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.
- 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.
- This time, April 2015, is also when a minor drama was playing out between the BJP and the state. A quick story featuring governors.
- In other news, a rural development programme — NLUP (New Land Use Policy) — had been repurposed by the state government into a populist programme.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The state was changing in other ways. Facebook groups were giving newspapers a run for their money.
- Another way to understand the society? The great popularity of Korean soap operas.
- Back to the economy. Can the Kaladan highway rescue Mizoram’s economy?
- 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.
- 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.
- As the heat kept rising, he resigned.
- 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.
- And then, this wrap of all our Mizoram reporting.
- 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.
- The second? A chance discovery about Manipur’s ancient peace-building scrolls. This is my favorite #ETTG story of all.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- And then, the state wrap. Which wondered why the state was not seeing more protests against such inequity.
- 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.
- 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.
- At the same time, Punjab was seeing deindustrialisation.
- 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.
- As in Mizoram and Odisha, we looked at how Punjab fares on education/healthcare delivery. We found underfunding.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- The second part of that story got into more detail.
- 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.
- The second part of that story got into more detail.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Out today, the second — and concluding — part of our report on why Amul, India’s much-loved dairy federation, is in trouble.