Just out of college, equipped with a degree in social work, and many dreams, I took up my first job in an NGO working in the rural areas of Gujarat. The NGO mainly focused on soil and water conservation, agriculture extension, installation of biogas plants, and so on. I was placed by the NGO at one of the branch offices in the Junagadh district of Gujarat. During my work in the organisation, I realised that some of the rural communities were not only more resourceful but also more progressive than the others. Patels were one of them, or rather they topped the list. I also found it very easy to work in the Patel dominated villages as they were cohesive. In fact, we were able to turn one such Patel-dominated village into a model village with nearly all houses having a biogas plant.
However, it was not long before I realized that most of the programmes that we were undertaking in the villages like installation of biogas plants, agriculture extension, soil and water conservation were mostly benefiting the landed communities, in the case of this particular village, mainly the Patels. This was because the other marginalised communities like the Dalits had no resources at all to harness- no land, no cows or buffaloes, no well, nothing! The landless – mostly the Dalit families – lived in very poorly built houses outside the village. They also worked as laborers in the lands of the Patels. It bothered me to see that while we had several programmes, these mostly benefited the landed communities – in the case of this village the Patels.
I was very happy therefore when the forest department introduced a programme wherein if the landless communities registered a cooperative with a minimum of twenty members, the forest department would give a minimum of twenty hectares of forest land to the cooperative to harness/protect. In turn, the members of the cooperative would have the exclusive rights to the minor forest produce, grazing rights, rights over dead wood and fuel, from the forest lands they protected through the cooperative. I and my organization found this scheme a chance to be able to work for the first time with the most disadvantaged group, the landless Dalits of the village. Equipped with this scheme, for the first time, I had a meeting in the Dalit mohalla/basti of the village. Registering a cooperative is complicated, particularly when members are mostly not literate and very poor. A few more meetings were held with the members of the Dalit families for the registration of the cooperative.
It was my routine to stop over after such strenuous meetings for a cup of tea on hitting the taluka head quarters. As was my practice, one day I was having a cup of tea at the road side tea stall that I was approached by few senior members of the village from the Patel community with whom we had earlier worked with for construction of biogas plants and had shared warm relations. However, this time their voice was threatening. They told me in very clear words to stop working in the Dalit basti. Being naive, I said I cannot do so and tried to reason with them. They were in no mood to listen to me at all. They warned me that if at all I continued working with the Dalits, they will drive away the whole NGO from the area lock stock and barrel!
This was a very serious matter, a matter I or our local team could not handle and so I reported the same to our seniors as well as to the chief executive of the organisation in Ahmedabad. To my utter disbelief, I was instructed to stop working in the village altogether! This was my first and a very disheartening setback during the course of my public work. This incident also helped me to begin my journey in search of an organisation that truly worked for the marginalised communities.
It was during one such travels that I accidentally came upon the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in the year 1989. Ironically, till my chance encounter with the movement, I too had believed that the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) on the river Narmada was Gujarat’s jeeva dori (lifeline) and would turn the whole State into nandanvan, a green land. Once again I was in for a rude shock as, on returning to Gujarat and on studying the SSP and few other dams like the Kadana dam, to my disbelief I found that while these dams displaced mainly the Adivasi populations in large numbers, the irrigation was to go to villages that were mostly non-Adivasi and powerful landed communities, one among them the landed Patels. In retrospect one recalls that the NBA was subject to a severe opposition when Chimanbhai Patel and Keshubhai Patel were the Chief Ministers of Gujarat and Babaubhai Jashbhai Patel the Narmada Minister.
The Patels of Gujarat have been resourceful and one of the very dominant groups for a very long time now. To be fair, they have also been hardworking and cohesive. We have therefore seen many Patel Chief Ministers and Ministers in Gujarat. The current and the first woman CM of Gujarat, Anandiben is also a Patel. Soon after independence, it was Sardar Patel who became the home minister of the country. It is Sardar Patel’s statue, the tallest in the world which is being constructed in the river Narmada facing the SSP, and not of any tribal figure among lakhs who have been displaced by the many dams in Gujarat.
Being a landed community, the Patels have also benefited from the real estate boom that has been witnessed in the past decade. Being owners of milk cattle, they have also benefited from the milk cooperatives of Gujarat. Tribhuvandas Patel was the founding chairman of the world known Amul. Patel-dominated villages like Dharmaj and Borsad and many others in Kheda and Anand districts are considered model villages in Gujarat. Some of the rich educational institutions with greater role of privatization in education and high fee structure in Gujarat are also founded by the Patels. One such is the Nirma University founded by Karsanbhai Patel. Typical, these private educational institutions charge high or exorbitant fees for different courses. This is a blatant reservation in education by the rich that no one talks of. Not just in Gujarat but Patels have progressed all over the World, particularly in the USA where the popular phrase- Hotels, Motels and Patels has been coined.
One had hoped that the otherwise resourceful Patels of Gujarat, after having benefited from the skewed model of development promoted in the last few decades, would at least now take the lead in sharing their wisdom and resources with the communities that have been otherwise at the receiving end of the social and economic policies/model that has been pursued so far. I had hoped that the Patels would use their situation to help others less privileged in furthering their lot. I had also hoped that they would take the lead in understanding/explaining how the so called model of development has not worked for even their community in the long run. But alas, it is not to be as, the Patels led by young leaders continue to seek solutions in short cuts and demand more and more resources at the cost of those who continue to be pushed further to the bottom of the social and economic ladder.
The current stir of Patels in Gujarat for reservation brings back to me the memory of the village where I and the organization I worked with were not allowed to work with the landless and the Dalits by the Patel leaders some 30 years ago.
Full time activist with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) for 12 years, now independent researcher and writer. Courtesy: http://nandinioza.blogspot.in/