Saurashtra, Gujarat: What is missing in my life here? Why should I leave?” asks Kishore Pitha, 22, cradling his infant daughter in his arms. A resident of the Rajasamadhia village near Rajkot, Gujarat, he lives in a concrete, two-storeyed gated home with a small garden, verandah, television set, fridge and uninterrupted power supply.
While he works in the diamond polishing industry in a nearby village, his father and brother farm their 9-acre plot and “between us, we manage to save some money, too. Why would I leave all this to go to work in the city? Surat is so expensive. I would not be able to get a decent house for my family also. There is a good school in my village and my daughter will be happier here”.
Home comforts: Kishore Pitha (right), a resident of Rajasamadhia village near Rajkot in Gujarat, lives in a concrete, two-storeyed gated house with a verandah and enjoys uninterrupted power supply. Amit Dave / Mint
Many young people echo his feelings. Some, who have recently returned from a long spell in the city, because of layoffs due to the economic downturn, say they are rediscovering the pleasure of living at home—close to ageing parents, farming in the fields or running a small industrial unit at home, or just sitting under the banyan tree to play cards with friends.
“With electricity and water, I can now do almost everything I could do in the city here,” says Chetan Davasia, a resident of Mangwapar, who was working in Surat’s diamond polishing industry until his factory closed down two months ago due to recession in the jewellery market. “There I lived in a small room and paid rent. Here I have a big house of my own,” he says, explaining that he probably will now set up a diamond-polishing machine in his own home.
Unlike the rest of the country, where trainloads of people continue to leave their homes in the villages to look for work in India’s teeming cities, people in Saurashtra are no longer willing to leave their villages, farms and families to search for fortunes in far-away cities.
According to a survey conducted by the Confederation of Indian Industry and Institute of Rural Management, Anand, infrastructure initiatives such as water conservation, electrification schemes, better roads, policy changes in land reform and credit schemes, and social initiatives such as better schools, women’s empowerment and veterinary camps have reduced migration from villages by about 33%. Around 62% of Gujarat’s 60 million people live in villages.
The road out of hell
Just 10 years ago, few dreamed of such possibilities in this semi-arid region where life was an endless wait for water. “We waited for the rains, waited for tankers to bring us drinking water, and waited for our machines to reach the water reserves that had dipped to 400-500ft underground,” says Vipulbhai Chengalia, a resident of Mangwapar village near Amreli.
In the land of Saurashtra, shaped like an upturned saucer with a vast coastline, all rainwater simply drained away into the Arabian Sea—nothing was ever saved, says Abhay Raval, professor at Ahmedabad Polytechnic and consultant to the Narendra Modi government on water conservation.
And over the decades, as population increased, the groundwater reserves were over-exploited and the sea began to seep into the land. “In coastal areas, the soil has become saline. In some places it was at 5km inland; in others, it was 25km inland,” Raval explains.
In 2001, the situation was so explosive that former chief minister and state Congress leader Amarsinh Chaudhary had reportedly warned “riots might break out all over the Saurashtra region if the monsoons were delayed this year”.
“For more years than I care to remember, our farms were fallow. In years of good rain, the produce was not enough to sustain a family. And there was no other industry. So, naturally, boys and men in the family went to the city. To earn money,” says Bhikaram Bhola, the 80-year-old resident of Rajasamadhia village. “It was hell and I thought it would never change.”
At that time, the only road out led to the slum-like hovels of cities such as Rajkot, Surat, Ahmedabad or Mumbai. Two simple things have changed that—water and power.
In 1999, the state government began an initiative that has fuelled a lot of this change: It began to build check dams on rivers flowing through Gujarat. “A check dam is a small barrier built across the direction of water flow on shallow rivers and streams to harvest water,” explains Raval. These structures capture excess water during the monsoon in a small catchment area behind them and force the impounded water to seep into the ground, he says.
The initiative that began about 10 years ago gained currency in the Modi administration, when about 35,000 check dams were constructed in Saurashtra and about 100,000 in the rest of the state. In addition, about 130,000 farm ponds were created and a huge sandbag initiative was undertaken to stop soil erosion and salination.
As a result of the multi-pronged strategy, groundwater levels began to rise quickly, says Rajubhai Ashoter, a farmer near Amreli. “Earlier we used to get water at 400, sometimes 500ft underground. Now, we get it at 80-90ft.”
A survey of the region by the Geological Survey of India has found that the average water table has risen by about 4m in Saurashtra, says Raval. “And as a result, agricultural production has undergone a huge transformation.”
Farmers say they are now able to grow three crops in a year. “Earlier we used to be happy if we could get a winter crop after the monsoon produce. Now, I grow something or the other in the summer as well. We used to have drought for seven years out of 10. Now, see this,” says Ashoter, looking at his field where he has planted a winter crop of Bt (or genetically modified) cotton and wheat.
“The average area under cultivation has gone up by about 10,00,000ha on an average,” says Raval. “The agricultural sales policy has been streamlined as well, so of course the farmers are prospering now.”
It’s not just the light bulbs
But agriculture alone would not have been enough to stem the tide of migrants into the cities. Access to power was a necessary ingredient, says chief minister Modi.
In 2003, the state government rolled out its Jyotigram Yojana or rural electrification scheme that cost Rs1,200 crore and brought 24-hour access to power to 18,065 villages and 9,681 hamlets—settlements attached to the villages—within three years. Its impact has been dramatic.
In Rajasamadhia, Jayaben Limbasia proudly displays her home and kitchen appliances—a Bajaj mixer-cum-grinder, a Godrej fridge and a Videocon TV that beams 154 channels, including her favourite Balika Vadhu on Colors, every afternoon to her home. Outside her gate, a concrete road leads to the state highway and in the last few years, she has seen many of her neighbours acquire cars—from a Maruti Suzuki to a Scorpio.
The consumerism has seen many go to the city for a good deal on bulk purchases, says Saigon Verghese, store manager at Sales India, a leading electronics and appliances retail chain with seven stores in Ahmedabad alone. “A lot of people come from the villages here to buy a whole package. They will buy a fridge, television set, air conditioner, and washing machine all at once. It is usually when they are setting up their house or when there is a marriage. But the number of people who want all this has definitely increased,” he says.
But it does not end at consumerism alone, reminded Modi when he met Mint at his office in Gandhinagar, the state capital. “It has opened up new avenues of earning money, that were not available to people before…it is no longer necessary for the diamond-polishing machine to be in Surat any more. It can be in the smallest village of Gujarat. People in these villages can now do their farming, look after ageing parents and be a part of the diamond trade as well. So now, they no longer need to spend more money to go and live in Surat to work in a polishing unit. This now adds to the family’s income. This is an economic model that will be useful in the future.”
This idea is definitely taking root, says Raghavbhai Chengalia, a farmer and former diamond polisher in Mangwapar. In his village, some women have bought electric sewing machines and are setting up small businesses at home, he says. “People are beginning to get a lot of ideas about what is possible to do and what they can achieve in their own village.”