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Tuesday, May 1, 2001

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The Indian Express North American Edition


The first rumblings

Darshan Desai

Kutch in the furthest corner of western India is yet to recover from the January 26 temblor. People are slowly finding their feet even as they rebuild their homes, and lives. But discontent is brewing within the population about the efforts or lack of it by the Gujarat state government to rebuild the area. More autonomy, statehood, the options are now being freely talked about by many Kutchis.

It was in 1976 that the Centre decided to set up an autonomous body called the Kutch Development Board for a focussed development of the border district. In 1977, after an approval of Parliament, the President of India ordered the then Gujarat Governor to set up the board. Thanks to murky politics, this order was repealed in a year by the next President.

From a separate ‘C’ state under the Constitution, Kutch was merged with the Bombay state in 1956 in the face of stiff opposition and later the region, as large as Haryana spanning 45,000 square kms, was further marginalised as a district of Gujarat. It was the realisation that as a part of Gujarat, Kutch was losing its distinct identity as a culturally different and strategically sensitive area, that spurred the process to separate it from Gujarat as an autonomous Kutch Development Board operating under the Centre.

Why the Kutchis are feeling neglected

In the first 5-year plan (1950-55), Kutch’s plan allocation was Rs 3 crore which went upto Rs 8 crore during the second plan. By the third plan, Kutch had become a district of Gujarat and its plan share fell to Rs 4 crore

When Kutch was a ‘C’ state under Centre, it accepted a proposal from Russia to develop an agricultural farm. Construction started on two dams, Kayla, and Rudramata, and 3,000 acres land between them was earmarked for irrigation. After Kutch was merged into Gujarat, the state government rejected the schemes and gave away some of the land to a cooperative society of a retired government official and the rest to a private individual.

A budget-approved scheme to develop a dairy in Bhidiyara village to tap the rich cattle population in the Banni region was cancelled by the state government. Kutch has a cattle population of 12 lakh and nearly 1.5 lakh cows were in Banni alone.

In 1968, the Gujarat government halted work on digging tubewells started to combat a severe spell of drought in Kutch. A central team had already sunk 100 tubewells since 1963 when it was stopped. The team was to dig 300 tubewells, make a water grid and supply water to the parched areas of Kutch.

Every chief minister of Gujarat since its inception in 1960 has spoken of setting up a Kutch Development Board. Nothing has happened so far. After every natural disaster, including the 1999 cyclone and the 2001 earthquake, governments about working out a disaster mitigation plan for Kutch. Nothing has happened so far.

For years after this, successive governments in Gujarat spoke of setting up the Kutch Development Board but did precious little. The last was the Shankersinh Vaghela Government in 1997 which pushed it up to Delhi, but the government fell. The Keshubhai Patel Government which followed, briefly tinkered with the idea and dropped it. The proposal is being ‘studied’ again.

Now, the Gujarat Government’s mishandling of the earthquake relief measures has rekindled the demand for statehood for Kutch or at least a Union Territory status in the form of a development board. It was their fabled resilience that helped the Kutchis swallow for years the region’s political neglect and Nature’s tantrums. The disillusionment is complete.

‘‘The story of Kutch’s neglect started after the region was annexed to Mumbai state, but worsened after it became a part of Gujarat,’’ wrote the late Mahipat Mehta, a former MP, in his book, Why a separate State for Kutch?

Put up in a tent after his house was ruined up by the January 26 temblor, Mahipatbhai’s son, Deepak Mehta, says, ‘‘Geographically, socially, culturally, economically and historically, Kutch is different from Gujarat. Those sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of Gandhinagar simply cannot understand the needs and the ethos of our region.’’

He couldn’t have been more true. When the monstrous earthquake struck the desert district of Kutch in the morning of January 26, it was the defence forces which reacted first. The first contingent of officials from Gandhinagar reached Bhuj, the district headquarters, only after 12 hours.

Those demanding special status for the area also argue that the quake exposed the border district’s vulnerability to security threats. Says Dhiraj Raste, an industrialist in Madhapar and secretary of the Bhuj Development Council: ‘‘Just explode the Surajbari Bridge, the only link between Saurashtra and Kutch, disrupt the telecommunications network and blast a few towers of the Gujarat Electricity Board. That’s it, the government in Gandhinagar just can’t reach us for hours.’’

More than 48 hours after the quake struck on January 26, contact between Gandhinagar and Kutch was possible only by the ham radio and satellite phone.
Nature’s hostility only adds to the woes. Be it a quake, drought or cyclone, Kutch finds itself at the receiving end. In the absence of any perennial river and the failure of the few water schemes initiated for it, Kutch is a drought-prone with a high rate of salinity ingress.

Since the Morbi disaster of 1979, through the two cyclones in the late nineties, the plague of 1994 and the Surat floods, respective state governments always spoke about disaster management but never did anything concrete. After every natural calamity, governments speak about disaster mitigation plans for the region. But forget them once the impact wears off. An effective communications system, like the one Maharashtra set up after Latur, would have been a vital and integral part of a well-conceived disaster mitigation strategy.

After the killer cyclone struck Kandla in Kutch in May 1999, the promise was to construct 3,000 houses for the victims. But only 300 have been built so far. After the killer earthquake in January 2001, the Gujarat Government declared that it will build eight lakh houses. The figure was reduced to over 3.5 lakh houses, and last heard, Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel said, ‘‘We never promised the people to build their houses. We are giving them building material and cash assistance.’’

Going back to its old days, when Kutch was a state, its first five-year plan size was Rs 3 crore, which was increased to Rs 8 crore in the second plan, and cut down to Rs 4 crore in the following plan as a district. This is one instance of the dwindling importance of Kutch. Another is the slashing of the drought-prone district’s water share from the prestigious Sardar Sarovar Project to two per cent, though the SSP was approved in the name of Kutch. Saurashtra and North Gujarat, which have stronger political clout, are getting a more of the share.

The Gujarat government has always argued that no injustice had been done to Kutch. If they share of funds for development is low it is only because the area has a scattered population and most of it is a desert. Those who insist on a statehood for Kutch contest this, stating there is low population because successive governments hadn’t bothered for the overall development of the region and so people have migrated.

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© 2001: Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd. All rights reserved throughout the world.