Ahmedabad: The Power of Labeling

We turn our attention closer to home and discuss if Ahmedabad is a successful city.

If one looks at the pronouncements of international development agencies there is little to doubt. Ahmedabad is one of the most dynamic cities in India with 5 percent of the national population but 14 percent of its export, an average annual growth rate of 9 percent and industrial growth rate of 15 percent. Every few months there are presentations about the city and visiting delegations extol the multiplication of municipal revenues and the successful launch of municipal bonds. Rating agencies swoon and investors salivate over the prospects.

And yet, within a few miles of the forums where such presentations are made one can also listen to civil rights groups showing photographs and statistics and narrating stories that can churn the stomach and make one sick with despair. One can read announcements from international human rights organizations that can make one lose faith in humanity.

So, is Ahmedabad a successful city?

Clearly, both processes are going on at the same time and one’s verdict would depend on which dimension is given more weight. This, as they say, is a value judgment.

But this also brings us to the power of labeling. The accolades of the international development agencies carry a lot more clout than the protests of civil rights groups and so, to all intents and purposes, Ahmedabad is a successful city. When the leaders of Ahmedabad and India see this global verdict propagated they feel little need to pay attention to that other dimension that is relegated to an inconvenient footnote.

This demonstrates the power of labeling. Imagine that international development agencies were to say that livability conditions would be a factor in lending and rating agencies were to refuse to rate cities with particularly egregious excesses against human rights. What do you think the response of the leaders of a city like Ahmedabad would be if a minimal attainment of human rights became necessary for doing business?

For a concrete example, recall the 1994 plague in Surat, not too far from Ahmedabad.  Because the global tourism industry let its negative ratings of India be made public, there was an immediate response not just by the city and the state but by the national government as well. For a while, Surat was even reputed to have become the cleanest city in India.

Consider also the fact that imposing minimal conditions for doing business is not an impractical or utopian idea. There are industries where consumers have had enough impact to eliminate manufacturing in sweatshops and the use of child labor. And there were instances where college students were able to generate enough awareness of human rights to force global corporations to divest their interests in South Africa under apartheid.

So why does a social plague that repeatedly kills more people in one city than a medical plague in another continue to have no impact? Because the power of labeling that deems Ahmedabad a successful city allows business as usual to continue and because activists have failed to effectively mobilize global attention to their cause.

Rates of economic growth continue to trump fates of human beings.

Does this make sense?

  • Aakar
    Posted at 08:44h, 21 January Reply

    Surat was cleaned up from the outside: by the state.
    The person who did it (Commissioner Rao) was in fact non-Gujarati and faced resistance from the public which was sceptical about change happening.
    But it is true to say that once it happened, the Surtis helped maintain it.
    The population-to-export figure is that for Gujarat, not for Ahmedabad.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 19:51h, 22 January Reply

    Aakar, Many thanks for the comments. We have relied on secondary sources for our observations so it is very good that a person with first-hand experience has verified some of the facts and corrected others. Thanks also for adding sociological details of relevance and interest.

  • Navdeep
    Posted at 08:42h, 18 March Reply

    You might be interested in this film made by IIMA, on displacement due to development projects, and the consequences on the socio-economic conditions of Ahmedabad’s poor residents.

    Video 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XakdjyoXti8
    Video 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GwpQNO1A9Y
    Video 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pezteJ_2LQw

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:14h, 18 March

      Navdeep: Many thanks for these links. This is a very commendable initiative by IIMA that needs to be disseminated widely. The bottom line is that development has to be centered on improving the welfare of people – making the city more competitive or beautiful at the expense of people should be unacceptable.

      A recent post on the blog (The Dark Side of Economic Growth) makes the point that economic growth has always been exploitative of human beings. Those who find this morally unacceptable need to come together to suggest an alternative.

      The movie raises a number of questions for consideration:

      1. The producers and sellers in the market have a very precarious livelihood; they are unable to save anything and survive over generations from day to day. Clearly their prospects need to be improved.
      2. If the market is unable to provide a decent livelihood to the producers, it is not something that uncritically recommends itself for perpetuation.
      3. Urban waterfront property is very valuable and the land can be transferred to higher value uses.
      4. This transfer from low to high value use can only be morally justified if enough of the incremental value goes to the affected residents so that they are better off then they were before.
      5. The process of change has to be inclusive. A situation in which the residents live in a perpetual state of uncertainty without knowing what is going to happen to them is unacceptable.

      If we accept these principles what can be recommend as an acceptable model for the Sabarmati project?

  • Rukmini Barua
    Posted at 15:13h, 12 August Reply

    A lot of vital insights into the urban processes in the city.

    The spatial aspects of the city are complex and deserve further analysis. The discussion made here is very useful.

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