Arvind Panagariya and Surjit S. Bhalla have both descended on Dalit and Adivasi Gujarat. We are told that poverty levels in the state, and among Dalits and Adivasis, in particular, are lower than in the rest of India. But given that Gujarat is a richer state, this is a no-brainer. After analysing data trends, they conclude that poverty has fallen faster in Gujarat. One would be surprised if this were not so. The richer a state is, the lower its poverty levels. Gujarat has grown at a fast pace for many decades. But now, other states are doing equally well, if not better, though Gujarat is still at the top end of the rankings. Given his global experience, Panagariya is ideally placed to tell Gujarat what to do when its growth rate falls, as it did in 2012-13, because of the slow down. But his interests seem to lie elsewhere.
Gujarats agriculture was growing at around 6 per cent annually, benefiting from the Sardar Sarovar project, which became operational around the beginning of the last decade. But unless we build lower-level distributaries, this source of growth cannot be sustained. I have been saying this for a while now, and in 2012-13, the states agriculture sector actually only grew 4 per cent. As a noted agricultural economist, Ashok Gulati could have given us some much-needed advice but he preferred to posture instead, saying agriculture was growing at 10 per cent.
At any rate, these areas are not where Gujarats problems lie. That the corridor between Palanpur and Vapi is progressing and poverty levels there are lower doesnt address the key issue. Gujarats problem area is its poorvi patti (eastern belt) districts where large numbers of Adivasis live. This is a highly scrutinised area, as shown by the various research studies on the territory, including the excellent NSS region-level summary by Srijit Mishra of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai. In this NSS region, the Adivasi poverty rate, at around 60 per cent, is higher than in the states that the late Ashish Bose used to call BIMARU states.
Getting back to agriculture, the 10 per cent growth rate figure was the result of a paid-for study commissioned by the government of Gujarat and conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute, to which Gulati was affiliated. The finding was widely advertised as the result of research by an American institute. At the time, Gulati had attributed the growth to village tanks. But I showed that the growth rate in agriculture was actually only 6 per cent, exactly what it was projected to be because of the Sardar Sarovar project. Even though he mainly talked of village tanks then, Gulati now also lists Sardar Sarovar as one of the sources of the growth. A river is flowing through Gujarat for the first time in its history, thanks to the Sardar Sarovar project. These waters are also used to recharge village talawadis. The resultant 6 per cent agriculture growth rate was expected to last for some time. But that time is now up. As Gujarats very efficient official statistics system, set up by the likes of V.V. Bhatt, P.S. Buch and V.M. Patel, showed, in 2011-12, Gujarats agriculture grew by only 4.8 per cent. It is time to get back to the original Sardar Sarovar project plan.
During a TV show on which I appeared, Karan Thapar said 24-hour electricity helps eradicate poverty. In response, I pointed out that in large parts of rural Gujarat, you get cheap irregular power and very expensive three-phase power. But I was cut short before I could explain Tushaar Shahs findings, that instead of using expensive power, farmers switch to diesel.
In poorvi patti, where the mother of all electoral battles is being fought, you still see distended tummies and spindly legs. To the Panagariyas, Bhallas and Gulatis, Gujarat has to fit their slogan. Tough luck for it if it doesnt.
The writer is chancellor, Central University of Gujarat