike demanding relief. While the government responded quickly, farmers were not happy with the compensation. Following the Patidar quota agitation, the Congress wrested seats across Amreli in the 2015 civic polls.

Saurashtra has few avenues other than agriculture. The few industries that exist are foundry and forging, enterprises manufacturing auto-parts and oil-engines in Rajkot, the brass-parts industry of Jamnagar and the ceramic tiles industry of Morbi.

Earlier, the diamond industry would provide employment in villages. But now smaller units have disappeared from villages and polishers moved to towns. “The smaller units couldn’t offer competitive salaries to their polishers. This has cost youths of villages very dearly,” says Manji Dholakiya of Bhavani Gems, which has polishing units in Surat, Bhavnagar and Babra, and used to run the largest diamond factory in Lathi until recently.

Dadu Jajda, whose elder son is pursuing a degree in commerce and younger son is in school, says: “The 10 quintals groundnut I harvested turned black after the unseasonal rain. When I approached the agriculture produce market committee for procurement, I was told there were 2,200 more on the waiting list. I sold eight quintals cotton at Rs 4,200 per quintal. I remember Narendra Modi promising farmers Rs 7,500 per quintal,” he says.

There was also anger with the BJP government over GST and demonetisation. “I have always been a BJP supporter. But since the introduction of the GST, business has slumped,” says Snehal Rathod, owner of a ready-made garments shop in Rajula.

Among those who lost was the BJP’s Gopal Vastarpara, from Lathi. He has a flourishing construction business in Surat, and is known to organise mass weddings in his village. But that did not count for much in the election, he admits. “The issues of farmers caused my defeat. Farmers are not happy over prices of cotton and groundnut,” he says.

Pankaj Kanabar, president of the Amreli district unit of the Congress, says, “We certainly got a boost from the quota agitation though the dissatisfaction with the BJP government ran deep among the people of Amreli. The key was our candidate selection and campaign strategy. We targeted BJP candidates instead of criticising Modi.”

Hardik Patel’s PAAS (Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti) remains convinced it was a decisive factor. Haresh Bavishi, who belongs to Amreli, says, “We had declared three months before the election that the BJP will be defeated in all five seats in Amreli due to the quota agitation. The results show that the Patidars of Amreli have demonstrated their power with the help of other communities.”

Union MoS (Agriculture) Parsottam Rupala, who hails from Amreli, says, “We shall continue to work for the people of Amreli. We shall analyse the results… If there is any discontent among farmers, we shall try to assuage it.”

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