Narenbhai, messiah of growth

via MSN News published on December 1, 2007

Shapar: The village council office in this western Gujarat hamlet tells a story. It’s at the heart of the change visible through much of the state. That is where Chief Minister Narendra Modi began chipping away in his ambitious governance makeover.

“Before Modi’s time, no one came here. The building was in ruins; it didn’t even have a door. No one cared for the panchayat,” said 20-year-old Charuda Bhikku Karamsi, showing off his workplace in Shapar village.

Karamsi works part time for the panchayat. He gets Rs 1,000 a month as a “gram mitra” (friend of the village), one of four such positions in Shapar. His job is to inform people of the development schemes they could gain from, and help them do the paperwork.

The innovations have many takers.

“The Congress wouldn’t be able to do in 50 years, the work that Modi has done for us in five years,” declared Rajesh Bohda, 39, the deputy village head of Shapar.

“The macro picture is marvellous. The kind of rural prosperity here is remarkable,” said professor Ravindra Dholakia at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. “Gujarat is the only state in the country where inequality is declining, real agricultural wages are rising, and rural employment is increasing.”

Outside Gujarat, Modi carries the baggage of the 2002 violence. But across villages in large parts of the state, that barely seems to matter.

It began with rewards of Rs 1 lakh and more for villages which would appoint its representatives unanimously. More than 2,800 of the state’s 13,800-plus gram panchayats have received the reward. Villages with no criminal cases and practices like female foeticide for three consecutive years are separately honoured.

As one turns in from the highway and drives to Shapar, about 40 km from Jamnagar, there are milestones that did not exist before Modi.

The car whizzes on a wide metalled road, past miles of green fields rich with irrigation water from small dams built by village councils with people’s participation. Two electricity lines run along the road, one for irrigation, the other for homes. Earlier there was one bus connecting the village to Jamnagar. Now there are six.

Shapar, where tankers brought water earlier, now gets piped water, and every home has taps. There is a telephone exchange, a 66 kilowatt power sub-station, two community centres, and a well-networked sewage system. There is a primary school, and a high school is being built.

Teachers are coming to school, so dropout rates have dipped. All schoolgirls get bicycles. There are streetlights, and once every month, the village headman gets to talk on video conference directly with the chief minister.

“I used to walk to the well in the rainy season to get water. Now I get it at home, as much as I want,” said Kashiben Bhagwanjibhai, 55.

But all that came second for at least one man. Vallabhbhai Boda, the former headman declared in his rustic baritone: “Narendra Modi has brought luck with him to Gujarat, after all there hasn’t been a drought since he took office.”

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