Gujarat’s growth paradox: A booming economy marred by lax safety standards

As the State aims for a $500 billion economy, recurring industrial accidents and tragedies expose the human cost of its grand economic vision.

Published : Jun 15, 2024 13:06 IST - 7 MINS READ

People take part in a candlelight vigil to pay tribute to those who lost their lives following a fire at an amusement park in Rajkot on May 26, 2024.

People take part in a candlelight vigil to pay tribute to those who lost their lives following a fire at an amusement park in Rajkot on May 26, 2024. | Photo Credit: AFP

This year, Gujarat’s Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel said his government aims to become a $500 billion economy by 2026-27. Much of this stellar growth, said Patel, was thanks to the State’s ease of doing business, investor-friendly approach and robust industrial infrastructure. By extension, it would make sense that a State that prides itself on encouraging industry and commerce, also upheld industry best practices around workers’ safety.

On that point of safe working conditions in Gujarat, a few instances, from only the past few years, point another way.

On the point of ease of working and safety conditions in Gujarat, a few instances, from only the past few years, point another way.

In October 2022, a bridge laid over the Machchhu River close to western Gujarat’s Morbi town collapsed just four days after it was reopened. As many as 141 people died and scores were injured. A subsequent investigation laid the blame at the feet of administrative lapses (at the municipal level) as a result of the collapse. Repair work for the Morbi bridge had been awarded to the Oreva group without a tender or stipulations around the safety and fitness of the bridge.

In June 2023, the Gujarat government suspended three engineers hours after a slab of a newly constructed, ready-to-inaugurate bridge collapsed on Mindhola River in Tapi district of south Gujarat.

In December 2023, a day after a major fire broke out at a chemical plant in Surat, seven bodies were recovered from the site. Twenty four people were injured in the accident. The plant belonged to Aether Industries, which was ordered to stop production by the Gujarat Pollution Control Board. By May 2024, the company informed stock exchanges that the Board had revoked the closure order on the facility and approved resumption of additional operations.

Also Read | Dissent threatens BJP unity in Gujarat

In January 2024, three workers were killed in a blast caused due to a gas leak at the factory of Oneiro Lifecare a pharmaceutical factory in Padra taluka, Vadodara district.

These are a few illustrative incidents from the last few years. The numbers point to a much deeper and frequent problem. In 2021, the then Labour and Employment Minister Dilip Thakor told the State Assembly there had been 322 industrial accidents recorded in the past two years that had seen 421 workers killed. By February 2024, the present Cabinet Minister for Industries, Labour and Employment, Balvantsinh Rajput, said that number had risen to 714 deaths among labourers who lost their lives in industrial accidents in the State since 2021.

Gujarat has often been referred to as a ‘hard infrastructure’ model, that is a preference towards building tangible, physical structures such as roads, bridges, tunnels, and railways versus a ‘soft infrastructure’ approach that favours healthcare, education, culture and other aspects that build societal well-being. Capital outlay for the State’s 2024-25 budget was proposed to be Rs.75,689 crore. In the past five years (from FY19 to FY23), Gujarat ranked sixth in the top 10 States in terms of spending on capital expenditure, with a total spend of Rs.2.49 lakh crore over half a decade. It remains unclear what part of that spend is allocated to ensuring safety regulations are in place and adhered to, across its large industry spread.

In its most recent State budget, Gujarat Finance Minister Kanubhai Desai has said the Gujarat government will spend make 20,000 anganwadis ‘smart’; the aim is to modernise and provide Internet links to these anganwadi centres. Ironically, till 2023, a Women and Child Welfare Department report found that over 1,500 anganwadis did not have toilet facilities and well over 2,000 lacked safe drinking water supply. Rs.22,163 crore was allocated for road and building department and for the jewel in Gujarat’s crown, former Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s own pet project, the GIFT City; the budget made a provision of ₹52 crore to set up a Fintech hub at GIFT City and another ₹100 crore to develop the Sabarmati Riverfront near GIFT City. Do ‘smart’ and GIFT cities have bridges that don’t collapse and safety standards that ensure citizens are not killed? Because the numbers over the years look worrying.

Rescue personnel conduct search operations after a bridge across the river Machchhu collapsed in Morbi on October 31, 2022.

Rescue personnel conduct search operations after a bridge across the river Machchhu collapsed in Morbi on October 31, 2022. | Photo Credit: SAM PANTHAKY

It would be good for the State government to share why, from the outside, safety standards seem lackadaisical in Gujarat, across bridges, road infrastructure and buildings. It cannot be for want of funds. The State’s GST is estimated to be the largest source of its own tax revenue, surpassing the State government’s own estimates and posting a 14 per cent growth in revenue at Rs.64,131 crore in the last financial year. How much of these handsome tax collections go towards building strong safety standards for industry, for commercial establishments or for a bridge that people would use in good faith, every day of their lives, to get one from place to another?

The Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority itself points out, that being a highly industrialised State means it is prone to chemical and industrial hazards. While 35 per cent of the total Major Accident Hazard (MAH) units of the country are apparently located in areas such as Vapi, Hazira, Ankleshwar, Dahej, Gujarat has also had a high track record of industrial accidents due to fire. Now that threat is shifting to non-industrial spaces where people may visit with their families and children.

In 2019, fire broke out at the Takshashila Arcade coaching center in Surat killing 22 children. At the Patel Welfare Hospital in Bharuch in 2021 a fire killed 18, including two nurses and 16 COVID patients at an ICU. In 2024 in Rajkot 28 people, including nine children died after a fire broke out. The bodies were believed to be charred beyond recognition.

Also Read | The BJP is confident of pulling off a hat-trick in Gujarat

In the case of the fire at Rajkot’s game arcade, some officials from the Rajkot Municipal Corporation have been arrested. Their counsel’s plea is that the Corporation’s town planning department had served notices to the game zone in April and June last year warning that the structure would be razed if the owners failed to remove it.

Following that fatal incident in Rajkot, the Gujarat government ordered the closure of all 101 registered gaming zones across eight cities. Twenty have reportedly been permanently sealed. If the operative term here is ‘registered’, is that a tacit admission by the State government that the process of clearances and safety measures have been poor across these commercial spaces? Incredible as it may sound, The Gujarat government is only now working on a new policy for entertainment facilities with comprehensive safety guidelines. How did more than a 100 such areas spring up, without any guidelines? More importantly, if this is the case with gaming arcades, what does that say of other buildings that people frequent?

In May 2021, a scathing observation was made by a division bench of Justices Bela Trivedi and Bhargav Karia on the State government’s attitude towards fire safety; the Gujarat High Court said to advocate general Kamal Trivedi, who was representing the State government: “You’ve woken up only after the court issued notices and passed orders… so many buildings (are) without BU (building use) permissions and (fire) NOCs… and this is going on since years! There were specific directions given to corporations, to nagarpalikas, to everyone, to see to it that all provisions are strictly complied with. Why are no actions being taken?” Why indeed.

Mitali Mukherjee is Director of the Journalist Programmes at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford. She is a political economy journalist with more than two decades of experience in TV, print and digital journalism. Mitali has co-founded two start-ups that focussed on civil society and financial literacy and her key areas of interest are gender and climate change.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment