Reservation

Crumbling construct

Print edition : October 02, 2015

Ghanshyam Shah.

Interview with the sociologist Ghanshyam Shah on the Patidar agitation.

Ghanshyam Shah is a sociologist known for his work on social movements, land reforms and untouchability. Over the past decade, he has been examining the Gujarat model of development and its human costs. A keen observer of deprivation and development in India, he has closely followed the socio-economic transitions of Gujarat. He has held academic positions in various research institutes, including Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. His most recent research stint was at the Centre for Social Studies, Surat, affiliated to the Indian Council of Social Science Research. Here, he talks to Frontline on the Patidar agitation and what it means in the present political context.

The agitation foregrounds many social and communitarian contradictions in Gujarat. Such a massive mobilisation of a caste group has not happened in the recent past in Gujarat, which prided itself as a business-friendly and entrepreneurial State. Did the so-called “Gujarat model of development” push out of view such underlying identity questions?

Yes, you are right that Gujarat has been projected within and outside as a land of business people. But who projected this? This is the construct of the ruling classes and the conformist intelligentsia. It is true that the colonial rulers and governments of the post-Independence era, irrespective of the party in power, had a business-friendly tone in Gujarat. However, this cultural dimension of the Gujarati as a strong businessman has been magnified since 2003. The Gujarat industrial policy announces that Gujaratis are the most enterprising people and that the State has a “cultural base” with fertile land. It invites investors with the tagline “Sow a rupee, reap a dollar”. Yet, the fact remains that business communities constitute less than 12 per cent of the population. Fifteen per cent of the people are Adivasis, more than 15 per cent constitute fishing communities including the Kolis and the Kharvas, not to speak of pastoral and other peasants and artisan communities and Dalits. Conflicts between some of the communities around economic and social issues have been as prevalent in electoral politics as is the case in other States.

Many political commentators view the Patidar agitation as an indirect attempt to delegitimise affirmative action in India.



Yes. The upper castes of Gujarat were the first in the country to launch anti-reservation agitations in 1981, and then again in 1985. Those were spearheaded by Patidars. Even then, they were an upwardly mobile group in the caste hierarchy. All upper castes support Hardik Patel’s demand. They provided all the resources for the rally on August 25.

Political commentators have also felt that the agitation is a reflection of the failure of the “Gujarat model” in addressing issues of employment and livelihood.



What is the Gujarat model? It is a model to provide generous subsidies, infrastructure facilities, including land at throwaway prices, and all administrative/political support in a “very efficient” manner to industries for inflating the GNP [gross national product] even at the cost of the environment. But not even one-tenth of that efficiency has been harnessed for human development in general and for the victims of “development” projects in particular. This model is based on hype and it uses modern and traditional techniques, idioms and symbols to create hopes for better jobs, more income and urban lifestyles.

Yes, investment in industries has increased. But by the government’s own admission, jobs have not increased in proportion or as projected. The government admitted in the Assembly that “on account of capital-intensive investment, industrial employment in Gujarat has gone down”. Employment per factory has significantly declined, from 99 workers in 1960-61 to 59.44 in 2005. No effort has been made in the subsequent years to arrest the declining trend in employment, whereas the average invested capital per factory has increased more than 2.5 times in less than a decade. Moreover, most of the jobs that have been created are in the informal sector, with casual or contractual employment, without any social security. Wages in Gujarat are lower than in several other industrially developed States.

Around 22 per cent of the owners of small-scale industries like diamond polishing, machine tools, casting and ceramics are Patidars. A number of these industries consist of ancillary units, which provide support to large industries whose production has slowed down in the recent times. Saurashtra Patidars control diamond-polishing units in Surat and in many parts of their native towns now. Because of the international recession, the diamond industry is in crisis. Workers have been retrenched or are getting lower wages than before. The number of sick micro, small and medium units has increased from 20,615 in 2012-13 to 49,003 in 2014-15. According to the RBI [Reserve Bank of India], outstanding loans of MSMEs [micro, small and medium industries] in Gujarat trebled in two years from Rs.836 crore in 2012-13 to Rs.2,601 crore in 2014-15. The unrest among Patidars and many other social groups stems from such economic dimensions of the Gujarat model.

Patels are also the biggest land-owning peasant community. A prolonged agrarian crisis might also have added to the unrest. How does it reflect in farmer-agricultural labourer relations in rural Gujarat?

The average farm wage in Gujarat is Rs.169, which is lower than that in most States, except Madhya Pradesh. Except in the harvesting season, farmworkers get much lower than the minimum wage stipulated by the government. There is occasional tension between farm labourers and employers on the issue of minimum wage. The labourers are not organised. I must say that unlike what the Patidars portray, farmworkers in no way compete with middle-class Patidars for white-collar jobs or for education.

One-third of the Patidars are small and marginal farmers. As input cost for cultivation has increased over a period, most of these poor farmers do not have resources or access to timely credit for investment. Agriculture is not remunerative enough. The young Patidars are forced to find non-farm occupation in urban areas. And here, they face great difficulties in trying to meet their expectations. This lot is the spine of the Patidar agitation.

What do you feel about the timing? Patidars have been the most vocal supporters of Hindutva and the BJP. This is also the time when Narendra Modi, the chief Hindutva and neoliberal demagogue of the BJP, is at the helm.



Looking at the BJP’s massive electoral victory, a fragmented Congress party and a weak civil society, one is surprised to see such a large mobilisation of Patidars. But in my view, dissatisfaction on economic issues has been simmering for the last few years. The rapid expansion of the private sector in higher education over the last decade has aggravated the situation. Privately run institutions, on the one hand, inflate expectations for placements in industries with hefty pay packages.

On the other, they provide education that does not meet the requirements of the market. Most of the colleges do not have teachers who are adequately qualified. And the students have to pay very high fees, which many cannot afford. Modi raised a lot of hopes.

But I have heard from a number of persons from various sections of society, who are otherwise Modi bhakts, that “this man [Modi] talks much but does little... his promises are hollow”. After one year of the Modi government, many young supporters of Modi are becoming impatient. The Patidar agitation is a reflection of this anger.

How do you see this agitation developing in the future?



It is too early for me to speak about the future of this agitation. It has no leadership. So far it has been spontaneous, with various persons and groups venting their anger through the issue of reservation, which is not new. Their socialisation and world views are such that they are not ready to tolerate if “others”— earlier, Muslims were “others”, now “others” are OBCs [Other Backward Classes], Dalits and Adivasis—get benefits.

Do you view the Patidar agitation as strengthening the Hindutva movement and its understanding of affirmative action?

The Hindutva ideologue always wished away conflicting socio-economic interests between upper castes and the traditionally deprived people. They have used various strategies to forge unity among them, as they say “we are all Hindus”. With this formula, they have successfully used OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis as footloose political workers against Muslims in Gujarat.

The Patidar agitation shows the traditional casteist mindset surfacing in politics with much more vigour. The RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] will now push for a reservation policy that is based on economic parameters, which in reality would consolidate the power of the dominant castes. I do not think bahujans will succumb to this proposal.

In the last few years, the demand for reservation has primarily come from landowning communities.

Agriculture is becoming less remunerative, more and more land is getting acquired for industries, and people are repeatedly told that the future of India is only through industrial development. Obviously, land-owning communities crave better education and secure jobs. They perceive that those whom they considered “lowly” in ritualistic hierarchy are getting jobs and education through reservation. This will only intensify caste-based conflicts.

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