Inequality in India’s Development Dreams

By: Stephanie Tam, AHI Volunteer, Canada

In unspoken agreement, individuals melted into a crowd and closed ranks at one end of the Sabarmati Riverfront promenade. A reverent murmur rippled across: “The Chief Minister is here”. The sky clouded over with raised hands hailing Narendra Modi, the state of Gujarat’s Chief Minister since 2001 and India’s Prime Minister-elect as of May 16th, 2014. A feverish undercurrent threatened to bubble to the surface with a few shouts ripping through the silence. Modi’s trademark all-white attire became blinding under the sunlight, and the crowd hushed with awe when he began to speak.

Image 1

Modi speaking on the Sabarmati Riverfront promenade during the National Festival, August 2012.

Labeled as India’s most loved and most loathed politician, Modi has polarized politics nationally in the few years that have elapsed since that afternoon on the Sabarmati. His supporters claim that his Gujarat model of development will launch the country into a new economic era, while his opponents accuse him of inciting the communal riots that slaughtered thousands of Muslims in 2001. Modi’s landslide election victory shows that his platform of secularized development prevailed over misgivings about his right-wing Hindu roots. However, it remains unclear what development means for the 14 million households living in identified slums across India[1].

Throughout Modi’s electoral campaign, development has meant improved built infrastructure and industrial expansion. Gujarat’s major urban centers boast well-paved roads, few electrical outages, and a flourishing upper class that enjoys air-conditioned malls and luxury cars[2]. Enacted in 2004, Gujarat’s Special Economic Zone (SEZ) legislation has attracted foreign investors and industrial tycoons by doing away with taxes and offering up cheap land, thereby increasing wealth according to development measures that focus exclusively on market growth, i.e. GDP.

Development in terms of employment and consumption, on the other hand, reveals stagnation. Atul Sood et al. show through a series of studies that there is “poverty amidst prosperity”[3], revealing increased reliance upon contract workers and casual labourers, as well as overall wage growth that lags behind the all-India wage increase. This correlates to Gujarat’s slow growth in monthly per capita expenditures: with little increase in household profits, there is little capacity to spend. In short, industries are making a lot of money, but those profits are not benefiting the average worker.

If development is broadened to encompass living standards such as health and literacy, Gujarat fares even worse. The Gujarat government’s social sector spending is less than that of “poorer” (low GDP) states[4], and the results are telling. In 2013, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India reported that 66% of children in Gujarat were undernourished, prompting the state government retort that national nutritional measurements are skewed against the Gujarati vegetarian diet. At the same time, surveys in major cities warn against alarming obesity rates due to dining out and Western junk food[5]. These conflicting reports suggest increasing nutritional inequality. The urban population that was sampled for obesity reports was relatively well-off: they had access to doctors (through which they were sampled), they could afford to dine out, and to dine on expensive Western meals no less. Disparities in literacy remain higher than that of the national average, and Gujarat’s literacy ranking for 6-14 year olds has actually dropped between 2000 and 2008[6].

While Modi’s government did create the Chiranjeevi Yojana health insurance program in 2006 to cover services for those below the poverty line, frontline workers report that hospitals discriminate against those on state insurance, there is lack of awareness about the program among the poor, and the few healthcare facilities that accept state insurance are hard for the poor to access[7]. With underfunded programs that are poorly calibrated to target population needs, the Gujarat model of development is far from adept at improving the lives of those at the bottom of the pyramid, which is the majority of India’s population.

Built infrastructure and housing in Gujarat follows this model of exclusionary development. Heroic investments like the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project claim space for middle and upper classes, offering snacks from regulated vendors, novelty gondola rides, and vistas of a cleaned up river emptied of the poor who used to rely upon it for their livelihood. The slums that used to line the riverbank have been removed, even though some had invested in upgrading projects that promised them land tenure.

Image 2

In 2010, the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project was mid-construction and numerous slums remained along the banks.



Prior to the Riverfront Development, the Sabarmati was used by the poor for transporting goods, dying and laundering textiles, watering livestock, and fishing.


Image 4

By 2012, the slums had been removed and the Sabarmati had turned into a leisure space for the upper classes.

Billboards advertising bucolic housing developments tower over every scrap of grass in the city. A few haphazard slums stubbornly remain, surrounded by new apartments and facing the certainty of eviction. The crumbs the poor once received from the government in the form of unguarded public land have been taken away in the name of progress, and sold off to private developers whose security forces now keep a close eye on property.

The government has not only given its land to private developers, it has passed on the responsibility of taking care of select populations to them. Beyond housing, roads and electricity, Special Economic Zones are slated to provide social infrastructure ranging from health clinics to nursery schools for their skilled and foreign educated employees. While this strategy theoretically frees up government funds to improve public programs, funds have simply been reinvested into attracting even more private developers through “world class” spaces like the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project.

The poor fall, forgotten and abandoned, between the cracks. Development in Gujarat, and likely all of India in the coming years, has a narrow scope and targets exclusively those in the thriving private sector, with no evidence of trickle-down boons for the rest of the population. Slum dwellers across the country may witness the advent of impressive structures and luxury goods, but it is unlikely that they will have any access to them. The image of a developed India does not include them, and their fate hovers ever more tenuously with Modi’s new government taking the helm.

[1] Government of India, Census 2011

[2] Sohini Das, “In Gujarat, luxury car owners dodge tax sleuths,” Business Standard, May 26, 2011,

[3] “Poverty Amidst Prosperity: Essays on the Trajectory of Development in Gujarat,” ed. Atul Sood (India: Aakar Publication).

[4] “Gujarat is spending more on infrastructure, less on social sectors: Planning Commission,” CNN-IBN, June 18, 2013.

[5] “Gujarat: All is not well! 42% Amdavadis are overweight,” DNA, January 19, 2013.

Radha Sharma, “Gujarati waste waists outweigh Mum, Del bulge,” The Times of India, January 8, 2011.

[6] Atul Sood, “Poverty amid Prosperity,” Himalayan Mirror, December 5, 2012.

[7] Michael Edison Hayden, “Gujarat Experiments With Expansion of Public Health Insurance,” The New York Times, April 3, 2014.

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