Surat is not any other city. It is the jewel of a state, to which none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs. Obviously, both Surat and Modi expect a lot from each other. Will Surat show the way in Modi’s “Make in India” programme? In attempting an answer, let us begin with the history of Surat and its rich commercial legacy
Surat is certainly the most interesting city in India. It existed as a city much before the foundations of Bombay, Delhi, Madras and Calcutta were even laid down. According to legends, Lord Krishna stopped at the city, which used to be called Suryapur, while on his way to Dwarka from his birthplace Mathura. The city was ruled by the Chalukyas and other Hindu kings, till Qutub-ud-din Aibak overran the city in the 12th century. When Akbar captured Surat in 1573, it was already one of the leading commercial cities of India. Trade with the Arabs flourished, who christened the city ‘Bunder-E-Khubsoorat’ or “the beautiful port”, which was later shortened to Surat.
It was the most important port of the western coast since ancient times. In fact, it was the first major Asian port city within reach of ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope. In history, the city saw many political and cultural upheavals, it faced natural disasters which caused catastrophic damage, but time and again it has raised itself phoenix like from its own ashes.
The port city has historically been an important trading port for both the silk and the spice route. As a centre for trade and commerce, Surat has been a meeting ground of many races and cultures, like the Mughals and the Zoroastrians, early European traders like the Armenians and Greeks, Persians, Arabs and Chinese, and finally the English and the Dutch. In the past, Surat was a glorious port with ships of more than 84 countries anchoring in its harbour.
For the Mughals rulers, it was the most important city outside Delhi as it generated a lot of revenue and filled up their coffers with gold. It was from Surat that they departed for Haj along with their harem. Even though, in later years, Aurangzeb disliked the Europeans traders, he had to defer to the British because their ships controlled the passage to Mecca.
The geography of the place, primarily the estuary of Tapti and the sheltered bay at Hazira, made it the most ideal port of the Arabian Sea. There was an efficient road network from the city which led to Agra, Ahmedabad, Ajmer, Jaipur and Delhi and these Mughal strongholds ensured safe passage of goods. It was a robust, thriving trade-city of significance in the medieval world and continued doing so for a long time.
Surat was already a thriving city when the British first landed in India in 1608. They had come for the spice trade, and in no time wriggled a license from Jahangir to set up a godown (called ‘factory’) in Surat. They soon developed colonial ambitions and acquired control of almost all trade in India. The East India Company made Surat their administrative centre and from here the quest for colonising the country climaxed.
However, the success of the place was primarily due to the indomitable spirit of the Surtis, the people of Surat. They were and still are enterprising people with trade and commerce in their blood. The centuries of exposure has honed their inherent trading skills, making them one of the best businessmen of the nation.
The decline of Surat started when during the English Restoration, Bombay was doled out as dowry to Charles II in 1665. The British realised the importance of this strategic small corner and developed it with a lot of zeal. The East India Company was paying a nominal Royalty to the Nawab of Surat, hence it preferred to shift its centre to its independently administered territory of Bombay. The Tapti River too was silting over, making the entry of large ships difficult.
Even though the Bombay harbour was more suited; the city was at that point only a collection of half a dozen villages. There was no proper mercantile class to manage the British trade. Hence they encouraged the migration of Hindu, Muslim and Parsi traders to the city, creating a robust city. This exodus took away with it all the trading influence and importance that Surat had. By 1710, the thriving city slowly faded to a pale shadow of its vibrant self. As Bombay rose, Surat declined.
But Surat has an uncanny resilience of surviving despite seemingly insurmountable odds. In the medieval period, the city has survived repeated sackings by the Maratha warrior Shivaji, prolonged sieges, bouts of bubonic plague, floods etc. One of the critical factors in the resurgence every time was its people. The die-hard Suratis have never given up on their city and rebuild it as and whenever required, crisis after crisis. Regeneration is built into the DNA of the city dwellers. It has produced some of the finest business minds of the country, even Ratan Tata was born here.
It is one of the friendliest cities, its people are known for their generosity and relaxed life style. Suratis are often called Lehri Lalas, meaning people who live and enjoy life without much tension. Today, the city is a melting pot of Gujarati, Sindhi, Hindi, Marwari, Marathi, Telugu, and Odia workers. It also has sizeable Parsi and Jewish populations. If we study the basic characteristics of the place, we find that it is cosmopolitan, multi-cultural and liberal. Surat is the top most unofficial metropolitan city of India.
Surat’s romance with diamonds started at the turn of the century in 1901. The diamond mines of East Africa grabbed the attention of Indian merchants, who came back with boatloads of rough carats. Initially the trade was concentrated at Mumbai, but by the mid-century, most of it shifted to Surat. By the mid-sixties, the industry was worth Rs 65 crore.
The soaring real estate costs and the troublesome trade unions became the bane of the Industry in Mumbai. The enterprising Surat merchants jumped at the opportunity and within a few years the city grew into a diamond cutting and polishing hub not just of India, but of the world. Today, more than 90 per cent of the world’s diamonds are ‘processed’ in Surat. Almost every eighth person in this city with a population of 4 million works for the diamond industry. The average annual household income in the diamond city is Rs 4.57 lakh-the highest in the country, nearly double than the national per capita income. It is the highest income tax paying city in Asia. Even its GDP growth of 11.5 per cent for the last consecutive years is the fastest in the country. It is India’s only zero unemployment cities. Small wonder that it is called the city of Kuber, the god of wealth. The Suratis believe in an interesting philosophy, “the more you spend, the more you will make.”
Besides the diamond hub, it is also the textile capital of India. It is the biggest centre of MMF (man-made fibre) in India. The cities 750,000 looms operate almost 24 hours a day, producing a third of the country’s textiles. Surat has become the center of the Indian textile industry, knocking Ahmedabad out of the way. While one out of every ten saree in India is manufactured in Surat, the city accounts for 40 per cent of India’s total man-made fabric production. It has a share of 28per cent of India’s total synthetic output is from Surat.
Its second growth spurt started in the mid-1970s, and put Surat on the map as a hub of India’s manufacturing industry. It quickly became one of the country’s largest pools of unorganised, cheap labour and a welcome alternative for businesses tired of wrestling with Mumbai’s powerful unions. Since then, there has been no looking back.
According to 2011 Census, Surat topped the growth chart among cities with a 42.24 per cent increase in urban population. It also had the largest migrant population percentage which stood at 56 per cent, of which 50 per cent were from outside Gujarat. It has displaced Chandigarh in a list of 20 cities because of its lower cost of living. The city has 2.97 million internet users which are about 65 per cent of total population.
It is rightly said about the people of Surat that other Indian cities have INDIGO and FIGO people who go to 3 or 5 star hotel for food, we do have BMW and AUDI people who goes to roadside food at 3AM or 5AM.
The Surat’s Municipality Corporation is one of the few local bodies which do not have deficits. Hindu, Christian, Muslim and Sikh, celebrate all festival with equal fervor. The entire city is decorated by the SMC during Diwali, Navratri, Christmas and New Year.
After sunset, people drive to the bridges, park their cycles, scooters and cars on the roadside, and sit by the balustrade. All sorts of Suratis come out: couples, families, solitude-seekers, the rich and the poor. The city lights twinkle into the river making it all look dreamy. Where else in India would you find people arriving in BMW’s and Audi’s to eat street food? And yes, Modi’s pin striped suit was picked up by a Surati textile baron for a whopping amount of 4.30 crores.
The Narendra Modi-led NDA government is keen to replicate the success of four urban facilities that have been successfully implemented in Surat in 300 cities and the proposed 100 smart cities under its new mission mode programme. These are the use of renewable energy sources including grid-connected solar rooftop project, public private partnership (PPP) model of solid waste management projects, treatment of waste water through tertiary treatment plant and e-governance through mobile app. It will be a process of sharing Surat’s success story with other cities of the country.
The city generates 36 per cent of its total requirement of electricity from non-conventional sources. It gets 17.7 MW from the three wind power stations set up in Saurashtra and 4.28 crore units from its bio-gas plants every year. In the next four years, SMC will save Rs 125 crore in electricity cost. It is also India’s first city to set up its own tertiary treatment plan that produces 40 million litres water per day.
Work has started on the country’s first model railway station as per international standards. The makeover process of the Rs 5000 crore model station includes a multi-mode transit plaza for different mass transports like BRTS, metro train, city bus, private vehicles, auto rickshaws, two wheelers and pedestrians. Khoobsurat or not, the city is definitely India’s pride.
By Anil Dhir