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It is among the top revenue generating districts of Gujarat, with one of its lowest unemployment rates. Morbi is also an example of the failure of the so-called Gujarat model of development and, with Amreli, epicentre of the Patidar agitation.
The smooth highway leads to a potholed town recovering from the rainfall of Cyclone Ockhi, which on Tuesday had forced Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi to cancel a public meeting here.
“What Gujarat model? There is no good government school, college or hospital here. Yet, Morbi contributes one of the highest tax to the state kitty,” said Hardik Patidar, a 22-year-old computer engineer who is proud to be a namesake of his community’s latest icon. After completing a four-year computer engineering degree, which cost his father Rs 4,00,000, he now takes care of the family’s ceramic tile manufacturing unit. Hardik bemoans the expensive private education in the state. “I had gone to Gandhinagar to attend the Vibrant Ceramic Expo and Summit (November 16 to 19), and found my former classmates, after having spent a fortune on the degree, now earning Rs 7,000 a month. My labourers earn more at Rs 350 a day.”
The Congress manifesto has promised to address the problem of expensive education and improve government schools and colleges.
Morbi meets 70 per cent of India’s demand for vitrified, wall and other tiles. The ceramic tile industry, comprising 469 units, is almost exclusively owned by Patidars. According to a document circulated during the expo, “The community of Patel factory owners is a tightly knit network” which “helps utilisation and sharing of resources”. Morbi is a huge network of traders. There are also packaging industries, wall clock manufacturers (Ajanta, Sonam, Sonera and other well-known brands), and bulb manufacturers. There are 700 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and 2,000 auxiliary and ancillary units, employing 400,000 workers. According to the Morbi Ceramic Associations, the turnover of the ceramic industry was Rs 28,500 crore (Rs 6,500 crore of exports) in 2016-17.
Morbi should have been happy with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign and Ujala schemes, as increased demand from the two would have helped the SME hub.
But, it isn’t. Factory owners say the mess over the goods and services tax (GST) and demonetisation has hurt them. A Congress research department document, released on November 20, claimed production was severely hit by demonetisation, which forced temporary shutdown of 80 per cent of the units, and GST at 28 per cent on ceramic tiles hurt profitability and endangered employment of 100,000.
K G Kundariya, president of the Morbi Ceramic Associations, said the impact wasn’t that severe. The industry has recently grown at an average of 20 per cent and the two events were blips.
“Demonetisation hurt our dealers more than us. The government heeded our request to lower the GST rate from 28 per cent to 18 per cent.” Another factory owner disputed this. “We suffered for three months. Export was down 50 per cent and production 20 per cent. We had to tell the government that Chinese ceramic tiles would finish the business if 28 per cent tax continued,” he said, but didn’t want to be named. The factory owners fear the BJP would victimise them if it returned to power.
The factory owners were circumspect in their criticism in public but Patidar youth were merciless in criticising BJP chief Amit Shah. “Modi and BJP have fooled us enough by creating a Hindu-Muslim divide. Our anger is about jobs and farmers getting a good price, but Shah needs to be taught a lesson for betraying us,” 40-year-old Ghanshyam Patidar said.
Ghanshyam is among a group of men, including Muslim farmers, replaying videos of Hardik Patel’s rally on WhatsApp, the preferred communication tool of the Patidars in the absence of most mainstream media giving little coverage to their icon. They burst into laughter at an unprintable joke about Shah. The elders in the community complained of the “insult” Shah allegedly meted out to their “iron lady”, former chief minister and Modi’s successor in Gujarat Anandiben Patel, and Deputy CM Nitin Patel, who was kept waiting for two days before Rupani was appointed.
“Don’t mistake our agitation to be just about Patidar reservation. We are a proud entrepreneurial community. The raw material is from Rajasthan and the labour mostly non-Gujarati. Morbi had nothing,” a factory owner, who didn’t want to be named, said.
Hardik Patel gets substantial resources for his movement from Morbi. “When Hardik started abusing Shah, he cracked a wall that our state Congress leaders feared to breach,” a local Congress leader admitted.
The Patidars want revenge on Rupani and Shah. Modi is only an incidental target.
The older Patidars reminisce of 1995 – the year was not only the start of the ceramic revolution in Morbi, but also the epicentre of the Patidar movement that brought one of their own, Keshubhai Patel-led BJP, as the chief minister and ensured that the Congress never won an election since. The community believes it is time to repeat 1995, but by bringing the Congress back.
Congress Gujarat General Secretary Lalji Desai said the Patidars would unitedly vote for the BJP. Congress surveys have suggested Modi was still popular among the community, particularly women. Saurashtra and North Gujarat Patidars might have turned against the BJP, but they continue to support the party in central and south.
Saurashtra Patidars have a new ally, or so they say, in Congress leader Ashok Gehlot. A community leader said Gehlot marginalised the Rajputs in the Congress, which has again helped the Congress emerge as an umbrella party. That Shankersinh Vaghela was forced out of the party, other Rajput leaders marginalised and Ahmed Patel kept out of ticket distribution has reinvented the Congress. “Vaghela and others would distribute as many as 30 seats to their caste members. This has not happened,” the Patidar leader said.
The Patidar youths, since 1995, have been the backbone of the BJP’s election day mobilisation. This youth power is set to campaign for the Congress.