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November 23, 1998


A state coming to terms with itself

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Amberish K Diwanji in Jaipur

Think of Rajasthan and a variety of images come to mind: of chivalrous kings and queens so beautiful that they could launch armies, of magnificent palaces and impregnable forts, of hills and desert. Few places in India, and perhaps the world, could match the splendour and history of Rajasthan, the land of princes and traders who are now among India's top industrialists.

If this is the glorious side, there is also the darker zone. A state with India's highest female illiteracy, high infant mortality, a feudal set-up and patriarchal society, where the last case of Sati comes to mind. Of a state without industry and endless poverty.

Rajasthan is all of these. But perhaps, and what is often missed out, it is a state of great change, which is reflected in hard empirical data often ignored by the popular media. "The amount of development that has taken place in Rajasthan over the past few years is only now coming to the fore," said Mithalal Mehta, former chief secretary of the state, "And if the trend continues, in another decade or so, it will be among the more developed states of India."

So what is the reality? Has Rajasthan truly changed?

Like much of India, the answer is both positive and negative. There has been progress across the state, but it has bypassed vast segments of society. Yet, what cannot be denied is the effort to ensure that this large state with a sparse population, which will become the largest state in India if Chhattisgarh is carved out of Madhya Pradesh, is working overtime to catch up.

Rajasthan will next year celebrate the 50th anniversary of its formation from princely states and territories. It is this aspect that gives Rajasthan a tradition quite different. Though part of the Mughal empire and later the British Raj, its kings were autonomous and its development was different from the rest of India. Thus it missed the massive industrialisation in the early part of the century, the drive for education, though the enlightened kings themselves did much to bring progress among their subjects.

But being relatively autonomous meant that while it remained dependent on the Centre's largesse, it received little, while its political clout was always less compared to its other neighbours. "In 50 years, we have given India less than six cabinet ministers, of whom only two are originally from Rajasthan," said P C Mathur, a political scientist at the Rajasthan University in Jaipur, "And this always meant that our voice was ignored."

Professor Mathur claims the specific nature of Rajasthan was hardly understood by the mandarins in the Planning Commission, but a former bureaucrat does not quite agree. She points out that Rajasthan, at the time of Independence, was a famine-prone state that needed huge investments. "All this takes time, so it is not fair to blame the bureaucrats in Delhi or Jaipur."

However, liberalisation has diminished the importance of the Centre's role. A study by Professor Mathur shows that Rajasthan was among the states which benefited from liberalisation, which also came at a time when huge investments made in the infrastructure sector (roads, irrigation) began to finally pay off.

Earlier, the state had witnessed hordes of people migrating from the state in search of employment and business. "If you observe the pattern of migration, it is always from the poorer regions of the state, never from regions like Kota and Jhalaur," points out Mehta. In the first wave of migration, people went east to Calcutta and Assam, to become traders, next came the move to Madras and the south, and the third to Bombay and Surat.

It was the remittances from the migrants that sustained the state's economy in the past years. The money came not only from the traders but also from the army. With centuries of Rajput martial tradition, many youngsters sought fame and fortune in the armed forces, especially the army, and over the years, the Rajasthani segment would rank among the largest in the army. Moreover, the British habit of employing the so-called "martial races" helped Rajputs and other Rajasthanis find a place in the army.

Even today, migration is a way of life. "The state, though much richer now, still cannot sustain its entire population and many continue to migrate outside for better prospects," says Rathore. But changes had begun.

Rajasthan is a vast state with a difficult terrain. While Jaislamer in the west (bordering Pakistan) receives just 15 cm of rain annually, Jhalaur in the east receives 100 cm of rain. This has ensured two distinct patterns of agricultural development. The Aravalli hill range almost bifurcates the state into two, into the relatively greener east, and the desert west.

The east has seen the development of agriculture, aided by some brilliant irrigation works. "The Chambal canal in the east, along with 63 medium and over 2,000 minor projects has brought water to the state, helping it progress in the sphere of agriculture," said M S Rathore, a senior economist with the Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur. And in the western part has come up the Indira Gandhi canal, bringing in much-needed water to the desert region.

"It is this huge investment in the agricultural sector that has really boosted development and today, Rajasthan is self-sufficient in food," adds Rathore. One proof of the growth of agriculture is the use of fertiliser. Fertiliser consumption has gone up from nine kgs per hectare in 1991 to 40 kg per hectare in 1998. Today, Rajasthan is among the largest producer of edible oil and the second largest producer of oilseeds (rapeseed and mustard).

Professor Mathur claims that if the current trend of agriculture continues, the state might overtake Punjab in terms of total production!

It is also pre-eminent in quarrying and mining, being the largest producer of marbles and sandstone, the second largest of cement. However, quarrying, once an important industry, was banned by then prime minister Indira Gandhi when voracious contractors almost destroyed the Aravalli hills in their greed to maximise their profits. Today, gnawed-into hillsides around Jaipur and on the Delhi-Jaipur road stand testimony to their mindless destruction.

"People don't realise that the Aravalli hills prevent the desert from spreading east and hence, they must be preserved," points out Rathore who laments that illegal quarrying still exists. The availability of sand and rock has made the state among the larger producers of cement.

In the past decade, the state has seen the beginning of the industrial wave. "Economic history shows that industrial development only follows agricultural development, and hence the industrial spurt in the past decade," said Mehta.

Yet, whether the state can ever be an industrial giant remains in doubt. "Industries need water, which is extremely scarce in Rajasthan. What is available is also needed for agriculture, hence there will always be a limit to the amount of industries set up," points out Rathore, adding, "Precision industries such as those in high technology need a cool climate, not Rajasthan's finer points. So obviously our competitiveness is hampered and it is important to get into areas where we have an edge."

Despite this limitation, Rajasthan has made tremendous progress in the textile sector, with the state being the second largest producer of polyester fibre. "Bhilwara district produces more cloth than Bhiwandi in Maharashtra," boasts Metha.

However, it is in the tertiary sector of services that the state has seen immense progress. Endowed with natural beauty and a great history, tourism is going great guns in Rajasthan. The palaces of Jaipur, the lakes of Udaipur, and the desert forts of Jaisalmer are among the most-preferred destination of many a tourist, Indian or foreign. Tourism accounts for up to seven per cent of the state's domestic product. "In 1997, the state received 600,000 foreign tourists and 6 million Indian tourists!" says Mehta. Tourism is also a great source of local employment, and a spin-off has been the growth of the handicrafts industry in the state which is now second to none.

And in another ironical twist, tourism has given a fresh lease of life to all the various palaces and fortresses that were decaying due to lack of funds and interest. Most of such palaces have become heritage hotels, a concept promoted by the state. This has also given the royal and semi-royal families a chance to earn some income and take an interest in the upkeep of their palaces and fortresses, besides forcing the government to act. Employment opportunities have surged in the hospitality sector.

And in a spin-off, the growth of tourism has helped create infrastructure, which in turn is boosting industrial investment in the state. The state today has created a brilliant road network linking all the major tourist centres such as Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Jodhpur, etc.

Today, Rajasthan has the fourth largest plan fund from the Centre, an indicator of its growing industrial might. While the road network is good, it does not have sufficient power, one area where the BJP government failed to make much impact. Unless there is more power available, and soon, future industrial growth will slow down.

To attract tourists and revenue, it continues to play up its historical past. Yet, besides tourists, investors are moving in. Given its people's entrepreneurial nature, the business of Rajasthan will soon be business!

"This commercial nature of the people can be seen among the leadership and bureaucrats," said Mehta, "and policies are rarely changed. This is seen as a positive feature."

Rathore agrees. "Whether the government is Congress or BJP, policies rarely change. If earlier people migrated, it was due to lack of opportunities here. And now that these are available, local big business will sprout," he avers.

Some of India's biggest names in business hail from Rajasthan: Birlas, Singhanias, Dalmias, Goenkas, and the like. They have shown some interest in their home state, but as good businessmen, they are guided more by reason than sentiment.

"We do not expect them to invest just because they came from Rajasthan," says Mehta, "Our effort has been to create new entrepreneurs." Still, as shrewd businessmen, some of the big names are coming in, albeit slowly.

Nevertheless, after all the shouting and back-thumping is over, problems remain, especially in the social sector. In some districts of Rajasthan, female literacy is as low as three per cent, in many more areas, the difference between male and female literacy is as high as 40 per cent.

The feudal set-up is also seen as a hurdle to development. "I think the feudal society is the cause of most of Rajasthan's problems," says a former bureaucrat.

The status of women has always generated interest, usually of the negative kind. In 1987, 20-year-old Roop Kanwar committed Sati in Deorala village, Sikar district, 70 km north of Jaipur. The then police inspector general hailed it as an act of bravery. No one was prosecuted.

Bhanwari Devi, a Saathin (social worker employed by the state government) was raped by three men for stopping child marriages a few years ago. The men were not convicted by the high court, and there remains little interest in taking the case to the Supreme Court.

Mehta seeks to defend the government on these charges. "Roop Kanwar occurred more than 10 years ago, and rape case convictions are difficult not because of government ineptitude but because of its very nature," he said.

Manju Singh, a specialist in gender issues, says the government was only interested in paper records rather than actually improving the status of women. "The government hires Saathins who are unable to do any work due to family and social pressures," she says, adding that their salary of a measly Rs 400 per month for eight hours of daily work was ludicrous.

She points out that many Rajasthanis still associate chivalry and valour with Sati, rather than see it as an evil. "This mindset needs to be changed, and that is still not happening," she laments.

Mehta points out that feudalism is part of a historical process, and that Rajasthan today is a state in transition. "The state today is working overtime on literacy, especially for females. A number of measures are in place, and I am confident that by the time the 2011census is taken, female and male literacy will be among the highest. Even in 2001, we will not be on a par with the other backward states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh," he says.

There is no doubt that there has been progress on the education front. "At the turn of the century, the state had close to zero level literacy, male and female," points out Rathore, "and today it stands at an average of 40 per cent." Today, the state government spends up to 24 per cent of its budget on education.

Manju Singh, however, feels that more than money today, a commitment from the authorities is needed. The effort should be to take development to the people, to the thousands of tribals and banjaras (nomads) who still live as their forefathers did, whom change seems to have passed by.

Mehta says the government is aware of this lacuna and working towards it. It certainly is an issue in the current election, because though the present Shekhawat government's work on the development front is impressive, the people's grouse is that they have not benefited from it all. A future government will ignore the people's gain at their own peril.

And a region which boasts of kings and queens who preferred death to dishonour, might in a couple of decades have the honour of being among India's best states.

Assembly Election '98

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