The show limps on

Print edition : February 17, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the summit. Photo: PTI

The Vibrant Gujarat summit, now in its eighth edition, has had little to show in terms of actual investments by or investment intentions of international players.

ON January 7 morning, Mehul walked down the road to his regular cha ni laari (tea shop on cart) in Gandhinagar to find that it was not there. There was no sign of it in the evening as well. The next day, missing his daily fix, he made some enquiries and found it many miles away from its usual spot. “What happened?” he asked. “Vibrant Gujarat” said the owner in anguish, explaining how all the laari walas (hand-cart vendors) on the route from Ahmedabad to Gandhinagar had been asked to leave their “spots” because of the business summit. “ Kahe ka Vibrant Gujarat, mere business ki toh vaat laga dali [It is called Vibrant Gujarat, but it has affected my business],” he said, and others who had by now gathered around Mehul agreed with him.

The highway from Ahmedabad to Gandhinagar indeed looked cleaner and greener than ever before. The route had been sanitised by removing everything that did not project the “vibrant” image of Gujarat that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted to present to foreign dignitaries attending the summit.

Lights were hung on trees and roundabouts, with fog lights directing traffic at night. “These were set up six days ago and you can see that it is a temporary contraption, meant to be removed once the summit is over,” said a local resident. The State government pegged the cost of the summit at Rs.7 crore, but trade pundits say it is an underestimate.

Mahatma Mandir, the summit venue, stood in stark contrast to the world outside its periphery. Built on 34 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) in 2011 at a staggering cost of Rs.215 crore, it is one of the largest convention centres in the country. A concrete bridge with escalators and supported by iron rods gave one the feeling of being in a “foreign land”, a television journalist exclaimed.

The State has also perfected the art of curbing dissent. Unlike in West Bengal, where violence in Bhangar nearly disrupted the investment summit this year and sent the State police into a tizzy, the silencing of protesters in Gujarat was swift and quick. Jignesh Mevani, convener of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, Sagar Rabari, general secretary of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj, and many others were detained without anybody so much as raising an eyebrow. “I was arrested by the Gujarat police for announcing that we will boycott the Vibrant Gujarat summit, which we think is a fraud on the country. Farmers’ leaders, Patidar leaders and Dalits were all arrested. There is no scope to conduct a peaceful demonstration. If we ask Modi ji how many jobs would be created through these Vibrant Gujarat summits, there is no answer. If we ask why fertile land of farmers is handed over to industries, then they dub us anti-development. Land is available for business groups and corporate giants but not for Dalits, the landless and the tribal people,” said Mevani.

He was picked up from his home after a first information report (FIR) was lodged against him. He was arrested under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which prohibits gathering of more than four people in a public place. Mevani and the others have been demanding possession of 5,68,73 acres of land across Gujarat that has been allotted to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes on paper but remains under the wrongful possession of upper castes. In 2006, 115 landless Dalit families of Saroda village were allotted 222 bighas of land under the Agriculture Land Ceiling Act. But even after nine years, they have not got possession of it. In 2010, the lawyer and activist Mukul Sinha filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Gujarat High Court over such non-allotment of land in Ahmedabad and Surendranagar districts.

In 2015, Mevani, a lawyer, merged the cases involving the 5,68,73 acres of land with this petition. After the movement for redistribution of land picked up steam, mapping of land was begun in just one village, Saroda, in September 2016. Otherwise, there has been no progress except more promises by the government. Gujarat finds it easy to allot land for business projects and convention centres but refuses to give possession to landless Dalits to whom the land belongs lawfully. Mevani and others are now demanding that five acres of land be given to each Dalit family in the State.

The biennial summit is now in its eighth edition. Earlier, marathon signing sessions of memorandums of understanding (MoUs) between the State government and corporate houses used to take place, with the sessions conducted in front of cameras and figures announced faster than reporters could note them down. Newspapers would splash the news and it became a key strategy that went into creating the brand image of “development” around Modi and Gujarat. But as questions began to be raised on the actual investments, and some estimates pegged them at as low as 10 per cent of the promised investments, since 2013 the government has refrained from announcing figures. From 2003 to date, 81,153 MoUs have been signed with investment intentions increasing at an exponential rate every year: Rs.66,068 crore (2003), Rs.1,06,160 crore (2005), Rs.4,65,309 crore (2007), Rs.12,34,898 crore (2009), Rs.20,83,182 crore (2011), Rs.12 lakh crore (2013) and Rs.25 lakh crore (2015). Figures for 2017 have not been announced.

Claims and reality

Despite tall claims of attracting massive investments in the State after every summit, the government’s own data belie such assertions. In 2011, Socio-Economic Review of the Gujarat government showed that only about 1 per cent of the promised investments had come to fruition. The rest of the projects were “under various stages of implementation”. According to data from the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Gujarat’s contribution to India’s GDP in 2013-14 was only 7.3 per cent. With a gross State domestic product of Rs.15,10,132 crore, Maharashtra contributed the lion’s share of 14.42 per cent to India’s gross domestic product (GDP), followed by Uttar Pradesh at 8.24 per cent and Tamil Nadu at 8.16 per cent. Gujarat was just one notch above West Bengal, which contributed 6.75 per cent. Data from the State Industries Commissioner until September 2016 showed that nearly half the industrial entrepreneurs memorandums promised were also “under implementation”, without actually spelling out which stage of implementation they were in.

Besides, the government revealed that 14,165 projects had been shelved, including some big ones such as NRI businessman Prasoon Mukherjee’s projects worth over Rs.80,000 crore in sectors such as shipping, infrastructure (ports) and power, and in the special investment region; Hindustan Construction Company’s Rs. 40,000-crore water-front city project; and the Sabeer Bhatia-promoted Nano Works Developer’s “Nano City” which would have brought in an investment of Rs.30,000 crore.

With little to show in terms of actual investments, and investment intentions by international players nearly drying up, the summit tried to keep up the hype generated by organising side events such as the Nobel laureates function. It laid extra emphasis on Modi’s speech and a grand inauguration of the Bombay Stock Exchange’s internationl stock exchange at GIFT City (Gujarat International Finance Tec). While Central Ministers were brought to the summit in large numbers, the fact that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was not allowed to speak at the summit’s main event while seated on stage did not go unnoticed. “Modi surely knows how to snub. While Mukesh Ambani was the second speaker after Ratan Tata, Anil Ambani was also left out this year despite being present on stage,” said an observer.

Vibrant Gujarat, considered the biggest public relations exercise of all time, sadly, failed to live up to the hype. Local newspapers wrote about how farmers from nearby villages were brought to the event wearing suits to fill up the seats. Nobel laureates had to fend for their own seats, with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan walking out in frustration. Reporters’ movements were controlled and they were not provided access to the events they wanted to attend. “This is Modi showing us our place in his grand scheme of things. As he and his cronies control most of our owners, he can seat or unseat us as he pleases,” said an exasperated reporter who was prevented from entering a tent serving tea while waiting for more than an hour for Modi’s arrival. There was even an ATM inside the venue and several attendees flocked to it but got scared when it debited the money from their accounts without dispensing cash. “ Waah re Modi’s digital India!” quipped a victim.

MS&L, the public relations company that won the contract for the event this year, was handling part of the planning and it brought in Aakhya Media, another PR company, to manage the events just three days before the summit started.

Meanwhile, as trade pundits tried to wrap their heads around real investment figures, the laari walas were back and the fog lights were gone.

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