It is a shame that ailing Maharashtra wasn’t able to celebrate its 61st foundation day with the usual flourish. Instead, the only gift the government could offer its citizens on this occasion was free vaccine to all – caveat, as and when it is available. Though a welcome move, the series of desperations and catastrophes leading to this move clearly indicate that the citizens of Maharashtra deserve better.
Unlike West Bengal, Tamil Nadu or Kerala, Maharashtra is hardly known for a strong welfare regime. The state’s record both in terms of human development index and social sector expenditures, always hung somewhere in the middle. More recently, in tune with BJP’s national level pro-welfare discourse of the post-2014 period, the previous state government in Maharashtra had invested a lot in the (rhetoric of) welfare schemes announced for practically every other social group in the state. And yet, studies conducted by us at the Centre for Public Policy and Democratic Governance, Savitribai Phule Pune University, suggest that Maharashtra recorded only low to moderate coverage under various central and state welfare schemes during this period.
Rather than welfare, Maharashtra often showcased its story of growth. As one of the richest and most urbanised states, it always remained the poster boy of the dominant developmental discourse. Along with Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Punjab, the government in Maharashtra worked closely with business in order to promote private sector led economic development.
In this process public purpose was often defined narrowly in terms of the pursuit of growth and catered to sectional interests, rather than ensuring the wellbeing of all citizens. It has often resulted in an ad hoc handling of the issues of wellbeing and has led to many distortions and asymmetries in the state’s economy and politics. These distortions loom large as the pandemic eclipses the very existence of the state at the moment.
Over the past more than one year, the cities of Mumbai and Pune have remained epicentres of the Covid-19 pandemic. The reasons are obvious. More than half of Maharashtra’s population lives in urban areas. But urban development is deeply skewed regionally. On the one hand, about a quarter of all the million-plus cities in the country are located in the Mumbai-Pune-Nashik triangle. On the other hand, there are around 130 talukas or blocks in the state that have no city, town or urban space within them. These blocks overwhelmingly belong to the backward regions of Marathwada and Vidarbha.
The urban/ spatial skew is a mere reflection of the sectoral imbalance in the state’s economy. In its early career, Maharashtra tried to manage the simultaneous agenda of urban-industrial development along with a great deal of investments in the agrarian sector. But there were twin failures. Attempts by the regional elite to transform agriculture into a capitalist venture benefitted only a handful of rich and socially dominant farmers, that too only in western Maharashtra. On the other hand, when the state pursued an aggressive agenda of liberalisation since the late 1980s overall agrarian distress intensified severely, resulting in farmers’ suicides and frustrations of the Maratha community.
The city-regions of Mumbai and Pune yield 85% of the total state industrial output and provide more than 75% of industrial employment. They have become the only islands of wealth and opportunities and attract intra- and inter-state migrants, creating further burden on their weak civic infrastructure.
This was evident in our recent study of migrant workers from within the state. Despite the hardships and the scary uncertainties of Covid, most migrants in Maharashtra preferred life in cities over their native villages. That is because despite its reputation as one of the most developed states in the country most of rural Maharashtra today remains deprived and anxious. The anxiety at the moment is for oxygen, remedesivir and access to basic public health facilities. But in the long run, it is also about jobs, reservations and overall wellbeing.
In short, the current moment of collective suffering and policy chaos in Maharashtra (and unfortunately also in twinning Gujarat) is deeply embedded in interconnected inequalities and distortions in Maharashtra’s overtly successful developmental trajectories. They require serious attention from its political establishment both at this time of crisis and beyond it. Unfortunately, so far, the question of balancing development and wellbeing has mostly resulted in a stalemate for the state. No amount of free vaccination will help resolve this stalemate.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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