Power. The ignorance it engenders. And some photographs.

Towards its end, “The Post”, Spielberg’s film on the Pentagon Papers, says: “The role of the press is to serve the governed, not the governors.” Which makes one think. Who are these people we are meant to be serving in India?

Take a look at the snaps above. These people — belonging to Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat — were photographed in the last three years. So much of our policy debates play out in their name. And yet, how little we know about them. And how static/outdated even that limited awareness is.

Some of this is about distance. Out of sight equals out of mind. Ergo, the periphery gets far less attention than what surrounds the centres of power.

And some of this is about power. As Brett Walker writes in The Lost Wolves Of Japan, “Power engenders a peculiar kind of ignorance: dominant humans almost never take the time to really get to know the peoples, plants, and animals they subordinate”. A curious drive to diminish is at work here. As Walker writes, we rejected the notion that flora/fauna might have their own emotional lives — reducing them to just gene-directed automatons. They come to be seen, not as discrete individuals, but as a broadly similar category. Which is something that Barry Lopez writes about in Arctic Dreams. About how the Inuits knew the personalities of every caribou, seal and what have you around them. Killing any of these, for them, was a far more considered process than it is for any big game hunter.

With biodiversity, some of this is due to a resetting of power dynamics between us and other species; some of this is due to how our thinking changed (more focused on what can be measured, for one, keeping the scientific method in mind) after the enlightenment; And partly, as in the case of Japan’s wolves, is about economic imperatives trumping old cultural systems.

As Walker writes, such diminishing, for want of a better word, extends to humans as well. We see it every time a demagogue wants to stoke up bigotry. The process starts by reducing their targets to broad categories — reducing flesh and blood individuals to identity markers (like Jewishness or Islam or the colour of their skin or caste) they cannot transcend. We also see it in governance. An instance: Back in 2011, when the Planning Commission wanted to delink minimum wages and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, activists organised a workshop in Delhi where they called Montek Singh Ahluwalia for a discussion. The audience? Mostly NREGA workers. Faced with the task of explaining to the workers why they should get less than the minimum wage, each of the visibly discomfited bureaucrats said their piece in English — and then left instead of staying for the discussions.

So much easier to clinically discuss workers/poor as an abstract category defined through a couple of traits than see them as real, living people.

There are questions here for us reporters as well. This stuff about our immediate context determining our priorities raises questions about us knowing whom to serve. A related question takes us further beyond. How does one serve? Report without knowing much about these people, or the latest forces acting on them, and the risk of us mischaracterising the problem/fighting the wrong battle cannot be ruled out. Take one instance, is today’s agrarian crisis in India is the same as the agrarian crisis we faced ten years ago? Or are there subtle (or large) differences?

Journalism is a knowledge producing trade. It needs method — if we are to capture a representative slice of whichever emergent process we report on. Ignore such questions. And we will end up with journalism with unchanging — and increasingly irrelevant — analyses which cannot do good.

Which is why India needs far more local reporting. For deracinated hacks like me, one answer, I guess, is to keep doing periodic deep dives into the field to update our understanding re the issues we write on. Essential given the rapidity with which societies change.

Another, I think, is to maintain a certain watchfulness towards how our brain arrives at its conclusions. To be aware of the cognitive traps we carry with us. And to work correctives for those into our reporting/writing process. To get time/freedom to report. And to read more — especially about the unknowns.

PS: I am blogging more than before. I used to when this blog was hosted at http://www.fracturedearth.org. And then, I got busy and the blog just became a place where I aggregated links to my reportage. Trying to change that now.

‘Ear To The Ground’. What we reported on between 2015 and 2017.

In March, 2015, Scroll.in kicked off a reporting project called ‘Ear To The Ground‘. It was meant to ID the largest changes afoot in six handpicked states — and to use them to understand the major processes shaping India now. As that project draws to a close, it is nostalgia-time (for me, at any rate). It’s also likely that most readers will have read some — not all — of these reports. And so, am aggregating all reportage here.
The first state we reported from, circa March 2015, was Mizoram.

  1. Our first report from this state in north-east India looked at Dampa Tiger Reserve — and the challenges of conservation in India’s North-East. We saw one odd trend here: Forest staff get salaries much after Project Tiger releases them.
  2. This time, April 2015, is also when a minor drama was playing out between the BJP and the state. A quick story featuring governors.
  3. In other news, a rural development programme — NLUP (New Land Use Policy) — had been repurposed by the state government into a populist programme.
  4. It was a time when three autonomous district councils — of the Lais, Maras and Chakmas — were seeing their own changes. They wanted the BJP to help them become Union Territories.
  5. There were some questions on whether these councils might become BJP’s first footholds in Mizoram. An accompanying story looked at how the Councils were run — pertinent given their demand for union territory status. Horrible financial health.
  6. Like Dampa’s forest guards, the state’s anti-HIV programme was seeing irregular payments as well. The consequences were serious: the gains from Mizoram’s successful battle against the spread of HIV/AIDS were being lost.
  7. The next report got into more detail. Why are payments irregular? And — using state health department as an instance — what do irregular payments do to government programmes? In Mizoram, health department workers are taking personal loans to do their job.
  8. A part of the problem was Mizoram’s low capacity to boost state government revenues (from within the state). And it looked like things would get worse under the 14th Finance Commission.
  9. The state was changing in other ways. Facebook groups were giving newspapers a run for their money.
  10. Another way to understand the society? The great popularity of Korean soap operas.
  11. Back to the economy. Can the Kaladan highway rescue Mizoram’s economy?
  12. One reason for low employment — and a low number of indigenous business groups — was political corruption which gave contracts to companies outside Mizoram. Case in point: the roads sector. Fun story, this. While reporting on it, we found that CM Lalthanhawla’s brother (and fellow cabinet minister) Lalthanzara had held shares in one of these companies getting road contracts.
  13. The aftermath of that story: Formal institutions (police, courts, opposition parties…) ignored what it said about Lalthanzara. But local papers and facebook groups picked it up — and translated it into Mizo. It got shared heavily on whatsapp and fb. Next, a youth Mizo National Front leader held a press conference. As the heat built up, Lalthanzara first issued a clarification which was not convincing — he said he got to know about the shares from the Scroll report.
  14. As the heat kept rising, he resigned.
  15. But this was no victory for accountability. Because all that did was help him evade an anti-corruption probe. Sure enough. He recontested in the bypoll for his constituency. And won again. Here is ‘s report. The voters seemed to have voted pragmatically. Having a deputy CM as your MLA is surely beneficial. And yet, we had a case where an engaged public, aided by translations of the article, created enough pressure for a minister to resign.
  16. And then, this wrap of all our Mizoram reporting.
  17. Next was Manipur. To look at NE and conflict. Two reports. The first on how Manipur is doing after 70 years of conflict and AFSPA.
  18. The second? A chance discovery about Manipur’s ancient peace-building scrolls. This is my favorite #ETTG story of all.
  19. The next state was Odisha. The state’s mineral boom — and its end — marked most of our reportage from the state. The first piece here was about Indian paramilitaries labelling the Dongria Kondhs of Niyamgiri as naxals. And hounding them.
  20. The iron ore export boom had triggered a frenzy of investment — trucks, iron ore smelters, crushers, the works. A lot of it based on little more than irrational exuberance triggered by the boom. Now, they were all struggling/failing to stay afloat.
  21. The boom and bust marked Odisha in many ways. A lot of the cash from the iron ore boom flowed — not into factories — but into speculative stuff like gold, land, real estate and education. As iron ore prices sank, so did these. A case study from education.
  22. In that instance, the students were the losers. But there were winners too. Gains from iron ore mining went to a narrow bunch of people. A mining contractor from Salem, Tamil Nadu, became Odisha’s biggest contract miner.
  23. He worked in tandem with the local MLA, an independent called Sanatan Mahakud. He was paying a monthly stipend of as much as Rs 2,000 to about half the families in his constituency! Working on this story, I came to think of Mahakud and Prabhakaran as the new kings of Keonjhar. story 3 kids at play
  24. That photograph was taken in Keonjhar. Kids playing in the local stream — using discarded thermocol boxes. This inequality pervades Odisha. Indeed, even as Prabhakaran, assorted mine owners and people like Mahakud gained, the state was unchanging in other ways. Go to Bolangir and you see distress migration has continued unchanged.
  25. Or go to schools and you will see extraordinary understaffing. This school, down the hill from Mahakud’s house, had eight classes but 4 teachers. Coping mechanism? 2 grades per class.
  26. Put it all together and you are bound to end up with this story: How Odisha squandered valuable mineral resources without any gains for its people. Little here that is unique, of course. Echoes what happened in Karnataka during the iron ore boom.
  27. Elsewhere in Odisha, fears about a monopoly taking shape in India’s port sector. The latest port to face the heat from Adani? Odisha’s Paradip.
  28. And then, the state wrap. Which wondered why the state was not seeing more protests against such inequity.
  29. Looking back, the Odisha reporting is underwhelming. It mostly focused on already familiar terrains. Anyway, after Mizoram/Manipur (NorthEast) and Odisha (Mineral-Rich), we trooped over to Punjab (Irrigated Agriculture). The state was seeing protests at the time. The Sikhs’ holy book had been desecrated. Cotton farmers were protesting too — their crop had been hammered by a bad whitefly infestation. The trigger, we found, was changing behaviour of mid-latitude westerlies.
  30. More on worsening economics of punjab farmers here. On why farmers in Punjab burn post-harvest stubble, contributing to Delhi’s noxious air during the winter months.
  31. At the same time, Punjab was seeing deindustrialisation.
  32. One trigger was rising cost of doing business in Punjab. Ask about this, and businessmen would point at their power bills — which had add-on charges like Octroi and Cow Cess on power bills. Ask why and you get a mind-formatting answer.
  33. As in Mizoram and Odisha, we looked at how Punjab fares on education/healthcare delivery. We found underfunding.
  34. Why is there underfunding? Because the state doesn’t have enough revenues. Why does the state not have enough revenues? Because of political control over some of the biggest cash-generators for the state government. Aka, welcome to Badal Inc.
  35. The Badals’ control over Punjab was not just economic, it was also political. The party had a say everywhere — from the police stations to the gurudwaras. There is another way to frame these two stories. Once the Badals came to control Punjab, what did they use that power for? Mostly to grow their business, it seemed like. Later, as we moved to subsequent states, this question came in handy repeatedly. How is political power used?
  36. With government doing little to help (whitefly, eroding competitiveness, etc), people were falling back on ancient belief systems, newer social institutions, etc, to cope/find solace. The fallout? As in Odisha, which is seeing a jump in the number of people going to godmen, so in Punjab.
  37. This was one pattern. We would find questions in one state and their answers in the next. Economic insecurity + falling back on traditional structures of caste, religion would continue to be a theme in subsequent states. And then, our wrap of all Punjab reporting. With a title shamelessly stolen from Murakami’s book on running. What we talk about when we talk about Punjab.
  38. Three states down. Running badly behind schedule re what was a 15 month project (I am a slowpoke). And this mid-stage summary re what we had found so far. A few things were clear by now. A. These states aren’t working the way they are meant to. B. Each of them is seeing a concentration of political control. C. There has been a weakening of democratic checks and balances. D. All three states were failing at their core functions. E. They fail at #D partly because of huge foregone revenues. F. What accompanies this inequality is non-productive populism. G. Moving through these states, one saw how marginal most livelihoods were. H. People were responding in complex ways. Anger. Demanding populist give-aways. Indebtedness. Migration. Falling back on religious, caste and ethnic identity as everyone tries to become a part of a larger collective which can best increase their bargaining powers.
  39. The wrap felt underwhelming. Its conclusions were too boilerplate. But it helped — in some way I do not fully understand yet — get into more detail in the next three states. The first of which was Tamil Nadu, with its reputation of being one of the best-run states in India. We started by looking at how traditional livelihoods are faring in the state. And found a complex set of factors (including rising sea temperatures) had dramatically altered fish catch composition. And I mean dramatically.
  40. Climate variability showed up when we moved inland as well. It was a contributing factor (among others) to a large spike in household borrowings in TN. Essentially, the gap between income and expenses was being met through borrowings.
  41. Families were simultaneously lending and borrowing. A real debt society. Next, we looked at how Tamil Nadu manages her water. We travelled down a tiny river called the Noyyal, which feeds the basin that contains Coimbatore and Tiruppur. Story 1, here.
  42. As story 1 showed, TN could not resolve water conflicts along the Noyyal. And so, story 2 looked at the Supreme Court’s intervention to stop water pollution by Tiruppur’s garment industry.
  43. As we saw in Punjab, sand mining and stone crushing (aka, the construction sector) is one way in which politicians/political parties support their party cadre. We tried to understand that better using river sand mining in Tamil Nadu as a case study.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcdrm1Uu2_E
  44. Its fallouts are large. Sand mining doesn’t just hammer rivers. It also has consequences for the state economy (foregone revenue, again), alters competitive advantage in state politics, and more.
  45. And yet, as one saw, none of the checks and balances — media, judiciary, rival political parties, local communities — were able to stop sand mining. Which touches, then, upon larger questions re our capacity to resolve existential threats.
  46. As in Punjab, Tamil Nadu too was seeing people coalesce around identity. In this case, caste identity. The reasons had to do with stagnation, a newfound economic equivalence between castes, and so on.
  47. Along the way, we learnt about Manpower Supply Companies. One of the biggest (if little-studied) changes in industrial employment in India. Formal companies have entered the domain of labour thekedaars (contractors).
  48. Some of these are massive. As many as 60,000 workers on their rolls. And have entirely rearranged industrial labour markets in Tamil Nadu. Some, sigh, are owned by politicians. Not so different from the labour contractors of Odisha, then. The industrial town of Hosur, on the Bangalore-Chennai highway, is one place where a bunch of these changes played out. Our interview with novelist Aadhavan Deetchanya.
  49. And now for something truly odd. In the last seven or so years, learning outcomes in Tamil Nadu have fallen steeply. The state now ranks in the bottom five along with worthies like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
  50. The second part of that story got into more detail.
  51. Take a look at TN’s healthcare numbers and you see something similar. On some metrics, like IMR/MMR, the state is plateauing. On others, like immunisation, it shows steep falls. Which was very odd again. Tamil Nadu is supposed to be one of the best run states in the country. A closer look suggested that, in health, the easy gains had been made (like institutional deliveries to bring down IMR/MMR). The residual problems were more complex (poverty, caste discrimination, gender imbalances). Failing to resolve those, TN’s healthcare dept is instead rolling out “decorative” solutions. Programmes that focused on optics. So even as immunisation coverage fell, the state began supplying “Amma Baby Kits” to newborns — with J Jayalalithaa’s photo. Welfarism was becoming messianic populism. I am channeling Tzvetan Todorov’s The inner enemies of democracy here. He and Zygmunt Bauman have been very useful for me during this project.
  52. The second part of that story got into more detail.
  53. Moving around, each state seemed to embody a different democratic dystopia. Financially unviable (Mizoram), Conflict resulting in a meltdown of rule of law (Manipur), 40 families call all the shots (Odisha), single party rule (Punjab), messianism (Tamil Nadu). Some of which found its way into this Tamil Nadu wrap.
  54. Next was Bihar. Rainfed agriculture. A counterpoint to Punjab with its irrigated agriculture. The first thing that rattled me shortly after reaching the state around October 2016 was its arsenic crisis. And the state’s extraordinarily unconcerned response to it. That was followed by a two month digression when I spent my time travelling, tracking how demonetisation was affecting Bihar. And then, in early January, back to regular programming.
  55. Weak administrative responses to increasingly complex challenges show up elsewhere in the state too. The disease burden of Bihar is changing. Unlike states like Kerala, which are seeing a rise in lifestyle diseases, Bihar is seeing a change in infectious diseases. New ones like Dengue are coming in. An intricate set of unconnected factors are to blame — warmer winters + malnourishment + migrants returning home bearing infections + etc.
  56. Once again, when confronted by complexity, the state’s response was close to non-existent.
  57. Deficiency in service shows over and over again — giving cycles to girl students but not hiring teachers, for eg. This took our reporting in the state beyond describing the here and now — into a search for more abstract answers. Why is the state’s work on matters urgent/important for the poor — regardless of which caste-combo is in power — so pathetic?
  58. Adding to our typology of democratic malfunctions, Bihar looked like quite the absent state. But nature abhors a vaccum. And so, a bunch of others were stepping into the void — from strongmen to coaching centres.
  59. The state was changing in other ways. Changing village markets, for instance, held answers on how out-migration from Bihar is changing. Talking of changing village markets, can you guess what this shop in a village off the town of Araria does? Upendra at his X-ray shop at Geetwas near Araria.
  60. That is Upendra at his X-Ray shop in the village of Geetwas. Even as the state government stayed unchanging, its people were changing in other ways. Like, do you know which films are the most popular in Bihar? Tamil and Telugu. Later, I saw young men in Gujarat see these as well. And, as a friend in Bhubaneswar told me, they sell like hot chai in Odisha as well.
  61. But one of the biggest, recent changes in Bihar is rising communal polarisation by Hindu rightwing organisations. Here is Chhapra.
  62. That, in a state which spurned communal politics just two-three years ago! Since the runup to the last assembly elections in the state, the BJP and its fringe have been trying to replace a horizontal stratification (per caste) with a vertical one (per religion). A look at its mechanics — like Shiv Charchas, Bajrang Dal mobilisations, and more.
  63. In all this, the state government was quiet. Which really made me wonder about this poorly informed mythos around Nitish Kumar. Where was the good governance? The secularism? All of which found its way into this state wrap. And sure enough, a few months later, he tied up with the BJP.
  64. And then, finally, Gujarat. #EarToTheGround reached the state at a time when protests against the GST (a new tax on economic activity) were taking off in the state. The first dispatch looked at why the textile cluster of Surat was up in arms. Companies in the cluster’s disaggregated value chain, we found, were more worried than vertically integrated ones.
  65. But, even before and , smaller units in Surat were in trouble. Rising imports from China; a change in customer tastes as inkjets/waterjets began competing with powerlooms; entry of diamond bizmen from kathiawad, high yarn prices, government policies that benefit raw material suppliers even at the cost of hurting smaller units, they were all to blame. Put it all together and you saw a larger crisis gripping MSMEs in the state.
  66. You see these forces at work across India. In Gujarat’s ceramic cluster of Morbi. And earlier, we saw similar MSME trouble in Odisha, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu. Again, complex problems which get little more than government slogans in returns. Like Make in India
  67. And so, for some years now, as MSME woes mounted, businessmen in Gujarat have pulled investments out of their businesses and put them into India’s booming financial markets — where returns are higher. Post GST, say bizmen, that trend has accelerated further. This flow of capital from business to financial markets is likely to be one reason why India’s stockmarkets are rising even as manufacturing slows.
  68. As things turned out, the traders’ anti-GST protests went nowhere. The tax was introduced. Here is an update on Surat’s response, two months after GST’s introduction, to the new tax regime.
  69. A third major pillar of Gujarat’s economy — after industry and agriculture — is dairy. And so, a two-part series on how Amul is doing. Part 1 pointed at the eroding financials of Banas Dairy, the biggest Amul district cooperative.
  70. These changes are explained by a steady politicisation of Amul. From Gandhian founders to regional satraps to, now, the BJP. And so, part two. How/Why the BJP came to control Amul (and the implications).
  71. It is striking to see how successfully India’s political parties take over rival institutional models. Cooperatives like Amul are one instance. Gujarat’s local governance bodies, like Municipal Corporations, are another instance. This politicisation comes with its own costs. Take Gujarat’s fight against climate change. The state is as badly hit by rising climate variability as any other part of India.
  72. However, urban development authorities, tasked with urban planning but answering to the BJP-run state government, were nowhere near meeting the challenge. Political imperatives/expediency were to blame.
  73. And then, this interview with political scientist Ghanshyam Shah on how Gujarati society is doing – after 20 unbroken years of majoritarianism. Oddly, majority communities are fissuring too, falling back on caste identities. Why? Rising economic insecurity. Which mirrors what we saw in Punjab and Tamil Nadu as well.
  74. All of which left us with large questions: Who has the majoritarian project benefited? Or, differently put, how did the BJP use the power it obtained through majoritarianism? It’s interesting to compare Gujarat with Tamil Nadu — the two industrialised states in our set of six. Both have starkly different equations between business and politics. As we saw in the groundnut story, the oil millers used to determine who would form government. As their star dimmed, that baton shifted to real estate and large conglomerates. In contrast, in TN, politics has always been the one in the driving seat. Perhaps in a related development, TN alternates between its two dominant parties while Guj saw single party rule for 20 years. The political logic (for want of a better phrase) of both states is different too. TN parties have a consensus on welfarism. Even when this degenerated, it did so into messianic populism. No one challenged welfarism itself. In contrast, Gujarat has majoritarianism. Apart from these, one point of similarity between the two. Within single party rule, over the last 15 years, Gujarat has seen great centralisation of power with the Chief Minister. (Like the AIADMK under Jayalalitha). These facets — the bias towards big business, political stability, centralisation and majoritarianism – are fundamental components of the so-called Gujarat Model. Which brings us to our assessment on how Gujarat is doing after 20 years of majoritarian rule. While reporting from Gujarat, among other things, #ETTG learnt about the link between the state’s low HDI numbers and its majoritarian ethos; a link between centralisation and steady communalisation of state administration — including parts of the judiciary; the curious fact that not just the minorities but even the dominant communities are struggling; how people’s attempts to deal with rising insecurity end up strengthening the BJP; which is related to temple/sect politics in the state; which in turn takes us towards the deep state of Gujarat — and India.

And just like that, poof, I am done. All states reporting/writing over. What remains is the all India picture. It makes sense to use these reports as inputs for a more considered piece on India between 2015 and 2017. And so, the all India wrap will have to wait till I get some reading done — Todorov on democracy, Bauman on Liquid Modernity, Acemoglu’s Why Nations Fail, Systems Theory, and more.

For now, I just finished reading John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley’ — his account of a roadtrip around the United States with his poodle, Charley, as he tried to update his understanding of America. He writes: “A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.  Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it.”

That applies to ‘Ear To The Ground’. I entered the project with a sharp schedule. Two months per state for identifying processes, reporting and writing. And three months, luxuriantly, as buffer. It quickly became apparent that I had grossly underestimated (or had no clue about) the complexity I would encounter. By the end of Odisha, the project had created its own structure. Time spent in a state was mostly spent reporting. No more than two or three reports — on relatively technical matters, like environment or business — got filed while in the state. More complex pieces on society and investigative features got completed only after leaving the state. The first because one needs to amass a lot of info before starting to pontificate on something as complex as a society. The second because a lot of secondary data, etc, needed to be processed. In all, by the time the last report got filed, it was the 33rd month.

Even personally, I am yet to come to terms with ‘Ear To The Ground’. It has been an intense time. There were places where I struggled. Thanks to it, as I told a colleague, I have lost several illusions about India, several illusions about myself. But there was never a moment when I regretted the idea. I learned a lot. More than that, I met many fabulous people — and become close friends with some of them. Even more than that, I received so much grace from everyone I met. In all, I look back and find myself wishing I was back at the start. At that forest hut in the village of Damparengpui. Up on a ridge with the rain crashing all around. Working on that first report about Dampa Tiger Reserve.

I now need to spend some quiet days. Locking all those memories into my brain. I do not want them fading away. And then, the larger-conclusions-from-it-all pieces.

That is it. Thanks for reading.

Few people seem happy with BJP’s rule in Gujarat, yet the party still controls the state. Why?

In April 2017, Scroll.in’s Ear to the Ground project reached Gujarat. Each of the other states covered by the project thus far – Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Bihar – showed one democratic malfunction or another. What about Gujarat?

Gujarat is unique in our subset of six states in having been under the rule of one party – the Bharatiya Janata Party – for 22 years. Particularly under the chief ministership of Narendra Modi, which lasted 12 and a half years, Gujarat saw extraordinary centralisation of power. As the human rights lawyer and activist Girish Patel said, one man’s word was final. As for the Assembly, Patel said, it was called only when constitutionally required. Between 2007 and 2012, the Assembly convened for just 31 days every year.

As Gujarat’s people vote for a crucial Assembly election, the first after Modi moved to New Delhi as the country’s prime minister, five trends characterise the state’s political economy…

And that, drumroll, is the wrap of all our Gujarat reporting. We are now done with all states reporting for ‘Ear To The Ground’. What remains is the all India wrap. Which I will pick up after some time.

One last thing, though. These articles have popped up at sporadic intervals. And so, there is a real possibility that Scroll.in readers will have missed some of them. And so, links to places where you can see them all — clumped together like scummy algae, so to speak — Scroll’s Ear To The Ground page; this twitter thread which contains links to all stories plus a small introduction to each (Twitter has this habit of not showing all tweets. It shows some and then bunches the rest as “xx more replies”. You will need to click on each of those to get the whole list of articles); this page with links to all my Scroll.in stories — including non-ETTG stuff like the DeMonetisation reportage.

Do see sometime. Thanks so much. And have a good end to the year.

Update: Since that post, I have exited Twitter. A long overdue decision. A version of that twitter thread I mention, here.

Urban planning: Why Gujarat’s cities are losing their fight against a changing climate

Out today, the second — and concluding — part of our series on Gujarat and climate variability.

Urban planning has seen a lot of changes in Gujarat.

Take Rajkot. In 1973, when this town in Saurashtra became a municipality, its municipal corporation was responsible for urban planning. That changed in 1976 when Gujarat passed the Gujarat Town Planning and Urban Development Act. Following this, Urban Development Authorities were set up in Gujarat’s biggest towns, and urban planning responsibilities were divided between these new bodies and the municipalities. While municipalities would handle town plans, the Urban Development Authorities would draw up development plans.

The difference is one of scale. Development plans work on larger areas – such as planning the city’s expansion – and look 20 years to 30 years into the future. They map the broad contours of a city such as zones and road networks. Zones include categorisations like residential, industrial and green spaces. On the other hand, town plans flesh out the development plan in detail, and work on a shorter timeframe.

To understand how Rajkot is preparing for a changing climate, which has resulted in more intense heat waves and changing rainfall patterns in Gujarat, as reported in the first part of this series, it is important to look at the functioning of the Rajkot Urban Development Authority or RUDA.

Gujarat is battered by heat waves, floods, drought. How are its cities coping?

What does the climate map of Gujarat currently look like?

Southern parts of the state get fewer days of rainfall now. In Surat, for instance, locals say that rainfall patterns over the city began changing about 15 years ago, with the city getting fewer days of rain each year. However, the rainfall is more intense, so Surat floods more often.

In Ahmedabad, 270 km to the north, the mercury topped 50 degrees Celsius last year – the previous high was 47.8 degrees Celsius over 100 years ago, in 1916. Another 150 km to the north lies Banaskantha, a normally arid region. Here, heavy rains caused flooding this year. To the south-west, in arid Saurashtra, farmers and scientists talk about delayed monsoons, increasingly torrential downpours and increased flooding.

There is little that is surprising here. Across India, climate variability is disrupting the structures of everyday life. In 2015, changing mid-latitude westerlies triggered a whitefly infestation that ruined Punjab’s cotton crop. In Tamil Nadu, rising sea temperatures have affected the fish catch. Inland, towards the town of Sivagangai, a weakening South-West monsoon has contributed to a drop in farm earnings and rising indebtedness. In Bihar, scientists in the agriculture university outside Bhagalpur say that crop yields are falling as heat waves increase in frequency.

The first five states Scroll.in’s Ear To The Ground project reported from – Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Bihar – were not doing much to adapt to, or mitigate the effects of, such climatic changes.

What about Gujarat?

The Amul story: How politics is hurting the economics of Gujarat’s milk cooperatives

In the winter of 2013, the inner workings of Amul briefly became public. A boardroom putsch was underway. The directors of no less than 14 of the 17 district milk cooperatives that were then part of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation, which owns the Amul brand, had turned against chairman Vipul Chaudhary. A member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Chaudhary was part of the Shanker Singh Vaghela-faction that had branched out as a separate party in 1996 and formed a shortlived government with Congress support. Chaudhary had since then returned to the BJP, but in 2013, others in the Amul federation suspected him of cosying up to the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre. This cost him the support of BJP-controlled district milk cooperatives, news reports said.

In the course of the power struggle, serious accusations of financial impropriety surfaced against Chaudhary, who was also the chairman of the milk cooperative at Mehsana. Board members charged him with selling 7,000 tonnes of milk powder at low rates to private buyers, resulting in losses for the Mehsana dairy. It was also alleged that Chaudhary had created excess manufacturing capacities without taking permission from the federation. This had led to a higher interest and depreciation burden, resulting in huge losses, alleged RS Sodhi, the managing director of the federation.

But with public attention focused elsewhere – the 2014 national election was already creating headlines – Amul’s boardroom battle did not get the attention it deserved. In January 2014, the dissidents won. Chaudhary was removed. Amul found itself a new chairman and vice-chairman. A curtain dropped on its functioning all over again.

This year, in August, the curtain parted briefly when Ramsinh Parmar, the MLA from Thasra constituency, left the Congress to join the BJP. Parmar wasn’t just one more MLA deserting the Congress before state assembly elections. As the chairman of the Kaira milk cooperative, he was the last standing non-BJP chairman in the federation.

The majoritarian project in Gujarat only serves the rich, says political scientist Ghanshyam Shah

In the run-up to Assembly elections in December, Gujarat is in the throes of powerful forces.

On the one hand, some of its principal economic pillars, such as small manufacturing and agriculture, are in trouble. At the same time, the state is seeing a curious fissuring. What was once a separation between Hindus and Muslims has spread further. It is visible not just in the case of Una – where Dalits rose in protest after four tanners from the community were accused of cow slaughter and attacked in July 2016 – or the Patidar agitation for reservations in jobs and education, but also within the Patel community. It is getting increasingly difficult for Kadva Patels to get a house in a Leuva Patel colony and vice-versa, this reporter was told in Rajkot. Look closer at the state and you will see other shifts. Public displays of devotion during festivals are on the rise, for instance.

Trying to make sense of such changes, Scroll.in spoke with Ghanshyam Shah, a leading political scientist on Gujarat and the author of Social Movements in India. As we learnt, some of these patterns are visible elsewhere in India – like Punjab turning to gurus and deras or religious organisations as economic insecurity deepens. Other changes, however, are fruit from a very different tree. Gujarat has been under majoritarian governments for the last 20 years. Come here and you see what happens to a society once majoritarian politics wins. How its rulers use the power they accumulate. How society – the minority and majority communities alike – changes….

Do read.

‘This government is killing our businesses’: What small, medium enterprises think of GST revisions

After Friday’s GST Council meeting, which decided to cut the goods and services tax rate on two dozen commodities and announced relaxations for exporters and small and medium companies, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the changes brought in an early Diwali.

The business press was bullish as well. “Three months on, GST now good for small traders,” said one headline.

This ebullience is intriguing. The impact of the Goods and Services Tax is complicated. Billed as India’s biggest tax reform, GST subsumes all the indirect taxes that businesses earlier paid the Centre and states separately with the aim of creating a common market. It involves a complete overhaul of the tax filing system.

Since its implementation on July 1, as several articles in Scroll.in and other publications have shown, small and medium companies in a range of industries are struggling to stay viable while complying with the new tax regime’s requirements. That is not all. GST also affects different companies in the same industry in different ways. For both these reasons, the GST Council’s revisions on Friday deserve a closer look. How far do they go? Do they really address the major concerns of all Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, also known as MSMEs, in the country?

How palm oil from Malaysia fired the Patel agitation in Gujarat

Dhirubhai is in dire straits. He can no longer recover his investments on the groundnuts he grows on three acres of land along the Junagadh-Verawal road in Gujarat.

In a good year, he grows 100 kilos of groundnuts – or peanuts – for every Rs 4,000 he invests. The minimum support price – or the price at which the government buys the crop – is Rs 4,400. But the middle-aged farmer said government officials buy only from “vyapari aur mota rajkarmi” (traders and big farmers). Smaller farmers like him sell to private oil mills at very low rates. Last year, he got just Rs 3,500 for every 100 kilos of groundnuts – lower than both his investment and the minimum support price.

Blame it on rising edible oil imports — especially palm oil. And therein hangs a story. Do read.

Why small businessmen in Gujarat are quitting industry and turning to financial speculation

Two major trends are playing out in Gujarat’s economy.

On one hand, small industrial units are shutting down. This is not a recent development. Micro, small and medium units in the state started getting into trouble about five years ago, well before the central government demonetised high-value currency notes in November and introduced the Goods and Services Tax in July. As Scroll.in reported from Surat, several factors were at work – rising imports from China, the entry of bigger players with greater economies of scale, and government policies such as import duties that favoured bigger companies over smaller ones.

On the other hand, financial investments have boomed in Gujarat. Two years ago, a sharebroking firm in Rajkot, Marwadi Shares, was adding about 1,000 new customers every month. That is now up to 6,000 new customers a month, said Ketan Marwadi, its managing director.

Data for the last five years shows the state’s people are investing more in fixed deposits, mutual funds and small savings accounts.

Businessmen in the state say the two trends are related – an industrial slowdown is leading to a rise in financial investments.

Two months in, How is GST affecting Surat’s textile hub?

Three months ago, when the central government was getting ready to roll out the Goods and Services Tax, the textile industrial cluster of Surat, Gujarat, India’s biggest manufacturer of synthetic fabrics, was distinctly nervous.

At play were two conflicting views of how the new tax regime would affect India’s predominantly informal business sector. The government said GST would make it impossible for firms to evade tax. Even small companies would enter the tax net, boosting both the formalisation of India’s economy and tax revenue. Companies in the Surat cluster, however, were unsure if they could pay these taxes and remain competitive.

Such fears, dismissed by GST supporters as no more than a desire to avoid paying taxes, resulted in the industry petitioning the government several times. When that failed to deliver relief, they went on a general strike in mid-June. The government still did not yield. There was a police crackdown, and the strike petered out. GST was rolled out as planned on July 1.

Two months on, where do things stand? What do these early days of the new tax system tell us about which scenario is playing out? Are businesses formalising? Or are they heading into trouble?

What we talk about when we talk about Bihar

A wrap of all our #EarToTheGround reportage from Bihar is finally out.

The arsenic crisis is not the only problem area where the state’s response has been weak and underwhelming. Bihar has improved on law and order, roads and power, but as the previous stories in Scroll.in’s Ear To The Ground series have reported, its performance on matters crucial for the poor – preventing infectious diseases, implementing the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme that promises all rural households 100 days of employment in a year, pushing land redistribution, providing quality education – remains abysmal.

This needs to be understood….

Do read.

PS: Our previous wraps, here. Tamil Nadu. Punjab. Odisha. Mizoram. And, this one, at the halfway stage.

As Gujarat’s Vadnagar station gets a makeover, a local resident asks: ‘How many jobs will it create?

Gujarat’s Vadnagar station is getting the mother of all makeovers.

Its solitary rail track – a 57-km long metre-gauge line connecting the town of Mehsana to the Jain temple at Taranga – has been ripped out. It is being replaced by a broad-gauge line and extended till Abu Road in the neighbouring state of Rajasthan.

Paint and plaster have been hammered off the tiny asbestos-roofed building housing the station’s ticketing office and station master’s room. It is being redone as a part of a Rs 8 crore project to redevelop the station as a heritage station, said Hardik Bhand, who runs the ticketing office at the station.

Look to the left and the station’s solitary platform blurs into a construction site. One group of men carries iron rods bent into rectangular brackets past the yellow board at the edge of the platform announcing the station’s name. Another set inserts these rods into the steel scaffoldings of what will become concrete pillars. Behind them, an earthmover moves soil around. The whole station is seeing an upgrade. From one platform to three. From one train trip a day – which stops at Vadnagar while heading to Taranga and again while heading back – to three a day.

It is a real overhaul. At one time, with its single platform and no more than two train halts a day, this station in North Gujarat must have been quite sleepy. And pretty too – herons roost on the trees behind the station.

It is not easy to locate the reason for this exuberance of redevelopment. Around here somewhere is the tea stall where Prime Minister Narendra Modi used to sell chai as a child. But ask around and you get contradictory answers….

Caste Calculus: How the BJP is expanding its footprint in Bihar

In a hamlet between Badlapura and Chirandgaon villages near Chhapra, Bihar, a small temple is packed with about 40 women. Unmindful of the summer afternoon heat, they are absorbed in worshipping the Hindu god Shiva.

It is a Shiv Charcha, Ajay Pandey, the priest of a nearby temple, explained. The women live in five villages surrounding the temple and get together for three or four hours of prayer every afternoon. Crucially, they belong to different jaatis, or sub-castes.

Shiv Charchas are a recent addition to religious life in Saran district. “These started in our area three or four years ago,” said Arun Kumar Das, a Dalit activist from a nearby village, Baniyapur. What sets these apart from other such religious practices, Das said, is the focus on Dalit women.

Shiv Charchas were apparently introduced to Bihar about five years ago by one Harendra Bhai. He was born into the Bhumihar caste in Bihar’s Siwan, according to Pandey, and he and his wife Neelam set up Shiv Charchas in Jharkhand before moving back to Bihar.

It isn’t clear whether the Shiv Charchas are affiliated to the Sangh Parivar, the network of organisations that espouse Hindutva, but they are aiding the electoral prospects of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state.

Part 2. Note the bit about whether only casteism can beat communalism too.

Fear and loathing in Chhapra: How a peaceful Bihar town became a communal tinderbox

Over the past four years, religious tension has steadily increased in Chhapra, Bihar.

For evidence, see how this once peaceful town in Saran district now celebrates Ram Navmi or Maha Shivaratri: the high point of the festivities is large processions of young men wearing saffron headbands brandishing swords and shouting “Jai Shri Ram” to a soundtrack of techno music.

Most chants, though, are not remotely religious, said Jeelani Mobin, the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s head of Chhapra Zilla Parishad. “Doodh maango, kheer dengay. Kashmir maango cheer dengay,” goes one slogan. “Ask for milk and we’ll give you kheer. Ask for Kashmir and we will cut you down.”

In such a charged atmosphere, even petty disputes take on communal overtones. “Recently, a Muslim boy killed a monkey that had been biting passersby,” Mobin offered an example. “A village headman began saying ‘Hanuman has been killed’ and a mob quickly took shape.”

In Wajidpur, a small village about half an hour from Chhapra, Mohammad Shamsher, 22, was stabbed by a group of Hindu boys on the day of Holi, March 13. Shamsher died on the way to hospital. Two days later, his family told Scroll.in they still did not know why he had been murdered. But what had transpired just after the stabbing was telling.

Over the last four or five years, the Bajrang Dal, the muscle of the Hindutva network known as the Sangh Parivar, has established itself firmly in this part of Bihar. If there is any incident involving Muslims, its members quickly reach the spot. This is what happened on March 13. Shamsher was stabbed at half past six in the evening. At around eight, a Bajrang Dal posse assembled in the lane leading to the 25-odd Muslim houses and the mosque.

Go to a state. Urgently ask about the biggest, newest changes. And sometimes you find really ugly stuff. As in Bihar. Five months in that state and the biggest development seemed to be this abrupt spike in communal tensions. It was a puzzling spike too. One that did not fit into the state’s past history of communal violence — the triggers, the nature of violence, they are both different.

This is Part One. Do read.

Beyond Surat’s GST strike: New technologies, Chinese imports are causing a churn in textile sector

At one time, the neighbourhood around Surat’s textile markets was noisy.

The street resounded with the clacketing of powerlooms – five or six machines in dark, poorly ventilated rooms with split levels. Most of these were family-run businesses. The looms were on the groundfloor with families working by day and sleeping upstairs at night.

Now, the inner city is more quiet. There are still powerlooms aplenty in the industrial clusters around the town. But within the town, they increasingly show up in junkyards and the shops of scrap merchants. The premises that used to house them now lie empty or have been repurposed. Some are used by people in the embroidery trade. Others serve as parking spaces for two wheelers.

The castes that traditionally operated these looms – Khatris and Ghanchis – have left the trade as well. Some have entered new businesses. This reporter met some driving rickshaws. Others have given out their premises on rent and live off that income.

This silence – and the departure of weavers from their traditional trade – reflects something important. Surat’s small and medium businesses were struggling even before the government announced that it would implement the Goods and Services Tax from July 1, subsuming all indirect taxes, from octroi to service tax, into one rate that would be consistent nation-wide. This reflects the situation Scroll’s Ear To The Ground project found in the other states we reported from as well. There too, small and medium enterprises were in trouble.

The second (and concluding) part of our article on Surat’s textile cluster gets into more detail — and asks pointed questions about India’s vapid claims of manufacturing competitiveness.

In Surat’s textile hub, small businesses are afraid of GST – but big companies are not

Rajesh Mehra is desolate.

A big-boned man in his mid-fifties, he is a trader in women’s blouses.

Until ten years ago, Mehra used to take orders from garment wholesalers in big cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru, buy the cloth and thread he needed from garment clusters like Silvassa, and get the blouses stitched in Amritsar.

But this business model ran into trouble when blouse-making units came up in Surat, one of India’s biggest synthetic fabric and sari-making clusters. Enjoying advantages like proximity to cloth- and thread-makers, these units made cheaper blouses than their counterparts in Amritsar.

In response, Mehra made a hard call. He left his family behind in Amritsar and moved to Surat, working on the assumption that having a perch in that city would help him sell better.

Now, as India readies to overhaul its tax regime for businesses, replacing a welter of sales and income taxes with a single tax called the Goods and Services Tax, Mehra has run out of ideas. “Kya hoga?” he asked. “Kaise chalega yeh sab?” What will happen? How can this business continue?

Anxieties about how GST will impact their businesses have prompted textile traders to go on a nationwide strike over three days this week. But not everyone in Surat’s textile hub is worried.

No more than 20 minutes away from Mehra’s shop in the basement of a building opposite Surat’s old Ratan Cinema, in the heart of the town’s textile market, lies the soot-blackened industrial estate of Pandesara. This is where Sanjay Saraogi works.

Saraogi, who looks far younger than his 46 years, is the managing director of Rs 450 crore Laxmipati Saris.

Described by his peers as one of the sharpest minds in the Surat textile industry, he entered the family business at 14 when his father fell very ill – he would go to school in the morning and spend the rest of the day in the shop. Over the last ten years, he has steered Laxmipati beyond trading into sari manufacturing.

When it comes to GST, he is relatively unconcerned. It will be good for businesses like ours, he said.

The contrasting responses of Mehra and Saraogi offer a picture of how GST will affect people and companies in India’s manufacturing economy.

What’s common between coaching classes in Bihar and its bahubali leaders?

Career Plan Coaching Centre is not much to look at. It is a tiny room, tightly packed with benches and desks, housed in an unplastered brick structure, one half of which is a garage.

A board advertises the services offered by the centre, located in Geetwas, a small village near Araria in northeastern Bihar: tuitions for students between class 8 and class 12.

But, as Gautam Kumar, a mathematics graduate in his mid-twenties who runs the centre, explains, he does not merely provide supplementary education to students lagging in one or two subjects – he teaches the entire school curriculum.

Career Plan is a homegrown response to the larger crisis of public school education in Bihar.

The third — and concluding — article in our series on government functioning in Bihar looks at the aftermath of a state absenting itself.

Bihar’s Nitish Kumar has been in power for 12 years. Why has he failed to change its fortunes?

Kanwar jheel is a freshwater lake spread over 6,311 hectares in Bihar’s Begusarai district. Till the 1970s, the lake used to attract as many as 100,000 freshwater birds each year. But, in recent decades, it has been under attack. Landowners from the Bhumihar caste have been draining Kanwar jheel to farm on its lakebed. This has resulted in protests from local fishermen, belonging to an extremely backward caste called the Sahnis.

What is telling, said Arvind Mishra, an environmentalist who lives in Begusarai, is the government’s reaction. Despite an order by the Patna High Court and appeals from the Sahnis and environmentalists, it has not intervened.

The fallout: Sahnis, who are seeing their fish catch fall, are hunting birds instead. Between that and the habitat loss, the number of birds coming to Kanwar jheel has fallen to 4,500-5,000 each year, he said.

What explains the lack of government response?

The second part of our trilogy on why Bihar underperforms on the welfare and development front.

Bihar is struggling to improve the lives of the poor even after 27 years of backward caste rule

The district hospital of Muzaffarpur, 100 km north of Patna, Bihar’s capital, is struggling with a shortage of doctors.

With 160 beds and an estimated inflow of 500-600 new patients each day, the hospital should have 48 full-time doctors and 52 nurses, said one of its administrators. What it has, instead, is 12 full-time doctors, 24 part-time doctors and 28 nurses. The Intensive Care Unit should have four doctors but has just one. The unit for newborn babies, which should have four pediatricians, is managing with just one.

Given such understaffing, the hospital doesn’t meet the district’s healthcare needs.

When Madina Begum, a resident of Ratnauli village, took a neighbour with a temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit to the hospital, she said, “All the doctors did was give her a bottle of saline. Nothing else. No medicine.” The woman’s companions had to put wet clothes on her all night to cool the fever down.

That is the story across Bihar. Seventy years after Independence, the state’s healthcare infrastructure continues to be grossly inadequate. Seventeen of the 38 districts in the state have no more than three government doctors for every 100,000 people. One district, Siwan, has just one doctor for 100,000 people. The highest, Sheikhpura, has eight doctors per 100,000 – or one for every 12,500 people. To put that in perspective, the WHO-prescribed level is 1:1,000.

In the same way, while the Right To Education law mandates student-teacher ratios at 30:1 in primary schools and 35:1 in upper primary, the ratio in Bihar districts hovers between 43:1 and 96:1. As a result, learning outcomes are poor in the state.

All of which echoes what we saw — in relatively greater detail — in the state’s remarkably inadequate response to both arsenic contamination of groundwater and the rising incidence of dengue. Embedded in all this is a paradox. In the last 12 years under chief minister Nitish Kumar, as the article says, Bihar has notched up large improvements in law and order, road connectivity and electricity supply. But its performance on issues crucial for the poor – like health, education and land redistribution – remains weak.

Which is odd. In the last 27 years, the state has been ruled by backward caste leaders, who rose to power by appealing to the poor. Given that, why is Bihar’s track record on crucial issues that most affect the poor so underwhelming?

Out today is the first of a three-part answer to that question.

How technology is changing popular culture in Bihar

Sudhanshu is hard at work in his shop on Patna’s busy Boring Road. The small strip of a shop has two desktop computers, both loaded with music and movies downloaded from the internet.

The songs and films are Sudhanshu’s livelihood. Boring Road, with its government college and several dozen coaching centres, is a beehive of students. Every day, several of them visit the shop to purchase the latest movies and songs for their phones and pen drives.

One sleepy afternoon in March, Sudhanshu, who does not look older than 20, rattled off the names of the hit movies of the moment: Akhil The Power of Jua, Heart Attack, Businessman 2, Shivam, Viraat, The Return of Raju. All South Indian films, mostly Telugu, dubbed into Hindi for audiences in the north.

“We have more people coming here for Tamil and Telugu films than for films in other languages,” Sudhanshu said. Apparently, South Indian films have soared in popularity in the last five years. And not just in Patna. At an autorickshaw stand outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College Hospital in Bhagalpur city on another March afternoon, two young men were watching a movie on a mobile phone.

Which film? “Tamil hai,” one of them replied. It is Tamil.

Wait! Why are people in Bihar watching Tamil/Telugu movies all of a sudden? Read on.

Bihar can’t even count how many dengue cases it has had, let alone fight the disease

In Bhagalpur, the historic Bihar city on the southern banks of the river Ganga, doctors disagree about the threat of dengue in the area. Vijay Kumar, the civil surgeon for Bhagalpur, says dengue is under control. His statement has been flatly contradicted by doctors at Bhagalpur’s Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital. The hospital identified its first dengue case about four or five years ago. Since then, said an administrator, the number of cases has grown. “We had 441 confirmed cases last year – almost double from the previous year.”

Bihar’s exposure to dengue is relatively recent but the state needs to start fighting the disease. Fighting dengue can be easy because there are clear measures that need to be taken. Since there is no cure and no vaccines for the disease, doctors can only treat symptoms – pain, chills, fever, nausea and vomiting, rashes and bleeding. In most cases the disease subsides but a few cases may be so severe that without hospitalisation and treatment it can lead to death. If a patient has excessive bleeding or a very low platelet count he might be given a platelet infusion.

But fighting dengue is also difficult because it requires meticulous and consistent control of the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes – the main species of mosquitoes that carry and spread the dengue virus. This can be done using anti-mosquito sprays to kill the mosquitoes that are normally active during the day. Dengue control also involves thwarting the mosquitoes from breeding, which can be done by reducing places – any stagnant water – where they can lay eggs. To ensure this, regular water supply is essential so that people stock less water. Also important is good garbage disposal.

Given the meticulous work needed to combat diseases like Dengue, how is Bihar doing? And what does its response tell us about the state?

Lessons from Bihar’s 2016 dengue outbreak : Migration, poverty, garbage are spreading new diseases

In 2016, dengue hammered Krah. As many as 100 people living in this densely-packed, predominantly Muslim ghetto of about 1,000 families near Biharsharif contracted the disease, say residents. The scale of the outbreak was unprecedented. As Mohammad Ilyas, a young tailor who works and lives in Krah, said: “We never had such an outbreak earlier.”

The disease itself is a newcomer to the region. Krah and surrounding areas have been battered by many diseases. But many of the old diseases are in decline now, according to Dr Lakshmi Chaudhary who runs a clinic in adjacent Silao. “There were only two-three cases of jaundice last year,” he said. “Hepatitis B is even lower. We now almost never see cases of diarrhoea.”

Here, people now suffer from other ailments. There is more cancer, dengue and chikungunya, said Chaudhary.

This is the story across Bihar. Doctors, epidemiologists and people living across the state say that in the last ten years the state’s disease burden has seen three large changes. First, some infectious diseases like kala azar, measles, diphtheria, pertussis and polio that used to wreak havoc earlier are far less common now. Second, people are falling to new diseases like drug-resistant tuberculosis, dengue, chikungunya, Japanese encephalitis and arsenic poisoning. Third, some of the old infectious diseases – hepatitis A and E, malaria, pneumococcal meningitis and typhoid – are claiming more patients than before.

This, as the article says, is very different from the epidemiological transitions in other states. And gets into the reasons why. Part two, out tomorrow, will look at the state’s response to these causal factors.

Cancer has exploded in Bihar as lakhs of people drink water poisoned with arsenic

It is a day like any other at Mahavir Cancer Sansthan.

The driveway is lined with people who have travelled a long way to get to this charitable hospital in Patna. Families sit huddled, holding their bags close. The lobby is even more crowded, rather like the ticket buying hall of a train station.  The hospital gets between 60 and 100 patients every day – a substantial number for a 400-bed hospital. Ashok Ghosh, who heads research at the hospital, said that the load is such that “surgery has a two-month waiting list even though the disease might become inoperable by then”.

On the morning this reporter met him, Ghosh made a wry comment about the rush, asking: “When you entered this hospital, did this look like a cancer hospital or a general hospital?”

One reason this hospital is receiving so many patients is the dismal state of public healthcare in Bihar. Government hospitals are understaffed and poorly equipped. While the state has seen a jump in the number of private hospitals, most of them are too expensive for middle income and poor families in the state. Most of them, Ghosh said, end up coming to Mahavir Cancer Sansthan.

But lack of affordable care is not the only reason. Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, one of the best cancer treatment facilities in India, gets about 25,000 patients every year from around the country. In contrast, Mahavir Cancer Sansthan gets nearly as many at about 22,000 patients last year despite drawing patients from just Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal. Many of these patients suffer from cancers of the gall bladder or liver, both which are associated with arsenic toxicity.

What we talk about when we talk about Tamil Nadu

It is out. Scroll’s wrap of all our #EarToTheGround reporting from Tamil Nadu.

How is Tamil Nadu doing?

Ask a layperson this question and, chances are, they will have good things to say. It does have a reputation for being one of the country’s better governed states. A welfarist state where, in marked contrast to large swathes of India, the government provides good healthcare and education to its people.

Between February and August, Scroll.in’s #EarToTheGround project reported from the state. And it found that this perception is no longer true.

Think Tamil Nadu has good public healthcare? It’s hard to find it on the ground

the concluding part of our story on why Tamil Nadu’s healthcare system is weakening.

In India’s development circles, Tamil Nadu is viewed as one of the best performing states in the delivery of public welfare like education and healthcare.

But, as the first part of this story reported, the state is improving on some public health indices (institutional deliveries), plateauing in others (infant and maternal mortality), and slipping backwards elsewhere (vaccinations, awareness about HIV/AIDS).

Why is it yielding such contradictory outcomes? Part of the answer lies in the weakening of its public health system.

Tamil Nadu’s healthcare numbers look good – but its people aren’t getting healthier

Out today, the first part of our final #ETTG story from Tamil Nadu. This one says the state’s much-vaunted healthcare system is weakening.

On some fronts, the state’s public health system continues to work well. Today, nearly all babies in Tamil Nadu are delivered in clinics – from 87% in 2002-’04, institutional deliveries climbed to 98.9% in 2012-’13.

But in many other areas, the state’s progress is plateauing. Improvement in infant and maternal mortality rates, for instance, has drastically slowed down in recent years.

On a few parameters, however, the state is moving backwards. The number of pregnant women visited at home by health department staffers, for instance, has fallen between 2002 and 2014.

As the story asks: “Why is the state’s healthcare delivery system delivering such starkly different outcomes?”

Paneerselvam has a major task: To reverse Tamil Nadu’s slipping development standards

O Panneerselvam has a tough task ahead of him.

Contrary to popular perception, which credits Tamil Nadu with high scores on development indices and a smoothly functioning administration, the state has lost ground over the last ten or so years.

Take education. Between 2010 and now, the number of students passing the state board exams has increased from 85% to 95%. In the same period, the number of students scoring centums (100%) has spiked as well.

However, these numbers, as Scroll reported last month, are challenged by none other than the National Council of Educational Research and Training’s National Achievement Surveys, which point to a precipitous drop in the quality of school education in the state.

Or take healthcare delivery. As a forthcoming story in Scroll will show, while Tamil Nadu continues to score high on metrics like institutional delivery, its numbers on Infant Mortality Rate and Maternal Mortality Ratio have plateaued. The state has also slipped on other metrics like immunisation coverage.

A closer study of why the state does well on some metrics while faltering on others leads to an important conclusion.

Tamil Nadu tried to reform its schools – but made them much worse

the concluding part of our story on TN’s school education system.

A former official in the state examinations department traced the disarray to a handful of factors – among them the decision to do away with exams, the obduracy of matriculation schools, and rising pressure on the education department to show good results.

Tamil Nadu’s schools are in crisis (but nobody is talking about it)

How good are Tamil Nadu’s schools?

If you take a look at the exam results in the state, you would get the impression that they are in sound shape.

Between 2010 and 2016, the percentage of students passing the state’s tenth standard board exams rose from mid-eighties to mid-nineties. So did the scores and the tally of students getting a centum, or 100%.

In the same period, twelfth standard results showed a similar trend. The pass percentage increased from 85% to 91%, along with the average marks and centums.

However, these numbers clash with the findings of the National Achievement Surveys.

Conducted by the Central government’s National Council for Education, Research and Training to track learning outcomes, the survey conducts classroom tests every three years for students in the third, fifth, eighth and tenth grades in all Indian states and Union territories. Its assessment of India’s tenth standard students in 2015 placed Tamil Nadu’s students close to the bottom in every subject.

The second — and concluding — part of this story will be published tomorrow.

And now for something completely different

Some photos from my first field trip in Bihar. Patna-Muzaffarpur-Araria-Bhagalpur-Patna. A tea seller on the banks of the Kosi. A village market. A villager who, seeking sustenance, set up an x ray clinic in his village.

Field trip number two. Patna-Raxaul-Bettiah-Gopalganj-Darbhanga-Patna. A smoggy sunrise in Gopalganj. Hazarimal’s Dharamshala in Bettiah (This is where Gandhi had stayed while collecting testimonies from indigo farmers during the Champaran satyagraha — his first satyagraha in India. And just look at the state of this valuable building now). Vegetable seller in Bettiah vegetable mandi.

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Surviving on jugaad with help from Sai Baba 400 km from home

The camp looked intriguing. About a dozen tents – no more than plastic sheets covered by old sarees – standing in the midst of a strange amalgam of jury-rigged vehicles one day in March.

One of the vehicles was still recognisable as a cycle rickshaw, despite its reinforced axle, thickened frame and motorcycle wheels. The rest were cycle carts – the kind vegetable vendors pull around in India’s streets – with motorcycle engines welded onto the frame. The open cart had been replaced by a large metal box with faded posters of the Sai Baba of Shirdi, a Muslim spiritual leader who became immensely popular with Hindus in the 19th century and is still revered today.

Each of the carts housed a shrine of Sai Baba. And yet the group, camping along the road to Pichavaram, a fishing village in coastal Tamil Nadu, were not devotees travelling around the country spreading his gospel.

They were not even Tamilians. They were from a village near Nellore in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and had been on the road for two months.

‘No ideology, no political idea’: Hosur shows what happens when a society has been sedated

In the last 40 years, Hosur has been on a rollercoaster.

In 1973, this Tamil Nadu town on the border with Karnataka was chosen as the site for the state’s second industrial cluster. Through the ’70s, a diverse clutch of companies, producing everything from trucks to garments to medicines, set up factories here. Hosur began to emerge as one of India’s new manufacturing centres. In the decades that followed, however, the town did not live up to its initial promise. Its boom in manufacturing ended and was replaced by another – one that pivoted around real estate.

It was a complex trajectory. Not only did the boom and bust engender different winners and losers, they also impacted the town’s caste, religious, political and social structures in different ways.

Hosur’s experience is relevant today. As the previous story in this series reported, struggling companies in the state’s industrial clusters are trying to cut down on their labour costs. It’s a script that played out in Hosur about 20 years ago.

As the town’s fortunes rose, fell and then rose again, one of its residents, observed the changes closely. In Tamil Nadu’s literary circles, poet and novelist Aadhavan Deetchanya is well-known for a set of satirical stories he has sited in two imaginary lands – Liberalpalayam and Kakkanadu.

The first is a land that has embraced liberalisation. “At one point, I thought we do not need to call this country India or Bharat any more,” Said Deetchanya. “We should call it Liberalpalayam – palayam means place or town.”

The ten stories he set here look at what people, government and society are like in a liberalised economy. “There is this idea that if you want a good road, you will need to pay a toll so that we can build the road,” said Deetchanya. “And so, in Liberalpayalam, the government follows the same system while building houses. It builds houses and puts up a toll-booth between the bedroom and the bathroom.”

Kakkanadu means potty land. In four stories located here, Deetchanya inverts our society that condemns scavengers as outcasts, and reimagines a society where scavenging is the most sought-after profession. In Kakkanadu, manual scavengers – who clean up human excreta – live in houses larger than the president’s. They get paid more than him. Here, it is the person unskilled at scavenging who is scorned. Unlike our society, where someone who doesn’t study well will hear: “You are only fit to clear garbage.” In Kakkanadu, people will be told, “You are only fit to be a judge or collector!” It is a society where everyone wants to be a manual scavenger. Even the president quits his job to become a scavenger.

Excerpts from a six-hour chat on Hosur.

when we started the #eartotheground project, i had planned to chronicle change in these states through interviews with writers. the plan floundered in mizoram and odisha. but worked partially in punjab — where one of our biggest insights into Punjab came out of a rum-fueled chat with writer desraj kali.

In the last 15 years, novelist and writer Desraj Kali has seen Punjab undergo some striking changes. But none is as striking as its gradual religious revolution.

A growing number of people in the predominantly Sikh state, he says, are now visiting Hindu temples. Not those of principal deities like Vishnu, Shiva and Rama, but of Shani, the elder brother of the god of death Yama, who is notorious for his malefic influence on life.

More than ever before, Kali says, people are visiting the gurudwara of Baba Deep Singh in Amritsar. According to legend, Deep Singh, a Sikh warrior, was decapitated while battling the forces of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the king of Afghanistan. In a niche in the perimeter of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, there is a painting depicting the storied aftermath: Deep Singh, holding his severed head with his left hand and swinging a massive sword with his right, continued to fight, and died only after reaching the Golden Temple.

There are more, says Kali. People in increasing numbers are placing chadars at Pirs’ mazaars. There is a “thousand-fold” increase in the number of tantrik ads in the local media. Eeven orthodox Sikhs – Amritdhaaris, who carry the sacred dagger called kirpan – have begun visiting “non-traditional deras”, religious centres with living gurus, though Sikhism expressly forbids worship of individuals.

What explains these sweeping changes in Punjab’s religious milieu? It is the rising uncertainty in people’s lives.

These companies are changing the way labour is hired (and fired) in India

Heard of a company called UDS?

Like India’s IT companies, it hires workers and sends them to client locations. There’s just one difference: while the IT companies supply white-collar workers to firms across the world, UDS provides blue-collar workers to offices, factories, airports in India. They run assembly lines, do housekeeping, handle packing and loading, among other things. The workers are drawn mostly from rural India. UDS trains them and places them in companies in return for 7-10% of their pay.

Such outfits are called manpower supply companies, even though they employ both men and women. In the last decade, as companies scale back their permanent staff and increase their reliance on contract workers, these firms have come to account for ever-greater chunks of industrial and service sector employment in the country. UDS alone has 40,000 workers on its rolls. Its client roster includes manufacturers like Hyundai and glass-maker St Gobain. The work done by its workers occupies a long continuum from housekeeping to assembly-line production, and some of it quite technical.

Despite their rapid growth, the manpower companies are a poorly understood commodity. Before they arrived on the scene, employers sourced contract workers from the informal economy’s labour contractors. Most of the workers led bleak lives – low salaries, no job security, no safety nets for accidents or retirement. The only guarantee they had was of their pay and prospects of landing work shrinking as they neared 40 and their capacity to work dimmed.

In the grim and unregulated world of labour, manpower supply companies represent something new: the entry of the formal sector.

What has been their impact?

Why Tamil Nadu is erecting cages around statues (hint: it’s linked to caste)

Two statues stood on a road between Pondicherry and Villupuram.

On the right was CN Annadurai, the first Dravidian chief minister of Tamil Nadu. On the left, Bhimrao Ambedkar. Together, they made an arresting tableau. Annadurai’s statue stood on an open cement plinth, with a red and black flag of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam jammed into its left hand. Ambedkar’s statue, no more than ten metres away, also stood on a cement platform, but inside an iron cage.

Statues in cages aren’t an uncommon sight in Tamil Nadu. Sometimes, it is Ambedkar, sometimes, Annadurai, and occasionally, others like the reformist leader Pasumpom Muthuramalinga Thevar. A relatively recent phenomenon, they started coming up about ten years ago, when the followers of the leaders felt the need to protect their statues from vandalism by other caste groups. In other places, the police, wanting to minimise riotous assembly, got the ironwork done.

The cages are instructive – they suggests caste tensions in Tamil Nadu are running high. A slew of other changes in the state point in the same direction as well.

Do read. A fundamental undercurrent here — using caste to bolster a sense of self — is what we saw in Punjab as well. There, as writer Desraj Kali had said, “Log jaat ka ghamand liye ghoom rahein hain.” Something similar here. Unity amidst diversity, huh.

Sand mining in Tamil Nadu is incredibly destructive – but it’s also unstoppable

For the longest time, V Chandrasekhar fought a lonely battle.

When sand miners first came to his village near Pondicherry in the 1980s, most of his fellow villagers stayed quiet. They stayed quiet when the local riverbed went down by 30 feet, local groundwater levels collapsed, wells dried out and then filled up with saline water as sea-water moved into the space vacated by freshwater aquifers. They stayed quiet even when the miners began disturbing the dead. “We bury our dead on the river bank,” said Chandrasekhar, “and body parts were getting disinterred.”

The villager-turned-activist knocked on other doors. But to no avail. Local bureaucrats and police officials did not help. He had a short-lived glimpse of victory in 2010 when he turned to the courts, petitioning the civil court and then the Madras High Court. The High Court issued an order staying sand mining. But, Chandrasekhar said, the state did not implement it. He filed a case in the National Green Tribunal at Chennai which gave another favourable order. That was not followed either.

Welcome to one of the more intriguing dimensions of sand mining in Tamil Nadu. As the previous story in this series reported, rampant sand mining has hurt the state in several ways. It has damaged rivers, contributed to a collapse of groundwater levels and imperilled farming livelihoods. With the industry functioning through subcontractors who illegally stockpile and sell sand, the state is believed to have lost thousands of crores as revenue each year.

It raises a large question: how could something so harmful continue so long? As the first story in this series reported, successive state governments have supported the trade. But why did the other checks and balances – local communities, rival political parties, media and courts – fail to oppose sand mining?

This story, which is the third and final in the series, attempts to answer that.

What does Tamil Nadu’s experience with sand mining tell us about our society’s ability to challenge/stop environmental damage? As Scroll’s #eartotheground project did its reporting into sand mining, this question loomed larger and larger. This story, the third in our series, is what we concluded.

Think sand mining damages the ecology? It ruins politics as well

…Villages talk about collapsed groundwater levels, wells that do not fill even when the river is brimming, wells in coastal areas which have turned saline. Little here is surprising. These ecological changes are well-known side-effects of sand mining. But the damage done by sand mining isn’t just ecological. As Scroll found while reporting from Tamil Nadu, rampant sand mining has damaged the state in several other ways too.

Politicians aren’t only messing with Tamil Nadu’s water – they’re making Rs 20,000 crore from sand

Out today, the first instalment of our three-part series on sand mining in tamil nadu.

Stepping onto the bank, the first thing that’s visible is a ten-wheeled tipper. It grinds to a halt at the end of a queue of similar trucks. Beyond it stretches a vast riverbed. That is the Thenpennaiyar, one of the larger rivers in central Tamil Nadu. It is summer and there isn’t a drop of water in the river. The riverbed, with its carpet of sand, is warming under the sun. It looks like it has been ploughed by a giant tractor. Long trenches are separated by ridges that are wide enough to serve as roads for the tippers. All along the monochrome riverbed are queues of trucks. At the head of each queue is an excavator. The arm of the machine dips into a trench, pulls out a shovelful of sand and pours it into the tipper waiting alongside. As the tipper fills up, it moves away, and another tipper takes its place.

It’s hard to tell how far this sand quarry stretches. The trenches are as deep as seven metres. The ridges are all that is left of the original riverbed. A scab of dark earth is visible at the bottom of one trench. So much sand has been scraped away that the Thenpennaiyar’s clay base stands exposed. According to locals, anywhere between 2,500-3,000 tipper-loads of sand leave from here each day. With each tipper designed to carry 20 tons, that’s 50,000 tons of sand a day. This quarry in Villupuram district, about an hour from Pondicherry, is a good introduction to the daunting scale of sand mining in Tamil Nadu. The Thenpennaiyar enters this part of northern Tamil Nadu from Karnataka and flows through the district for about 100 kilometres before entering the neighbouring district of Cuddalore. In this stretch, said locals, there are two more quarries of similar size. And that’s just one river in one district.

Can the courts save India’s rivers from pollution? Tirupur shows the answer is no

the second — and concluding — part of our trip down the Noyyal (see previous post).

A slum sprawled on one side of the river. In the distance, a factory belched smoke in the air. The riverbed was overrun with weeds and crammed with plastic bags that were half buried into the earth. An earthmover scooped gunk from an open drain and dumped it on top of the debris. The river itself was a thin trickle of black.

Welcome to Tirupur, an industrial city in central Tamil Nadu, where India’s judicial system tried – and failed – to save a river.

The Noyyal is a small river which starts in the western ghats and flows 170 kilometres to merge into the Cauvery. It passes through Tirupur, where factories have been emptying out effluents in its waters ever since a textile hub came up in the 1970s.

After the state failed to protect the river, in 1996, the Supreme Court intervened. It ordered dyeing units in Tirupur to shut down if they could not stop polluting the river. Fifteen years later, in 2011, the Madras High Court followed up by applying the “Polluter Pays” principle, directing the dyeing factories to become zero discharge units by recycling waste water and pumping it back for reuse.

Since then, the larger units in Tirupur have set up their own effluent treatment plants. The smaller ones have come together to set up Common Effluent Treatment Plants. In all, 18 CETPs are operating here.

But the river still does not look clean.

The first part of this series flagged how the state administration in Tamil Nadu has been unable to protect the Noyyal. That story traced the river’s journey from its source till Coimbatore.

This story looks at what happens to the Noyyal after it leaves Comibatore, and why even judicial remedies to protect the river have failed.

How a river in Tamil Nadu turned into a sewage canal

A narrow little rivulet splashes down, bouncing from boulder to boulder as it descends the rockface. It pauses to catch its breath in a tiny pool limned by trees, before rushing downhill again, merging with other streams to form a small river called the Noyyal.

For centuries, the river’s 170-km course used to take it past the farms, forests and villages of Tamil Nadu, before sinking it into the embrace of the great Cauvery.

In recent decades, this landscape has changed.

Noyyal’s basin – the area drained by the river and its tributaries – has become one of the densest urban landscapes in the state. The cities of Coimbatore and Tirupur, which are located here, are now among India’s leading industrial clusters. The basin has seen an exponential rise in population. Between 1991 and 2011, the number of people living here doubled from 19.5 lakhs to 42 lakhs. With more people settling in the cities, the urban population mushroomed from 9 lakhs to 33 lakhs. Such a large number of people moved to the cities that the rural population actually fell.

Spikes in population, urbanisation and industrial activity bring with them questions of sustainability.

At Kovai Kutralam in Kachimanathi Reserve Forest, one of the starting points of Noyyal’s journey, the water is so clear, you can scoop it up to drink.

What happens as it flows ahead?

The first of a two part series on the river.

A tsunami of debt is building up in Tamil Nadu – and no one knows where it is headed

G Venkatasubramanian trots out some astonishing numbers. Over the last 15 years, he and his fellow researchers at Pondicherry’s French Institute have been studying debt bondage among families in 20 villages in Tamil Nadu. Half of these settlements are in the coastal district of Cuddalore, and the others are in the adjoining district of Villupuram.

Their study is throwing up some puzzling changes in how much these families borrow – and how. In 2001, the average annual income of these families was Rs 16,000. Average debt was Rs 10,000. Come 2016, annual income has risen five-fold to Rs 80,000. Average debt, however, stands at Rs 250,000. This is a 25-fold increase.

How these families borrow has changed too. Earlier, only land-owning communities – Mudaliars, Chettiars or Reddiars – lent money. But now, said Venkatsubramanian, the Scheduled Castes are increasingly lending and borrowing among themselves. “A family will borrow Rs 50,000 and lend Rs 25,000,” he said. At the same time, communities that once looked down upon moneylending are entering the trade. The Nadars of southern Tamil Nadu, for instance, have begun lending in central and northern parts of the state.

Why Tamil Nadu’s fisherfolk can no longer find fish

“What did you catch?” Alagairi Madhivanan shouts across to the fisherman in a small boat to our left. The young man stops scanning the net he has just pulled out of the lagoon, turns towards us and says, “Five fishes.”

His answer echoes what Madhivanan has been telling me over the past hour as his small fibre-bodied boat nosed through Tamil Nadu’s Pichavaram mangroves – it’s getting harder and harder to find fish. As recently as a decade ago, fishermen like him in this part of the state, midway between Pondicherry and the fishing town of Nagapattinam, made one fishing trip every day. They would head out before dawn and come back with the day’s catch by half-past eight.

But now, Madhivanan does two trips each day – two hours in the morning and another two in the evening. His fellow fishermen – the ones with bigger boats – are staying out as long as three days looking for fish. It is the same story in other parts of Tamil Nadu. Travel further north to the fishing port of Kasimedu near Chennai and you will find fisherfolk who stay out at sea for as long as a week. Head south to Nagapattinam and you will hear that fishermen, in the quest for catch, are sailing into Sri Lankan waters, even at the risk of landing up in jail.

The controversy over ‘Udta Punjab’ shows how the state government has completely lost the plot

Hope has finally arrived.

At a time when the Centre and the State governments in India are proving entirely unequal to the responsibilities placed before them, Punjab has decided to step up and show the way.

Late last week, the state government – run by the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party – managed to fix the state’s much-discussed drug problem. Not by exposing the mafia which brings and sells drugs to its people but by cracking down on a Mumbai film about the state’s drugs problem. Acting on what appear to be instructions from the top, the Central Board of Film Certification, which runs a wildly successful employment guarantee programme for the country’s most regressive minds, told producers of Udta Punjab to remove any references to Punjab, its towns and cities, and elections to be in their film, in a list of 89 cuts.

In the process, the Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party – both of which look increasingly nervous as elections draw near – appear to have found an answer to the state’s drugs problem that Goebbels would have been proud of. If no one talks about drugs, they seem to think, maybe the people of Punjab will vote them back in.

As thoughts go, that is delusional…

No country for the poor: What we have learnt so far from Scroll’s EarToTheGround project

As Scroll’s Ear To The Ground series reaches its halfway point, what have we learnt so far?

The series, for those coming in late, seeks to create a current snapshot of India through reportage from six specially chosen states – one from the North East; one which is mineral-rich; one with Green Revolution agriculture; another with rain-fed farming; and two states that are relatively industrialised. To this end, we picked Mizoram (with additional reporting from Manipur), Odisha, Punjab, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat.

The idea was to try and identify some of the larger changes these states have seen over the last five or 10 years and then to try and understand the forces responsible for these changes. We hope that this exercise throws some light on the larger processes shaping India right now.

The project now stands just beyond the halfway mark. We have finished reporting from Mizoram, Manipur, Odisha and Punjab. The Tamil Nadu leg is underway. Bihar and Gujarat will follow next.

Three states and 13 months later, what have we learnt?

What we talk about when we talk about Punjab

Between October and January, Scroll.in’s Ear To The Ground project reported from Punjab.

The idea, as in Mizoram and Odisha, was to create a snapshot of the state. How are its people doing? What are the largest processes shaping the state?

When Scroll.in moved to Punjab, it was late October. The state was simmering. Farmers were angry and upset. The cotton crop had been hammered by a whitefly attack. The other kharif mainstay – basmati – was fetching lower rates than the grains sold to the Food Corporation of India. Over preceding weeks, torn pages from the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Saheb, had surfaced in some villages. There was much anger against the state government for not preventing this desecration. Protesters had blocked roads and railway tracks. In response, the state police had opened fired, killing some protesters.

Travelling around, however, it soon became evident that this anger against the government has been building for a while.

Why is Punjab increasingly turning to new gurus for comfort?

In the last 15 years, novelist and writer Desraj Kali has seen Punjab undergo some striking changes. But none is as striking as its gradual religious revolution.

A growing number of people in the predominantly Sikh state, he says, are now visiting Hindu temples. Not those of principal deities like Vishnu, Shiva and Rama, but of Shani, the elder brother of the god of death Yama, who is notorious for his malefic influence on life.

More than ever before, Kali says, people are visiting the gurudwara of Baba Deep Singh in Amritsar. According to legend, Deep Singh, a Sikh warrior, was decapitated while battling the forces of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the king of Afghanistan. In a niche in the perimeter of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, there is a painting depicting the storied aftermath: Deep Singh, holding his severed head with his left hand and swinging a massive sword with his right, continued to fight, and died only after reaching the Golden Temple.

There are more, says Kali. People in increasing numbers are placing chadars at Pirs’ mazaars. There is a “thousand-fold” increase in the number of tantrik ads in the local media. Eeven orthodox Sikhs – Amritdhaaris, who carry the sacred dagger called kirpan – have begun visiting “non-traditional deras”, religious centres with living gurus, though Sikhism expressly forbids worship of individuals.

How the Badals spread their control over Punjab (and why it is eroding)

Following up on yesterday’s story, part 3 of our series on Punjab under the Akali Dal.

In Punjab, the domination of the government machinery by the Badal clan is near complete. It starts right from the top, the cabinet of ministers, and trickles down to the ground, to the level of the police station.

Here is how.

Every business in Punjab leads back to an Akali Dal leader (well almost)

out today, our sequel to the previous story on why healthcare is underfunded in punjab.

Industry is fleeing Punjab – an investigation by Scroll.in found a growing number of companies have shut down or are planning to set up newer units outside the state. Among the reasons cited by businessmen for the exodus were the bribes they claim they are compelled to pay to politicians belonging to the ruling Akali Dal.

But rent-seeking is not the only way Akali Dal leaders are strangling industry in the state.

Over the past decade, Punjab has seen a handful of players come to dominate what earlier were fragmented industries composed of hundreds of small companies. This consolidation happened in a bewilderingly diverse set of industries, including stone crushing, sand mining, cable distribution, liquor distribution and bus transport. Most of these new, big players are alleged to have links to the Akali Dal.