In 1915, Mahatma Gandhi travelled from Porbandar to Kolkata to discover India. Mint retraces the Mahatma’s footsteps as Varun Sood sets out to capture the national mood during the general elections.
Varun Sood's dispatches will be published in Mint as he tries to connect with New India. He is on a whirlwind tour across different states mapping the 2019 election.
Also read dispatches from other Mint staffers who are crisscrossing the country mapping the 2019 elections - Southern states, Heartland.
05 May 2019, 11:07:26 PM IST
Varanasi wants its say in decisions for city
Varanasi: Everyone who has heard of Varanasi knows of its Dashashwamedh Ghat. Just two kilometers from it is Kabir Chaura, the locality with the house of 15th century poet Kabir, where 36 families of musicians and dancers live.
These include the families of seven Padma Awardees, making it, arguably, the most artistic residential colony in the country. Yet there are no signs at the railway station, bus stands, airport or on the streets, pointing the way to this intriguing locality, though signboards detailing other places of interest abound. This means hardly a handful of the 100,000+ tourists who visit Varanasi everyday know about the musical legacy of Varanasi.
Among the families living here are those of vocalists late Girija Devi (Padma Vibhushan) and brothers Rajan Mishra and Sajan Mishra (Padma Bhushan), two tabla maestros late Samta Prasad Mishra (Padma Bhushan) and late Kishan Maharaj (Padma Vibhushan), and two dancers late Gopi Krishna (Padma Bhushan) and late Sitara Devi (Padma Shri).
Kabir had a huge influence on Mohandas Gandhi’s ideas and it was also in this city that Gandhi learnt about the importance of cleanliness, says Rana P.B. Singh, a retired professor of cultural geography at Banaras Hindu University (BHU). When Gandhi visited Varanasi as a child, he watched his mother clean the premises of a temple of the poet, says Singh.
Historian Ramachandra Guha, however, has written that Gandhi was repelled by the filth in the Kashi Vishwanath temple and saw it as a reflection of character, calling for a clean-up of society and environs. Varanasi was also the city in which Gandhi made one of his early public speeches during the inauguration of BHU and after his 1915 train ride across the country.
In 2014, after he won a massive mandate in the city and became prime minister, Narendra Modi tried to enhance Varanasi’s image among tourists. In June 2016, the ₹220-crore Kashi Kala project to offer monetary support to artists and conduct guided walks through Kabir Chaura was initiated.
“This project was conceived with the interest of musicians in mind. Artists need support from the government," said Ravindra Sahay, a social worker who lives in Kabir Chaura. “Unfortunately, files got stuck, and the project has been a non-starter despite Modi’s interest in it," says Sahay.
Modi’s constituency is a symbol of the struggle with rapid urbanization that all towns face. There is a clear lack of coordination in projects ideated by New Delhi and executed by the state government. Still, most people are impressed with the development work that has been done in the city over the last five years.
Residents are happy that overhead electric wires have been removed and laid underground. Boatmen are glad the ghats and the Ganga are cleaner (though much more can be done). First-time visitors marvel at the four-lane road connecting the airport to the city, which has reduced travel time by 45 minutes. Finally, a new 180-bed cancer hospital has come up on the BHU campus.
“Locals need to be included in decision-making when work is planned for the city," says Sahay. “Most decisions are taken by Delhi and implemented by officials from outside the city," he says.
Of the five cities this writer visited over the past month for these reports, Varanasi is the dirtiest. Unsurprisingly, the city’s ranking in Swachh Survekshan 2019 dropped to 70 from 29 the previous year (though it is an improvement from the 418 rank in 2014).
One successfully implemented project that has caused heartburn is Modi’s ambitious Kashi Vishwanath corridor project. Under this, 44,515 square metres of land adjoining the temple and facing three ghats has been cleared of shops, buildings, and encroachments.
“Varanasi is known for temples and ghats. People have been adequately compensated, but what are they to do with money without regular income. Most displaced shopkeepers have been relocated to spots far from the temple. Who will go that far to shop?" asks Prashant, a 28-year-old priest in one of the many temples in the city. “This will be an issue when people vote," he says.
Varanasi’s 1,796,930 voters will exercise their franchise on 19 May.
“We need to ask if we are really following what Gandhi said about development and growth. Varanasi wants to become a smart city, but have we asked what it means to be smart and how we are using technology?" asks Rana P.B. Singh.
05 May 2019, 11:00:30 PM IST
100 years on, farmers of Champaran in crisis
Motihari: More than a century after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi brought to the country’s attention the challenges faced by the farmers of Bihar’s East Champaran, the region continues to lack infrastructure for agricultural produce.
On 10 April 1917, Gandhi arrived in Motihari and launched an agitation that is now known as the Champaran Satyagraha. More than a century ago, the British government forced tenant farmers to grow indigo under unprofitable and oppressive conditions. After travelling across the district, recording statements and meeting farmers with a team of lawyers, Gandhi led non-violent civil disobedience protests that eventually ended this “tinkathia system".
More than a hundred years later, Motihari, the biggest city in East Champaran district, remains an agricultural area. Along with neighbouring Muzaffarpur district, it is said to be the most fertile farmland in Bihar. The region is famous for litchis, sugarcane, and mangoes. However, it is not a hub for fruit export as there are no cold storage facilities, no marketing support, and no infrastructure to transport the harvest quickly. Motihari is about 150km north of Patna.
Residents say agrarian crisis is the biggest issue as most of them are directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture. “The soil is very productive here and we could be an agriculture hub if we had the infrastructure—cold chain, storage and transportation facilities," says Vibhuti Narayan Singh, a businessman and social worker. “It is ironical that the agrarian crisis continues to be the biggest problem in the region, which saw one of the earliest protests demanding agrarian reform with Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha movement," says Singh.
The other irony is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Radha Mohan Singh, who has represented the seat five times, is the current Union agriculture and farmer welfare minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Yet, farmers and businessmen say there has been little focus on providing the infrastructure they need. Motihari, which is part of the Purvi Champaran Lok Sabha constituency, will vote in the sixth phase of the elections on 12 May.
Local BJP leaders say much has been done for the district, including the setting up of a Mother Dairy factory that has benefitted more than 38,000 farmers, an agricultural university to educate farmers, and two public sector LPG plants that have led to jobs for about 10,000 people.
Motihari is also waiting for the district administration to award the 302 acres of land promised to Mahatma Gandhi Central University, which was opened in 2016. For now, the university works out of a temporary building on three acres of land that earlier served as a school hostel.
“If the university is built and functions at the size it was envisioned, imagine the development it would bring to the region," says Ram Deo Singh, a farmer who owns 10 acres of land.
“We’re talking about at least 2,000 full-time students who will have to spend money on eating and living here. It will create more jobs, but the district administration continues to dither over acquiring land," says Singh.
The region has seen some improvement when it comes to uninterrupted power for 20 hours a day. However, as in much of Bihar, access to good education and healthcare remains a pressing problem. In Motihari, residents complain about a shortage of good schools and trained doctors. There’s another fear they express: the proliferation of fake medicines.
“I have a toothache, but I’m waiting to go back to Lucknow to have the surgery I require rather than run the risk of seeing a dentist here," says Shivendra Singh, professor in the commerce department at the Mahatma Gandhi University. He’s unsure about the quality of medicines doctors use.
The government hospital is good. Even the general ward has an air-conditioner, something which many government-run hospitals in large cities don’t have. But the existing 180-bed facility is simply not enough to cater to the city’s population.
“Most people only get basic medical care like blood tests done here. For treatment, especially for serious illnesses, they have to go to Allahabad or Patna. As most people don’t want bills when they buy medicines, it has led to the problem of spurious medicines being sold in the city," says Dinesh Vyas, professor in the department of sociology and social anthropology at Mahatma Gandhi Central University.
The state of education is equally bad. Brijesh Pandey, associate professor in the department of biotech at the Mahatma Gandhi Central University, pulls no punches. “The education system has collapsed. Nobody in the district wants to send their children to schools in the city. All the children go to large cities like Patna or Delhi. As a result, there are no companies set up here and no jobs for the young," says Pandey.
Until the last decade, kidnappings and murders were a cottage-scale industry, designed by political leaders and aided by poor policing. Despite improvements in law and order and better policing, many companies are still reluctant to open up in the district. This leaves fewer opportunities for the educated in the city.
Motihari, which according to the city’s residents got its name from the lake that is shaped like a pearl necklace, is less than 65km from the border town of Birgunj in Nepal. Birgunj’s biggest influence on Motihari is the staple dish of ahuna mutton, cooked with oil and spices over charcoal in earthen pots, served with chapatti and onion.
There’s another famous personality associated with Motihari: British writer George Orwell was born in Motihari in 1903 and his family moved back to England when he was one year old. The house in which he was born, less than a kilometre from the city’s main market, was declared a protected monument by the Nitish Kumar government but remains in a dilapidated state.
“Where is the question for upkeep of the house when the state and district authorities don’t have enough funds to offer basic education and healthcare facilities to those living in the city?" asks Dheerendra Upadhyay, a postgraduate student.
It is this state of affairs that keeps Gandhi’s ideals more relevant than ever before, says Brij Kishore Singh, an 86-year-old Gandhian, who spends an hour every evening in the Gandhi museum in the city. “Purna Swaraj or complete independence was the vision of Gandhi when Indians were being exploited by the country’s colonial masters who ruined the country economically, politically, culturally and spiritually. Seventy-two years later, I believe people have still not attained Purna Swaraj. So Mahatma Gandhi is still very relevant to modern-day India," he says.
05 May 2019, 11:00:30 PM IST
Spike in crime an issue in Prayagraj
Prayagraj: Allahabad, or Prayagraj as it is known now, has been in the news for long. In October last year, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government changed the name of the city. This year, there was speculation whether Priyanka Gandhi Vadra of the Congress would contest from here, or from Varanasi, or whether or not she would contest at all. That debate has been put to rest with Congress finally picking its candidate for Allahabad, Yogesh Shukla, a former BJP leader, who will face off against BJP’s Rita Bahuguna Joshi, a former Congress leader.
However, in the city, where the Mahatma—no relation to the current leaders of the Congress —spent many hours debating, meeting people, and formulating ideas that would turn into the freedom struggle, residents are more concerned about a crime wave.
A gruesome murder inside the city’s premier University of Allahabad, known in its heyday as the Oxford of India, has highlighted the laxity in law enforcement, the declining standards of education and the role of politics, all concerns when people head to the booths.
On 15 April, around 2:30am, Rohit Shukla, a 28-year-old former student of the university, was gunned down, allegedly by a current student Adarsh Tripathi. The 24-year-old Tripathi and five students killed Shukla in the washroom of the men’s hostel, named in memory of Indian jurist Pramada Charan Banerjee. Six days later, the police have only arrested one suspect.
Many were not surprised. “It is sad to see the decline of the university," says Mohammad Tarif, who played Ranji cricket and is the father of former Indian batsman Mohammad Kaif. “Political parties should be stopped from interfering in college elections," he said.
Still, the decay in higher education in the state, led by Allahabad University, which counts one former president, three former prime ministers, and numerous ministers and bureaucrats among its alumni, is a major concern for residents of the city. Joshi, a state minister, is also a graduate of the university.
In 2016, the university ranked 68 among India’s 100 best schools of higher education under the National Institute Ranking Framework. Last year, it fell out of the rankings.
“I came to the university as it is still the best option for students like me," says Aishwary Awasthi, a final-year physics postgraduate student. “This is a good college and we can only hope incidents like these don’t impact students who want to focus on academics," says Awasthi, whose family resides in Hardoi, about 135km from Allahabad.
Another issue is the lack of jobs for the young. “This incident (the murder in the university hostel) shows the frustration of the youth, many of whom are unemployed," says Tarif.
Allahabad also seems to have a significantly large number of lawyers. City-based businessman Bharat Kumar Yadav only smiled and nodded when asked if every person who cannot find employment looks at law as an option.
Lack of accountability and corruption are sore points for many. The state government built nine new flyovers, 250km of roads, 100,000 toilets, and one new airport terminal in the run-up to the this year’s Kumbh Mela.
“There is rampant corruption. Yes, the city has got a facelift but did anyone monitor how much of the ₹2,500 crore was really spent on development work?" asks Jamil Khan, a city-based businessman.
It is more than a month since the Kumbh Mela, during which the city hosted about 150 million participants in the world’s largest religious congregation, ended in March. About six kilometres south-west of the university, away from the noise and unease, the makeshift tents set up to shelter devotees have been taken down. Now, the empty grounds have hundreds of parked tourist buses and buffaloes graze on the two-inch-long wild grass. In the Army Parade Ground, four teams of workmen are hurriedly removing the last of the bamboo poles that supported the tents. Almost all these workers will return later in the year, when the city starts preparing to welcome devotees for next year’s festival.
For now, the city authorities are busy with another exercise that will see a smaller turnout but is no less important than seeking the blessings of deities. More than 1.69 million voters will turn out on 12 May to vote for a candidate to represent them in Parliament.
05 May 2019, 10:49:59 PM IST
Coffee-time chats reveal a glum outlook
The people of Prayagraj will vote on 12 May. Last month, during a two-day trip to the city, a few students at the Allahabad University suggested that this writer visit the popular Indian Coffee House in Civil Lines — not to try the coffee or the food but because it is known as a place where locals get together and spend hours.
Since 1957 when it was set up, Indian Coffee House has drawn people from all walks of life—from lawyers, activists and political leaders to old friends and family gathering at its tables to chat, gossip and debate. It feels like its interiors, menu and staff haven’t really changed much since the 1960s.
The urban legend is that former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was born and grew up in Allahabad, used to have breakfast in the coffee house whenever he was in the city, and that socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia held his evening talks at its tables, while sipping coffee.
It’s still got a loyal following despite the proliferation of cafes in the city. Some, such as Mohammad Tarif—a former cricketer who played in the Ranji series and the father of former Indian batsman Mohammad Kaif—and his friends have been regulars at the local “adda" for more than four decades. Here is a snapshot of a conversation that the four long-time friends and residents of the city had at one of its most famous addresses.
What, according to you, are the most pressing issues ahead of elections 2019?
Jamil Khan (businessman): What issues can one talk about when the entire purpose of holding elections has been lost?
Raghuraj Kishore (high court lawyer): Questions are being raised about the independence of institutions, whether it is the legislature, enforcement agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Election Commission or even the judiciary.
Why would you say that?
Kishore: Because caste, violence and corruption are becoming the dominant themes. Take for example, education. Many MPs control medical or engineering colleges. We, the people pay donations to get our children seats in these colleges. Who is to be blamed if not us? After all, we vote for these leaders who have made politics an instrument of business. Issues like development, creating jobs, providing better education in schools and colleges and better healthcare are no longer top of the mind for the political party or the voter.
The city seems to have got a facelift with wider roads and residents tell me it is cleaner than before. Don’t you think the government has improved infrastructure?
Khan: Yes, roads and some infrastructure has improved but there is rampant corruption. Yes, the city has got a facelift, but did anyone monitor how much of the ₹2,500 crore was really spent on development work?
Earlier, a former student was murdered inside a hostel of Allahabad University. Does this concern you all?
Kishore: This is not a first. If newspaper reports are to be believed, there have been many such incidents over the last four years.
Bharat Yadav (activist and businessman): It is sad. This decline in the state of higher education will be an issue.
Mohammad Tarif: It is sad to see the decline of the university. It reflects the frustration of the youth, many of whom are unemployed and cannot find jobs. In the past, so many sportspersons have been from this city, and they have played cricket, hockey, some were even Olympians.
What can be done to improve the state of affairs in politics ?
Yadav: It is not easy. Our voice will always be a minority as people will continue to vote on caste lines.
Jamil Khan: There has to be a people’s movement to stop this rot. There was an experiment like the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi. But sadly, that appears to have failed. Still, a solution has to come from only the people and a new movement has to start.
Tarif: One cannot expect things to improve under the current set-up.
Do you think people will consider the issue of nationalism, especially in the wake of India-Pakistan skirmishes, when they turn up to vote?
Kishore: Well, one party has tried to politicize this issue but then people are intelligent enough to know what is happening.
Yadav: I don’t think this will be an issue.
22 Apr 2019, 05:56:02 PM IST
A heartfelt and open letter to India’s future railways minister
Indian Railways is rightfully considered the lifeline of the country. So you’ll agree that as India celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas K Gandhi — kicking off a two-year period of celebration in 2018 — there cannot be a more fitting tribute to one of the world’s greatest leaders than to offer hundreds of people the option to travel in clean and comfortable coaches on a route that he took in 1915, when he returned from South Africa. This certainly will trump some of the other initiatives such as the launch of stamps and the compilation of an anthology to commemorate the life of Gandhi.
Back in 1915, as you know, Gandhi travelled along this route in a third class railway carriage, as part of attempt to reacquaint himself with a country he’d left nearly two decades earlier. He started his journey in Pune, or Poona as it was known then, and then travelled this route.
Today, the train that connects the cities is No. 19572 or the Porbandar-Rajkot Express, which covers the 180 kilometres between them in four hours and 45 minutes. Let me explain why this train needs a complete overhaul.
The Porbandar-Rajkot Express is an entirely general class train. It does not have any air-conditioned cars or other classes of coaches. It leaves Porbandar at 2:30pm and makes 13 stops before reaching its destination at 6:45pm.
Last Tuesday, About 40 people, including farmers, students and a few employees, kept me for company in my coach when the train started from Porbandar. By the time the train reached the penultimate stop of Bhakti Nagar in Rajkot, the number had more than doubled.
A ticket for this four-hour-forty-five-minute journey costs ₹75, which is very impressive and much to the railway’s credit. The seven-coach train, with each coach having 90 seats, can legitimately accommodate up to 630 passengers.
Sir, it is befuddling how railway authorities expect four people to sit on a single berth—there are no separate seats— when across the country, a maximum of three people are assigned to a single berth. Again, to my surprise, only the lower berths of all the coaches had cushions; the overhead berths only had steel racks, which suggests they are meant to be used only for luggage. But the train is so overcrowded, that people squeeze themselves into these upper berths. It is barbaric to expect people to sit on seats made of metal slats. Still, two tired students used their school bags as pillows and took an afternoon siesta for an hour on the metal-slatted upper berths.
People cannot move between bogeys as every coach is an independent car, which is unusual for a passenger day train. Passengers cannot buy bottled water or food from hawkers as they do not enter the train.
There are no charging points on the train.
Oddly, one cannot stop the train in case of an emergency. It is not because there is no emergency chain; rather the emergency chain has been sealed permanently.
I believe even the railway staff has given up on cleaning the current train. Cockroaches could be seen skittering on the floor. The toilets were dirty and by the time train reached Rajkot, the taps in the washbasin had run dry.
So despite this current state, why do people still use this train?
As you are fully aware, trains are one of the cheapest and most flexible means of transport in the country. One does not need to book a ticket in advance, unlike an airline. Unlike buses, there are no unscheduled stops along the way.
“Unlike the private and state buses, where anyone can stretch out their hand to stop the vehicle and hop on, the trains do not stop anywhere unexpected and you can reach on time," said Dinesh, a 34-year-old employee of a private firm in Rajkot. Dinesh takes the train twice a week and travels on business.
Of course, one does not expect air-conditioned coaches on this route, which largely serves daily commuter between the cities. And of course, it is a route on which the national transporter barely turns a profit.
Still, it would definitely make travel more comfortable—and maybe even draw passengers and profits— if the express had new coaches. Hundreds of people travel between these two well-known business centres and tourist hubs every day, and Gujarat is one of the fastest growing states of the country.
On behalf of the thousands of travellers who use the train every year, I hope you and your government will consider this request to replace the current coaches with new cars.
Enroute Porbandar to Rajkot
22 Apr 2019, 05:41:52 PM IST
Textile city wants new govt to jump-start the economy, focus on infrastructure
AHMEDABAD: Harmony. That’s a word you hear a lot in Ahmedabad when you ask people what’s uppermost in their minds when they think about who they will vote for on 23 April.
“Harmony between the two religious groups will be one of the two main factors while voting for many like me," says Mushtaq, an auto driver, who is on a break to drink chai at a shop in Juhapura, a Muslim ghetto in Ahmedabad, which is home to 700,000 people.
“The other important thing is income. If people are not earning enough, why will they take an auto? So people like us just want everyone to do well. In peace, there is prosperity," he says.
Jobs and infrastructure, understandably, are next on the list of priorities for the residents of this city, which was once an economic powerhouse but has slowly been losing out to other urban centres.
“That Ahmedabad, in its own unflashy way the first modern city created by Indians, could generate new productive wealth through its traditions of textile manufacturing and maintain its cultural character, were exactly the reasons that led Gandhi to adopt it as a home – and vital source of funds—for his new nationalist politics," Sunil Khilnani writes in his book The Idea of India.
In Ahmedabad, where the Sabarmati Ashram as well as the Kocharab Ashram are located, Gandhi found many wealthy textile barons who were his earliest supporters. The city was home to Gandhi from 1917 to 1930 and many of his ideas that shaped the freedom struggle took birth here.
Khilnani acknowledges that Ahmedabad began losing out to other Indian cities towards the end of the last century, primarily because of the closure of textile mills in the 1980s, which led to massive layoffs, lockouts and job losses.
Ahmedabad hasn’t seemed to be able to catch up since. In the early 2000s, when information technology (IT) outsourcing firms, including Infosys and Wipro, emerged as the largest job creators in the organized sector—most of them preferred to be based out of Bengaluru and Hyderabad.
The new economy has created its own hubs, and Gujarat, though known for its hard-working and business-minded ways, seems to have stayed within traditional set-ups. The recent startup boom has also seen firms focused on disruptive technology choose the twin cities in the south and Gurugram in the north and Pune in the west rather than Ahmedabad.
The closure of traditional businesses and mills, the primary employers of the past century, also coincided with a deeper change in the fabric of Ahmedabad.
The economic changes caused fissures between Hindu and Muslim communities, which eventually led to riots in 1985, 1992 and again in 2002. The city that prides itself on its link to Gandhi is also one where his ideals tend to be forgotten.
“It is interesting that the city first witnessed riots between Hindus and Muslims in the 1980s, around the same time many lost formal employment and livelihood because of the closure of the textile mills," says Rutul Joshi, associate professor at the city-based CEPT University (formerly called the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology).
Today, employment opportunities may be few but the city is still home to some of the best colleges in the country, from Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad to MICA. Many of the city’s rich helped build some of these institutes: The Sarabhai family helped set up the National Institute of Design while Kasturbhai Lalbhai, co-founder of Arvind Mills, helped establish IIM Ahmedabad.
Ahmedabad is demarcated into two constituencies: the city’s eastern section, an industrial neighbourhood, which has a large migrant population, and the western part, which has a larger Muslim population. Together, the two constituencies have 3.45 million voters.
In terms of civic infrastructure, residents demand better public transport and waste disposal. “Unlike slums in other large Indian cities, many slums in Ahmedabad have access to municipal services because of the government’s earlier Slum Networking Project, a UN-backed project to provide basic infrastructure," says Joshi. The construction of the metro is still underway and many of the newer areas of the city are not connected by bus services. The existing fleet is not large enough to serve the daily commuters. “We need at least 10,000 more buses," says Joshi. Plastic pollution and the resultant environmental degradation has led some startups in the city to focus on waste management. According to a 2015 study by the Central Pollution Control Board, Ahmedabad generated the most plastic waste after Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai and Bengaluru.
“One of the great initiatives of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is the Swachh Bharat Mission. This has made people, government authorities and even leaders in the country realize that most Indian cities are actually sitting on a time bomb when it comes to waste generation. Agreed, the pace of change is slow, but it is a start, and we can focus on segregation of waste," says Sandeep Patel, who co-founded Nepra Resource Management, a dry waste and recycling company, in 2011.(Varun Sood)
22 Apr 2019, 05:33:16 PM IST
‘Nation stood with Abhinandan, none with us fishers’
PORBANDAR: The entire country stood behind Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot Abhinandan Varthaman and the government did everything to secure his release. But what about the 480 fishermen, 25 of whom are from Porbandar, who have been in Pakistan jails for years," asks Bharat Modi, president, Porbandar Machimar Boat Association. “Pakistan has promised to release some fishermen, but over the last decade, nearly 1,150 boats—about 950 of them from Porbandar region—have been confiscated by Pakistan."
Modi, a former member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), says both BJP and Congress have failed to address the problems facing the fishing community from the region. Each diesel engine-powered boat costs between ₹40 lakh and ₹60 lakh. “Even if Pakistan releases the fishermen, who will compensate them for their boats?" added Modi, who said he left the BJP because he was disillusioned by the fact that none of the leaders addressed the concerns of his community.
M.A. Pandya, the district collector and administrative head of Porbandar district, declines to comment on the number of fishermen in the custody of Pakistani authorities, saying the central government continues to engage with the Pakistan government on this issue.
Fishermen from Porbandar, which is about 250 nautical miles from the Pakistan port of Karachi, often cross into international waters and are caught by the authorities of the neighbouring country. But it’s not always that the fishermen are unaware of the boundary line—environmental pollution, climate change, overfishing and greed are also the reasons why they fish in troubled waters and end up arrested by the Pakistan Navy.
Porbandar, a tiny town on the western tip of Gujarat, is best known as the birthplace of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, or the Mahatma as he would later come to be known. In 1915, after he returned from South Africa, Gandhi took the famous train journey from his birthplace to Kolkata to rediscover the country he’d left years earlier. But at the port, memories of the Mahatma are of little help when livelihood is at stake.
Pollution along the coast has depleted schools of fish, and fishermen have to go deeper into the ocean for a good catch.
Overfishing, resulting from the increased number of boats, also forces some fishermen to risk their lives to take their diesel-powered boats deeper into the ocean than they should for a better catch. Finally, greed is another reason that has only increased the number of arrests of Indian fishermen. The Indus, coming from Pakistan, empties into the Arabian Sea, forming Sir Creek, an estuary rich in fish, and one of many contested boundaries between India and Pakistan. Fishermen often get caught along this 100-km marshland as most boats don’t have a GPS system or the men are not trained to use it.
Out on the high seas, the men find themselves in an obstacle course of jagged tackles and heavy stacks of 500-kg fishing nets as their boats seesaw in gale-force winds. Most fishermen are away for up to 16 days at a stretch with a limited supply of drinking water.
Upon their return, their catch is sold to some of the large fish processing firms, which makes payments to these fishermen only after 60 days or 90 days. This ‘work now, pay later’ system means most fishermen are forced to borrow and are easy prey for the local loan sharks.
“We need 2,000 to 2,500 litres of diesel for a two-week trip. All the costs for a fishing expedition, including food, wages and diesel, add up to ₹2 lakh or ₹2.25 lakh for a single trip," said Satish Patil, a fisherman who owns two boats. “Most trips barely cover the costs."
Machimar or the fishing community accounts for a sixth or 42,000 of the city’s 246,119 votes. This seems like a substantial vote bank but for politicians, it’s not large enough. The city of Porbandar, along with six land-locked municipalities that comprise Porbandar district, has a total of 16.6 million voters. The number of fisherfolk votes in the district total about 65,000. This is one reason why the concerns of fishermen are not on the agenda of either the BJP or Congress as the state prepares to vote on 23 April. How does the fishing community plan to address this issue?
“We have many options. One way is to decide as a block that we will not vote. We’ll see what happens. But this issue needs to be addressed immediately," says Modi. A fisherman’s life, even if you own a boat, is no longer a respectable profession, and for this reason, most members of this community do not want their children to get into fishing. The number of fishermen in the district is increasing but it’s because of immigrants from neighbouring districts and states rather than the local communities themselves teaching their children the skills and traditional knowledge of the sea .
I ask Modi if he’ll let his sons get into fishing.
“Not a chance," retorts Modi.
“I have two children. The older one is 17 and the younger one is 11 years old. Both are studying in private schools. With all these hardships we face as a community, none of us fishermen who can afford to offer a better life to our children will let them come into this business."(Varun Sood)
22 Apr 2019, 02:48:05 PM IST
As Rajkot expands, it’s a struggle now to make space for migrant
Rajkot: Rajkot serves up a number of interesting contradictions that keep debates about Gandhi and his legacy alive here. The people are justifiably proud of their link to the Mahatma, yet their ideology doesn’t always keep step with him.
The city—where Mahatma Gandhi spent his childhood when his father served as the diwan of Porbandar, Rajkot and Wankaner is a stronghold of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for its hardline politics, while Gandhi always looked to tolerance and inclusivity.
Over the last three decades, since the 1989 Lok Sabha polls, BJP has lost this constituency only once, in 2009 to the Congress. The current chief minister, Vijay Rupani, represents the Rajkot West assembly seat. This time, sitting BJP MP Mohan Kundariya will be looking to retain his seat. He’s up against Lalit Kagathara of the Congress.
The childhood hometown of Mahatma Gandhi, who was always rather sceptical of rapid industrialization, is home to more than 500 small and medium manufacturing units. Maruti Suzuki, the country’s largest carmaker, sources about 90% of its supplies from foundries or small factories in and around Rajkot.
Western Gujarat’s fourth-largest city, Rajkot is the seventh fastest-growing city in the world, according to a report published last year by UK-based forecasting and quantitative analysts Oxford Economics. Ramesh Monani, a retired banker and resident of the city, credits much of the growth of Rajkot to the industrious nature of the Patel community, which accounts for 13% of the state’s population.
The rapid industrialization is putting to the test the resolve of civic authorities and elected representatives as residents flag many infrastructure problems that come with a fast-growing city. Rajkot does not have a Metro, which means that most workers don’t have access to cheap, reliable and fast public transport. The migration of hundreds of workers from the Saurashtra peninsula of the state puts Rajkot under pressure to provide shelter, clean water, healthcare facilities and education.
As the city’s more than 1.88 million voters prepare to cast their ballots on Tuesday, these are among the issues on their minds. Posters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi populate most busy intersections with the occasional banner of Congress president Rahul Gandhi on the sides of roads.
“Power tariffs for industries are among the highest in the country. The cost of acquiring land is about ₹2 crore an acre," says Amrutlal Bharadia, chairman and managing director of Ravi Technoforge, a private firm that makes ball and roller bearings for the transportation industry. “How can we scale up these smaller companies and be expected to compete with Chinese firms when direct and indirect state subsidies go to those firms," says Bharadia, who estimates his firm’s annual sales at ₹250 crore.
Small businesses aren’t happy with demonetization and goods and services tax (GST) either, and for the ordinary resident, the water shortage is a concern.
“Water scarcity is a big challenge. We have to depend on the Narmada river. If the Narmada dries up, Rajkot will have to be vacated," said Monani. The Aji river, the main source of drinking water for Rajkot, is dry for most of the year and most homes depend on borewells.
“The Rajkot municipal corporation supplies water for less than 30 minutes a day. Borewells are the only option. Here too, we seem to be reaching a dead end. Earlier this year, my neighbour had to dig 500 feet to find water," said Manish Kalaria, a self-employed professional.
High fees collected by mushrooming private schools, even as government schools are being shut, is a problem that Bharadia flags. “The government should cap fees charged by private schools. Most of my workers send their children to private schools. Almost 60% of their salaries go to paying tuition fees for their children," says Bharadia.
In one of the bylanes near Kaba Gandhi No Delo, Gandhi’s family home which is now a museum called Gandhi Smriti, a shopkeeper is looking forward to the election on Wednesday and the results that will be announced in May.
“Roads and bridges have been built in the city, but haven’t kept pace with the growth of the city. Demonetization and these different GST slabs have not helped businesses here," says Shreyas, who runs a garment shop with his father.
“Saurashtra region is rooted in traditional caste hierarchies and voting happens on community lines. This will play an important role in which candidate eventually wins." (Varun Sood)
22 Apr 2019, 02:44:44 PM IST
Elections 2019: Ahmedabad’s millennials look for return on investment while voting too
Ahmedabad: If it weren’t for the large, ugly hoardings in the city’s main enclaves, it would be difficult to guess there’s an election in a few days in this city of eight million. Not that Ahmedabad is politically irrelevant. Home to Gandhi’s famousSabarmati Ashram, it was also the city where the Navnirman Movement began in 1974-75, when a protest by young college students over the issue of mess bills, snowballed into a state-wide protest against spiraling prices and government corruption, leading to the resignation of then chief minister Chimanbhai Patel. That event kickstarted the nationwide movement against Indira Gandhi’s government, leading to the declaration of Emergency soon after.
Since then though, the city’s political energies have been channelized into more productive activities leading to a long period of political stability.
In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won both the city’s Lok Sabha seats with comfortable margins, part of the sweep which saw it bag all 26 seats in the state that year. Even in 2017’s much closer assembly polls, the BJP won 14 of the 21 constituencies in Ahmedabad district. Not surprisingly, most observers believe the two BJP candidates for Ahmedabad East and West, just need to show up to win.
But elections are not on the minds of most people in this textile city. Politicians have stayed away though Amit Shah addressed a rally last month and the Congress held a working committee meeting in February with Rahul, Priyanka and Sonia Gandhi present. But that’s really all there is. Aditya Iyer, marketing executive at learning app Flinnt, says, “Politicians in Ahmedabad seem to remain low profile as we don’t get to see them attending events or holding rallies."
Politics, if on people’s minds, is tucked way low on the to-do list. As usual business trumps with laminate prices more important than the relative merits of two-time BJP member of Parliament (MP) Dr. Solanki Kiritbhai Premajibhai, who won 63.97% of the votes in 2014 and the Ahmedabad West reserved constituency. This time, he’s up against Raju Parmar, who’s been a member of the Rajya Sabha multiple times and is also president of the Soft Tennis Association of India. Don’t knock that last bit, the 15th World Soft Tennis championship was played in New Delhi in November 2015.
For the Ahmedabad East constituency, which was represented by colourful actor Paresh Rawal after the last Lok Sabha polls, the BJP is fielding Patidar leader and two-term member of legislative assembly (MLA) Hasmukh Patel.
He will be up against Congress nominee Geeta Patel, a Patidar leader and close aide of Hardik Patel who has been barred from contesting, after the Gujarat high court refused to stay his conviction in the case of rioting and arson in Visnagar town during the Patel agitation in 2015.
The indifference towards politics in this city isn’t the “all politicians are useless" variety, a favourite of the elite in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. Rather, it is that people have to first earn their living and worry about other issues later.
Thus, 28-year-old Ashish Patel who juggles multiple businesses, including running a photo studio and handling building demolitions, says he is happy with the pace of development in the city. He points to the under-construction metro, the spruced-up river front and the impressive bus transit system cleaving the city’s centre, as evidence of the good work that’s happening but is cautious about who he will vote for. His verdict, the BJP will be back though with a reduced majority.
Rishi Pandya, who graduated from the Institute of Management, Nirma University, and is interning with Kunvarji Group, adds, “The Lok Sabha election is important for Gujarat because BJP will retain the state for the next 10 years with majority. So, it will be beneficial to Gujarat if the same party is at the Centre."
This is the generation that views politics through the same lens it does other issues, asking ‘what’s in it for me?’ Says 31-year old Chirag Parmar, founder of information technology company Digilife Services, “If we are investing money in mutual funds, we will check the returns many times over. Same thing while choosing politicians." At Agashiye, a popular Gujarati restaurant in Lala Darwaza area, the conversation is about affordable housing plans, the coming monsoon or how the quality of the bhinda kadhi has plummeted. No one seems to have an appetite for politics.
A few of the older residents do admit that over the last decade, there has been a distinct polarization of communities with older Muslim ghettos now converted into mixed-living hubs and many members of that community pushed to distant suburbs.
Sixteen years of BJP rule following the communal killings of 2002 have brought prosperity to many but healing to very few.
Shailendra Raj Mehta, president of the well-known management school, MICA, calls this a “period of transition." He says “BJP has to do a much better job of not making people unnecessarily anxious."
That may be the BJP’s biggest challenge in Ahmedabad. (Sundeep Khanna)
11 Apr 2019, 05:21:50 PM IST
Muted pre-election frenzy or voter apathy?
Porbandar: In less than a fortnight from now, people in Porbandar district will be eligible to cast their votes when Gujarat’s 26 constituencies go to vote on 23 April.
Still, Porbandar is bereft of the pre-election frenzy or political tamasha witnessed elsewhere in the country. There are no flags of political parties tied on top of electric poles; walls in the city have been spared of political graffiti; larger-than-life billboards of politicians are absent; streets are peaceful with no loudspeakers blaring out political promises.
Even the customary political rallies are missing.
For now, the office of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the odd island, sporting some hoardings. The Congress office is still to put up posters of its leaders.
Is this behaviour in deference to Lord Ram? The city has more posters reminding people of the birth anniversary of the Hindu god on 14 April.
This decorum could change as voting day nears.
Still, four reasons explain the muted election campaign in the district (and possibly in the state).
First, it appears that political parties are taking a cue from their counterparts globally, and are moving their ad dollars from traditional media, such as print and billboards, to the web. Media agency Magna estimates that half of all global advertising dollars will be spent online by 2020, up from 44% in 2018.
More political advertising is happening on social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp as Indians spend more time on their cell phones. Understandably, Whatsapp users continue to complain of being spammed.
“Not an hour goes by when I don’t receive a picture of a gathering or a political message on my WhatsApp," says Surekha Shah, a 59-year-old gynaecologist in the city.
However, a related second reason is that Gujarat has traditionally seen fewer over-the-top political advertisements, according to a senior government official. “Hoardings and posters are fewer in Gujarat than elsewhere in the country. We enforce the model code of conduct on this better," says M.A. Pandya, the district collector and administrative head of Porbandar district.
Finally, there is an apathy among voters towards elections. In the 2014 general elections, only 52.6% of the people of the Porbandar district turned up to vote. This was the lowest among Gujarat’s 26 Lok Sabha constituencies which saw an average 63.6% voting.
“All the candidates who contest elections are here to make money. And this is why people don’t want to vote," says Bharat Modi, president of the Porbandar Machimar Boat Association.
Still, the district administration is doing everything to make sure that people turn up to vote. “We have been doing everything to raise awareness, especially among first-time voters to come forward and vote. This includes door-to-door campaigns, seminars in colleges, ITIs and polytechnic colleges, and appeals to prominent personalities to ask people to cast their vote," says Pandya.
“Our goal is to at least increase the voter turnout by 10% (compared to 2014). But a lot also depends on the summer," Pandya adds. (Varun Sood)
11 Apr 2019, 05:20:22 PM IST
A famous town gets ready to vote
Porbandar: Since Independence, Porbandar, a tiny town on the western tip of Gujarat, is known to the world as the birthplace of Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Many in the city rue that this ain’t going to change in future either.
Make no mistake: People take pride that one of the greatest leaders of the last century was born here.
Still, many are angry at the apathy by multiple governments in the past in failing to set up new industries. This has only led to fewer jobs, forcing young students to look at
bigger cities in the state and elsewhere for a better life.
“Other than fishing and some mining, there is no industry. There are no technical colleges in the city. Go to neighbouring villages, and you’ll see that agriculture is in crisis," scoffs Bharat Modi, President, Porbandar Machimar Boat Association.
“When there are no jobs for the young, how can there be any future for the city?" complains Modi.
Vimal, a tiny eatery which can serve about 24 people at a time, sits at the entrance of the compound of the colonial-era railway station.
“This city is a living museum," says Yatish, who along with his father has been serving arguably the best Gujarati cuisine in Porbandar for over a decade (your writer had phulka with split red gram pulses, chickpea curry, capsicum vegetable and potato curry to wash down with buttermilk).
"I’ve already sent my younger brother to Goa to run a restaurant," says Yatish.
“What explains that this world-famous city does not have one decent college?" says 29-year-old Kunal, who completed his undergraduate three-year Bachelors in Science (BSc) course with a major in mathematics from one of the city’s colleges, and now offers private tutorials to school students.
“My parents could not afford to send me out. Some of my friends, who could afford it, are now settled elsewhere and doing well. I get to hear about startups such as Swiggy and Ola".
Cab aggregators Ola and Uber and food ordering and delivery firms like Zomato and Swiggy are not present in Porbandar.
Why have previous governments not looked at setting up industries in the district or focused on education in Porbandar?
The Bhartiya Lok Dal won the Porbandar seat when the district voted for the first time in 1977. The Congress won in 1980 and 1984, while the Janata Dal won in 1989. The Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) won the seat for five straight times until Congress won again in 2009. However, the winning Congress candidate switched to the BJP, leading to the party again winning in a bypoll in 2013, and then again in the 2014 elections.
“Because of Porbandar’s location, it makes it impossible to set up a factory, and then market or sell the product because the economics of transporting the finished good is not viable, when compared to a similar factory running from, say, a city like Rajkot," says P.K.Raichura, Managing Director of Saurashtra Calcine Bauxite and Allied Industries Ltd (SCABAL), a privately held firm.
Rajkot lies 180 kilometres east of Porbandar.
Porbandar district has rich reserves of bauxite, chalk and limestone. This gave birth to mining firms like SCABAL and a few cement plants, like the one owned by Nirma.
Is a resource-curse the reason behind Porbandar’s non-development?
Not really, according to some.
“All the candidates who contest elections are just here to make money. And this is why people don’t want to vote. Who do you choose? Who is the lesser of the two evils?" complains Modi.
Still not everyone paints such a desolate picture of the city.
“Actually, Porbandar is better than many other cities. You’ll see that the city has hardly any beggars. There are three Daan Bhavans in the city run by NGOs that offer free lunch and dinner to the needy," says Surekha Shah, a 59-year-old gynaecologist who calls herself a follower of Gandhi.
A few even question why the city needs a new identity.
“What is wrong if the city is forever remembered as the birthplace of Gandhi?" says businessman Raichura. “After all, the city is not doing all that badly."
Will this question on the present and the future of Porbandar be considered by people when they cast their vote?