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 1,000 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.
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