Source- Live Mint
Districts away from the coast are impacted not just by the poor quality of cultivable land but also the distance from local and national trading centres
Socio-economic conditions in Gujarat have unfortunately been much in focus in recent times. I use the term unfortunately because much of it took political hues, and appropriated the focus away from underlying problems. However, using satellite imagery and our concept of spatial poverty (highly correlated with economic poverty), we come across a range of insights that will help us take the discussion away from the domain of irrelevancy. The accompanying table shows district-level estimates of poverty by Indicus Analytics.
The highest-poverty districts ring the boundary between Gujarat and the neighbouring states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. These districts towards the north, northeast, south and southeast account for a large tribal population, mostly uncultivated or uncultivable land, and generally poor water resources. Most importantly, each of these districts is landlocked, as opposed to most other districts in Gujarat. And so whether it is The Dangs, Panchmahal, Banaskantha, Dahod or any other border district, the intensity of poverty tends to be higher than in the rest of the state. Gujarat’s economy is largely supported by trade, and districts near the coast both contribute to and benefit from that trade. On the other hand, districts away from the coast are impacted not just by the poor quality of cultivable land but also the distance from local and national trading centres. Moreover, the largely tribal population in these areas is either unable or incapable of benefiting from the opportunities thrown up by a growing economy.
Tribals suffer in three broad ways. First, most live closer to forests or in areas with low land productivity and low population density. It is, therefore, far costlier and far more difficult to deliver quality government services in these areas. Second, providing skills in new occupations being thrown up by a fast-growing state economy typically requires some basic understanding of non-traditional occupations, social networks and perhaps the most important of all, education. Each of these enabling powers takes a generation or two to spread across society. Third, biases and exploitation of many kinds also work against this segment. Of these, the last is unlikely in Gujarat, extremist movements and related law and order issues have not arisen in the state. In other words, despite relative harmony, it will not be easy for Gujarat to deal with poverty of this type.
The conventional method being used in India is to expose such populations to the mainstream—education, government reservations, and greater road-building being some examples. But these will take a long time to pay off and will also adversely impact the traditional social structures of the populace, thereby further reducing their net benefits.
Another method of addressing poverty in these areas is to improve the terms of trade for the services that tribal populations are better at delivering. Setting up tourism infrastructure where feasible, incentivizing consumption of forestry products and improving prices of crops that grow better in low-productivity areas (some coarse grains or pulses for example) are some ways through which benefits can accrue faster to such populations. A second major type of poverty in Gujarat exists in urban centres. To illustrate, contrast spatial poverty between Jamnagar and Gandhinagar—two of Gujarat’s newest cities. Gandhinagar, bordering Ahmedabad, has much lower levels of poverty for two reasons. One, it is a planned city and different economic segments are relatively better provided for in terms of housing options than they were in Ahmedabad. And two, the bureaucracy in capitals is better able to prevent slum creation and takeover of public land.
Jamnagar, however, despite being largely a new city, has large unplanned areas that came up to service the needs of a large industrial base. Bad urban planning may not cause poverty but it creates conditions that perpetuate it. This is because government services that can help the poor are difficult to provide well in these areas—whether it is law and order, or health or education. Moreover, once an unplanned city develops, it takes many years and a great cost to fix it. There is one additional point that Gujarat needs to focus upon.
There is a far greater density of children in high-poverty areas than in low-poverty ones. Given that poor areas tend to have lesser infrastructure, less public spaces (playgrounds, for example), poor education and health facilities, it is but obvious that if Gujarat does not address these gaps, it will end up perpetuating poverty into the next generation. As greater urbanization takes place—and almost all cities will grow rapidly—good quality urban planning will need to be a very important tool in addressing poverty.