Ahmedabad: With a five day jhadu or broom yatra in Gujarat this week, the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party is spreading its wings, hoping to repeat its Delhi election performance in the state. The party says it has established its presence in all districts and over 3 lakh people have enrolled for membership. The question is, will the Aam Aadmi Party resonate with the voter in Gujarat? For a state described as vibrant, is there space for a new challenger, a third force?
The Ahmedabad office sees a steady stream of visitors, among them grassroot workers, businessmen, students, farmers and daily earners. There are reports, however, that party workers in some districts are facing harassment and intimidation by the state police and intelligence bureau.
Dinesh Waghela, AAP in-charge in Gujarat and Goa, said, "AAP seems to have raised hopes that were hidden for years. Chief Minister Narendra Modi had spread an atmosphere of terror. No one knew how to escape it since the Congress did not have a presence in Gujarat. After the AAP results in Delhi, for the first time the people have realised that even the ordinary citizen has the power to bring about a change. Just two days ago some of our district level workers went to the collector's office to complain about the way they were being threatened. I have just received information that in Sabarkantha district a number of our workers are being troubled by the police and the IB. They are being questioned about why they joined AAP? Though they are being harassed, they are not scared and with great courage they are standing with AAP."
The party says Gujarat's growth model has been disastrous for the common man. According to it, the state government has failed to address basic issues of education, health, water, sanitation and the rights of unorganized workers.
According to Sukhdev Patel, State convener of AAP, "As far as the development of vulnerable communities in Gujarat is concerned, the Government seems to have lost its way. The appropriate budgetary provisions are not made. Instead money is wasted on non-productive expenditures like fairs and festivals. Because of it, the debt of the Gujarat government has increased. And to pay the interest on last year's debt, they have to incur a further debt."
The Aam Aadmi party has extended support to the strike called by nearly 5,000 contractual sanitation workers of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation in the city. A majority of the workers are Dalits who are demanding a reasonable salary, fulltime and permanent employment.
Amrish N Patel, Secretary of the Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha, which was leading the strike, said, "About 5,000 safai karamcharis, who are class 3 and class 4 workers, are protesting their wages of 100 rupees for 4 hours and 200 rupees for 8 hours. They are not paid provident fund even though they have been working 7 to 22 years and these workers are around 5000. Since 1982, there is a policy that those who complete 5 years or 900 days should be made permanent. Thousands of workers have earlier been made permanent under the policy. But since the last two decades, they are not implementing this policy. Instead, they have created different classifications like daily rated, consolidated and part time."
The workers say they are unable to manage with 100 rupees a day. "Make us permanent. We have been working for almost 23 years now. We were paid Rs 20 when we started. We have small children to raise. We are paid Rs 100 now. What can one do with Rs 100 these days? Can anyone raise children with Rs 100?"
For forty years, a slum called Kachcha Chapra in Ahmedabad has been home to some the sanitation workers. As many as 2000 people live here, including children, who say they have been left out of Gujarat's development story. They live without water, toilets or sewage- in fact any service provided by the Government.
When we spoke to the Deputy Municipal Commissioner, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, IK Patel, he said he would inquire into the matter. "While I cannot transfer my responsibility to someone else, but this area has come under Corporation since 2006. This Vijayalpur area you are talking about. The new areas which have come under Corporation, we are extending our services there. Most of the area has been covered," he said.
But activists like Jignesh Mewani say they are not satisfied. Mewani said, "It is only Gujarat which is claiming that the state is vibrant, prosperous, that it is receiving investment to the tune of Rs 20 million crore. And if this is the case, then we, the people, would obviously ask for a better life. This is just not the case with sanitation workers if we take the case of lok rakshaks, that is police constables, vidya sahayaks, that is primary teachers, forest guards, GISF jawans, who are providing security to various government department and agencies, there are millions of state government employees who are denied minimum wages. And in this regard a PIL has also been filed in the high court of Gujarat. In response, the state government has filed an affidavit saying sorry, we don't have enough money."
The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation reached an interim settlement with the safai karamcharis, twenty-eight days after the strike began. However, many workers continue to be on contract.
Back at the office, we meet some of the newest members of the Aam Aadmi Party, who are excited by the promise of a citizen-friendly, corruption-free state.
NY Pathan from Dholka Village, is a pan masala salesman. He says the Aam Aadmi party must get rid of corruption in the state.
He said, "There is no work done on roads, street lights, water. They just pretend that work is happening. If you go and see in the villages there is no sanitation, no proper roads, electricity, water."
Asmad Khan , a tempo driver, wants to join AAP because he finds it difficult to find work. He said, "We are facing a lot of problems. There has to be business activity for us to get goods to carry in the tempo. Money is coming into the state, but where is it going, tell me? Everyone says money is coming. I said to myself, I will have to go to the Aam Aadmi Party to solve my problems. Otherwise they are not going to be solved. What I saw on TV has inspired faith in me. I thought this party can work that is why I am here. If you work for us, we are ready to give our life to you."
In the AAP office in Rajkot city, we meet 72-year-old Gandhian and businessman Veljibhai Desai who joined the party the day it was founded on 26 November, 2012. He has offered the party rent-free space within his office to set up the party headquarters and to conduct meetings.
Desai describes himself as an enemy of big business houses which he says is the cause of exploitation of the people.
Rajkot is one of the state's leading hubs for small and medium enterprises It accounts for 70 per cent of India's forging business and is home to around 400 diesel engine manufacturers and another 700 ancillary and components units. But there is discontent on the ground due to a steep rise in raw material prices, interest rates and transaction costs. Desai, among others, feels the government has provided little impetus to the growth of this sector.
According to Desai, the BJP and the Congress are tying up with millionaires who are trying to exploit the country. "The ruling party in the state is trying to kill small-scale enterprises since their policies are tilted towards the US. Big business houses there run company centred economy while our economy is family centred. A family centred economy existed across the world 200 years ago. But later the company centred economy began and big business houses started production and distribution. But it increases poverty. One company eats all the profits. There is highest disparity in incomes in the US. Ninety five per cent of the population are economic slaves."
Paragbhai Babariya, who belongs to the job work Industry, said, "The Government's definition of development seems to be that big companies should become bigger. This is not balanced development. Development can't be measured by the growth of one or two big companies. If one of my limbs begins growing, while others do not, my body will be described as a diseased body."
Apoorva Modi, who has a small factory making bolts, says he has given up his work to ensure a change in government. He said, "Till the elections are over, I have committed myself to AAP. We have seen what these established parties have been doing since the last 66 years. I think it is necessary that swaraj gets established and there is decentralization of power. Gujarat has lots of corruption. See I don't want to take any names but if you read the report of the Association for Democratic Reforms, you will see that among those facing criminal charges are some ministers. The court has ordered their imprisonment yet they are ministers in the government."
Another businessman and AAP member, Jayesh Sanja has a small enterprise making wood finishing machines. He says it is difficult for those who want to start small-scale industries. "We are unable to get loans easily from banks. We have to go through a corrupt system and pay middlemen 2 to 3 per cent of the loan amount. People who enter this sector do not have capital.
When they apply for loans through the small-scale industry centre, Shri Vajpayee Bankable Yojana, the Pradhanmantri Rozgaar yojana, their applications get rejected. So the small entrepreneur has to take loans from private companies who charge a huge amount of interest. The situation is often so harsh that they have been forced to commit suicide."
According to Ashokbhai Patel, a former sweetshop owner, "The government of Gujarat is frequently using two words, good governance and vibrant Gujarat. I am fed up with both these words. I never have experienced that type of good governance in my day to day life."
There is a similar sense of neglect of real life issues in Rajkot's jewellery industry, which involves nearly one lakh people. The murder of a bullion trader in Ahmedabad this month has raised fears of the everyday threat to life, and lead to a day-long strike by jewellers in different parts of the state.
Pravin Vaidya, a wholesaler of gold jewellery, said," We are troubled by the risk factor. There is a sense of fear even if we go to the market empty handed. We feel we are not safe. We want protection from the Government. Particularly in Soni Bazaar, which is the jewellery market."
These views are endorsed by Dilip Ranpara, who is president of Gujarat Suvarnakar Sangh. "So many jewellers have been robbed in Gujarat. Someone has been robbed at gunpoint, another at knife-point. These cases have increased in the last three years.
If there were 10 cases earlier, we have 500 cases today. Chief Minister Narendra Modi wants to become the Prime Minister. He is going everywhere, but seems to be unaware of what is happening in Gujarat .The jewellers' community has strong links with the BJP. We have to fight with our own government and that is a matter of regret."
30-year-old Denish Adesara, a jeweller's son, has joined the Aam Aadmi Party. Adesara who is linked to both the jewellery industry and real estate, said, "I joined AAP just three days ago. I found it to be a NGO type political party because it has a lot of transparency. The data they have uploaded on their websites is something that other parties don't."
The next day we visit the ceramic units of Morbi, another cluster of small and medium enterprises.60 km from Rajkot, Morbi is the former capital of a princely state in Saurashtra. With an annual turnover of 4000 crore rupees, the 600 ceramic units here are responsible for 90 per cent of the country's ceramic production.
Sukhdevbhai L Patel, who is president of the Gujarat Ceramic Association, says the ceramic industry was currently going through a crisis. He says six years ago there had been a growth in the industry. He attributes it to a good domestic market and the cheap price of gas.
"Chief Minister Narendra Modi had installed a gas pipeline over here six years ago. At that time, the price of gas was Rs 14 per SCM, which played a major role in our growth."
But on November 27 last year, the ceramic units went on strike because the price of gas had been hiked to Rs 40 per SCM from Rs 14.
Patel said, "It has become impossible to run the units. We don't have any other option for fuel. Earlier we had coal gasifiers but we were asked to shut them down.
It is a monopoly situation for the Government's GSPC gas. They said we won't be able to do anything to bring down the rates. If you can't run the industry, don't. "
The ceramic units were on strike for 24 days, incurring daily losses of nearly 50 crore rupees. Supporting the bandh call paper mills, transporters, box makers, traders and even private offices joined the strike for a day. But there was no response from the government.
The ceramic industry says it was compelled to call off the strike because it had affected the livelihood of nearly 2.5 lakh people who were directly employed by the units, and about 3 lakh people who earned from it. There is simmering resentment among the ceramic unit owners.
TD Patel, who is vice president of the Gujarat Ceramic Association, said, "The ceramic industry is not in a position to compete with China. So we have put forth our demands to the state government. If the government fails to solve our problems, within six months to a year the industries will shut down. We also have a set of demands from the Centre. We are asking for excise to be a compounded or to be 4 per cent. Secondly, anti-dumping duty should be imposed on the material imported from China. And as for our exports from here, the duty drawback for it should be 10% instead of 2.5%.
Patel says they are observing the parties' response to their issues and it would play a major role when they cast their vote during the elections.
"It is our vote, and our right. As a businessman, we will vote for those who came to our help."
The Aam Aadmi Party is articulating the sentiments of disenchanted ordinary citizens and mobilizing them. This was the key to the party's success in Delhi.