When he is in Madhapar—and he is here every October without fail—what Laalji Patel loves most are those lazy mornings he spends at the vathan, a windy open space lined with neem trees and populated by cool- headed, friendly cows. Here he plays cards with friends, who he has known since primary school, until it is time for his favourite Gujarati lunch. “I love this place the most in the world,” says the self-effacing Wembley, UK-based businessman who refers to himself as a carpenter. His father was an itinerant businessman who had migrated from this sleepy Gujarat border hamlet to Kenya in the 1960s. Prior to that, “sometime in the 19th century”, his grandfather had worked in Tanzania, helping build train lines.
Men at home were always away, that is what he remembers. It didn’t matter much because they sent money home. Despite strong overseas links, he and his brothers went to school in India because his forefathers always maintained a special bond with the place they made their home a few centuries ago. “In fact, we never left,” offers this burly yet youthful looking man in his early 60s. “But now my children are no longer as interested in their roots as we are.” He says this with a mischievous smile that is hard to decode, adding, “But they have homes here. They have property here, thanks to their ancestors.”
Devji Patel, another NRI from the UK, says that his family, too, has invested a lot of money in this area of Kutch, 6km from Bhuj town. All his siblings are based out of either the UK or Africa. He has two sons, one a stockbroker and another, a lawyer, both UK-based. “They may not be interested in Madhapar, but Madhapar is interested in them. They have enough and more money here,” he says laughing.
Thanks to NRIs like Lalji and Devji, Madhapar is one of Asia’s richest towns in terms of per capita bank deposits—and amid tales of poverty in the desert-region of Kutch, this place narrates the story of plenty. Until a few years ago, Madhapar was categorised as a village before it was re-classified as a town. “This means,” Tara Nair, a professor at Ahmedabad-based Gujarat Institute of Development Research, points out, “that at least 75 per cent of the male population here is engaged in non- agricultural activities.” Madhapar has a total population of 32,293 with 7,630 households. A senior banker in Dena Bank, the leading bank in Bhuj, told Open that NRIs from the district account for Rs 8,200 crore in bank deposits in the entire district of Kutch, and Madhapar alone contributed to close to Rs 4,000 crore of it. According to a federal scheme introduced in 1969, lead banks act as leaders for coordinating the efforts of all credit institutions to boost the flow of credit and stir other economic activities in the district.
Madhapar, which was flattened in the January 2001 Gujarat earthquake, now looks elegant and rich with gorgeous temples and homes that are too fancy for rural homes. The affluence is for all to see thanks to numerous bank branches and ATM outlets that are buzzing with activity amid frenetic commercial activity in the afternoon sun of Kutch. “The Gujarat tourism promo by Amitabh Bachchan, titled Kutch nahi dekha to kuch nahi dekha (if you haven’t seen Kutch you have seen nothing) is literally true. The commercial spirit and activity you see in the banks here is enormous,” says a senior executive with a public-sector bank who relocated to the region after spending decades elsewhere in the country. “There is enough and more money here to construct and reconstruct.”
Which was why under the watch of temples and religious groups that receive huge sums in donations from diasporic Patels—like the Swaminarayan Trust—Kutch villages and towns such as Madhapar rebuilt themselves from scratch following the killer 2001 temblor. “You can’t see a single crack on any of the walls in Madhapar. If you leave the village, you see numerous abandoned homes,” says Dada Bhat who relocated to Madhapar from Bhuj town in 2002.
What he says is true. On the five-hour drive from Ahmedabad to Bhuj, one comes across flattened homes and abandoned buildings on either side of the road, especially as one reaches Bachau and villages close to Madhapar in the Bhuj district. “The rest of Gujarat has also built new homes and recovered from the quake that destroyed their homes and killed family members, but Madhapar has overcome more,” says banker Mahesh, who works with a public-sector bank here. He didn’t want to use his surname nor disclose the name of his employer, saying he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Another executive with a private bank, who says he has closely watched the banking system in the region for long, talks about unclaimed bank deposits in Madhapar. He reveals that at least one major bank has almost Rs 400 crore of such deposits. While Open couldn’t independently verify this claim, several other bankers that this correspondent spoke to said the chances of it being true are high. However, a senior Dena Bank official said, “I don’t know the authenticity of such a claim. I am not ready to believe that yet.”
Whatever this official may say, the mere talk of unclaimed deposits underscores the robust nature of banks that operate here. “Overseas Indians from the town park their money in banks here because of a variety of reasons. There is more economic activity here. The fact that there are multiple flights every day from Bhuj to Mumbai indicates the importance of the region and the wealth that you have here. From the next generation onwards it may decline because of their disinterest in their roots, but even then there is a lot of money coming in as remittances that are driving the local economy,” says a senior official with Central Bank of India. “Unclaimed deposits also indicate the high levels of affluence of the second generation, whose parents had deposited their money in some of the banks in Madhapar.”
The trend is perhaps unique to Madhapar and nearby areas such as Baladia and Kera, say bankers. More than eight full-fledged branches of nationalised banks are present in these places where in total there are 30 bank branches and close to 30 ATMs.
Lalji Patel says that NRIs like him deposit money in banks in Madhapar because they have their roots here. The craving to connect with their hometown run deep for most people of Madhapar, insists Bhat who has many friends among Leva Patels here. “They are a closely knit community who help each other in business whether they are in Zanzibar or in Buenos Aires. If a Leva Patel meets another of his community, they will soon discover they are relatives; close or distance doesn’t matter,” he says, laughing loudly.
Leva Patels, a sub-caste among Patidars, are a flourishing trading community worldwide with business links from Lisbon to Vladivostok in Europe and from New Zealand to the Caribbean and beyond, says a senior banker in Bhuj town, talking animatedly about the community of which he is a breakaway.
Most of the bank deposits by NRIs in Madhapar are by Leva Patels based in Africa and the UK. “They are the sons and grandsons of people who left the place in different periods, first when Gujaratis flocked to Zanzibar and the rest of Africa in the late 19th century when even Mahatma Gandhi migrated to Africa. Then the next wave came in the 1950s following a massive drought in the village. And then the march never stopped,” says Devji Patel recalling oral history passed on to him. “Until now, there has been a strong desire to be connected with our gaon, our roots,” he repeats, emphasising that most diasporic Gujaratis from his village wanted to come back and spend their last days here. “It didn’t matter how luxurious our lives were in foreign countries.”
Bankers in Bhuj say that diasporic Gujaratis, especially those in Madhapar and nearby villages, save money in banks back home also because they don’t entirely trust those in foreign locales. There have been occasions in the past when they were forced to flee countries in Africa, especially from Uganda where their properties and wealth were expropriated by its then ruler Idi Amin. Besides, some local banks may fail, taking their savings with them. “They don’t want that kind of uncertainty. The other multiple benefits of keeping their money in Indian banks include tax benefits. Many of them also see it as money set aside for their residual life,” says a senior banker based in Ahmedabad.
In an interview, Haribhai Halasia, a former president of the Kutchi Leva Patel Samaj in the UK, had said, “The high number of deposits is also because NRGs (non-resident Gujaratis) feel indebted to their hometowns.” In the UK, an organisation named Kutch Madhapar Karyalaya was founded as early as in 1968 to connect people from Madhapar living in Britain. Earlier, this body had raised funds to improve facilities such as parks, schools, lakes and homes for old people besides donating money towards rebuilding the place following the 2001 earthquake, floods, droughts and so on. In a research project, Anirudh Krishna, now Edgar T Thompson Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University, had found that poverty levels in Kutch had declined in the few years following the 2001 earthquake.
DL Sheth, renowned political sociologist and Honorary Senior Fellow at New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says that Kutch has been home to enterprising communities among both the Hindus and Muslims for centuries. “Many of them came to Mumbai and many others went to Karachi after Partition and before. Those who remained in Mumbai always stayed connected with Kutch,” he states, adding that Leva Patels are “ritually superior” to Kadwa Patels and run business all over the world based on kinship. “Their relations with other Patels are also very structured and well-defined. All such behaviours explain their success in business and connections with Kutch.”
Sheth says that similar affluent societies running on NRG money exist in Surat and various other parts of Gujarat as well. Anthropologists and social scientists have written about the enterprising nature of Kutchis who have made their mark the world over in construction, plumbing, masonry and allied businesses. “People from Madhapar are now spreading out from Africa and UK to new destinations such as Switzerland, New Zealand and US in hordes and most of those who have opened accounts here are Patels,” says another PSU banker in Madhapar. “In fact, places such as Madhapar are a study in contrast compared with poverty-stricken villages in many parts of Kutch and the rest of Gujarat.”
According to historians, Madhapar was a village among 18 others built in the 12th century by the Mistris, a warrior community who had migrated from what is present- day Rajasthan a few centuries earlier. Tara Nair of Gujarat Institute of Development Research suggests that it may be worthwhile to explore the early history of involvement of Rajputs in the region in mining and railways, which must have provided them with both financial and social capital for the overseas ventures of people in the region.
Certainly, more research is in order to capture trends on prosperity of the region that comprises Madhapar, Baladia and Kera, which is reportedly the nerve centre of the Patidar agitation, demanding an OBC status for Patels. So far, regrets Sheth, by design, there has been greater interest in India’s poverty in global academic circles. Which might explain why a number of academics from foreign universities have flocked to poverty-hit areas of the state. “Let’s study a bit of prosperity now,” proposes Sheth.
“NRIs you meet in Madhapar, obviously, are in cheap khadis. They don’t dress like the billionaires they are,” a banker from Ahmedabad had forewarned me. But then the town—green, well-irrigated and tony—speaks for itself.