By Rajiv Shah*
As I was sipping morning tea the other day, an idea came to my mind: Why not ask the age of the young man who is said to be “leading” the current Patidar or Patel reservation stir, Hardik Patel – an agitation that has put Gujarat back on the national map after more than a year. In fact, ever since Narendra Modi left Gandhinagar to occupy the gaddi in Delhi, the view has gone pretty strong, at least in my media fraternity, that Gujarat has “lost its importance”. A few TV channels have even “withdrawn” their senior journalists from Gujarat, telling them that there is “no news in the state”.
I sent a message on WhatsApp, a facility I generally avoid using, to a young “pro-reservationist” leader in Ahmedabad, whom I happen to know somewhat. He promptly returned with his answer “23, I suppose”, and after a while phoned me up to tell me the “importance” of the agitation, which has spread from North Gujarat to Ahmedabad and Surat, engulfing “upper” castes as well – Banias, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, others. The person whom I contacted is Roshan Shah, a Bania, belonging, interestingly, to the sub-caste in which I was supposedly born, Khadayita.
A young computer engineer who studied in one of Gujarat’s better-known engineering colleges, Dharmsinh Desai Institute of Technology (DDIT), Nadiad, Roshan jumped into politics during the Lok Sabha polls as independent. A Canadian citizen living in Ranip, Ahmedabad, he proudly gives his example to tell friends how the Election Commission never even cares to properly examine papers before accepting someone’s nomination. Though a Canadian, he was “allowed” to fight the polls and gather a few thousand votes!
Ever since, he has been pretty active on the social media, releasing a few confirmed and some unconfirmed stories on Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel and her family. His popularity on social media was enough for various political parties for trying to attract him.
“Our agitation is non-political”, Roshan claims. “That’s the reason why we are able to mobilize huge support for reservation”, Roshan says engaging me for 40-odd minutes in conversation. “It’s all spontaneous, whether it’s Patels, Baniyas, Kshatriyas or Brahmins”, he replies, giggling, when I ask him whether he thought some ministers in Gujarat cabinet are behind the stir.
Even as he points towards how he was able to get “huge support” in Nadiad and Ahmedabad, where he had organized agitations for reservation for his community, I ask him: “Have you looked at figures of the percentage of upper castes in government and non-government regular jobs? Do they correspond to the proportion of upper caste population or not?”
His answer was revealing: “I don’t have figures. I have sought information through RTI. But it’s all very clear: There was a time when we (by ‘we’ he meant all upper castes) were quite well represented in government jobs. Reservation, especially that for the other backward classes (OBCs), has upset all of it. Our representation has thinned and is further thinning. As for new recruitment, only SCs, STs and OBCs fill up all the jobs. The malaise has already invaded local bodies, and will soon penetrate assembly and Parliament. You can well imagine the type of laws that will be made once all the elected bodies will be controlled by OBCs, who will be in majority.”
I decided to scan through a few of the NSS reports and found that, unlike the Socio-Economic and Caste Census, they have a separate OBC category, apart from that for scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs). While the figures do not provide any data on government jobs, there are separate slots for wage earners, self-employed, regular wage earners and salaried employees, all of which go to show the prosperity (or otherwise) of different social groups.
First the literacy level figures for Gujarat, which are quite interesting: They suggest that 63.7 per cent STs, 76.3 per cent SCs, 74.8 per cent OBCs, and 87.9 per cent “Others” are literate. As the figures suggest, OBCs are more educationally more “backward” than even SCs! Ironically, Patels and other upper castes want reservation within the OBC quota.
Coming to jobs, in Gujarat’s rural areas, 34.7 per cent STs, 42.2 per cent SCs and 40.3 per cent OBCs are engaged in casual labour to earn a livelihood. As against this, just about 11.8 per cent “Others” are engaged in casual labour, suggesting a much bigger proportion of “Others” are farmers, big or small, or have regular jobs at their disposal than the rest. In fact, 66.5 per cent “Others” are self-employed either in agriculture or related activities in Gujarat’s rural areas, and another 20.3 per cent have regular earnings as salaries.
Data also show that, while more than 22 per cent of the “Others” in Gujarat’s rural areas own more than 2 hectares (ha) of land, the respective figures for OBCs, SCs and STs are 11 per cent, 6 per cent and none among STs. In the urban areas, the dependence on casual labour among the “Others” is extremely meagre – just about 2.5 per cent. Here, the respective figures for OBCs, SCs and STs are 9.1 per cent, 13.7 per cent and 15.4. Majority of the “Others” are either self-employed (38.1 per cent) or are in regular salaried jobs (54.3 per cent).
Coming to the purchasing power of different groups, which is calculated by NSS as monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE), in rural Gujarat it is Rs 1155.94 for STs, Rs 1373.66 for SCs, Rs 1581.91 for OBCs, and Rs 1987.57 for “Others”. As for the urban areas, the MPCE is Rs 2040.86 for STs, Rs 2358.67 for SCs, Rs 2086.44 for OBCs and Rs 2945.59 for “Others”.
As the Patel agitation is largely an urban phenomenon, I tried to find out what is the MPCE of Gujarat’s “Others” vis-à-vis rest of Indian states. “Others” in Gujarat, I found, are clearly worse off than most of the “effluent” states. While Gujarat’s “Others’” urban MPCE is Rs 2945.59, it is worse than most of the “progressive” states – it is Rs 3079.91 in Andhra Pradesh, Rs 4669.04 in Haryana, Rs 3329.33 in Himachal Pradesh, Rs 4377.65 in Karnataka, Rs 5375.80 in Kerala, Rs 3699.28 in Maharashtra, Rs 3208.98 in Punjab, Rs 3055.18 in Rajasthan, and Rs 4209.91 in Tamil Nadu. In fact, “Others” in Gujarat’s urban areas have worse MPCE than the national average — Rs 3242.16.
There is an argument running around, which claims that jobs cannot be a reason for the Patel to agitate, as the state’s unemployment rates are among the lowest in India, just about 1 per cent compared to 3.8 per cent nationally. What appears to have been forgotten is that experts have long pointed to how, in a typically poor and developing economy, most workers in India cannot afford to be unemployed. As the “India Labour and Employment Report 2014”, prepared by the Academic Foundation, Delhi, points out, “In reality, the problem is not primarily one of unemployment but lack of productive employment”.
NSS data suggest that Gujarat may have a lower unemployment ratio, but has a much higher underemployed than most Indian states. According to the report, in Gujarat, 11.6 per cent able-bodied workers in rural areas and 5.8 per cent workers in urban areas are underemployed, as against the national average of 10.6 per cent and 5.7 per cent respectively.
*Senior journalist based in Ahmedabad. First published in http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/true-lies/