It is safe to say the tier II cities in India are establishing themselves on the Indian map with the same momentum as the tier I cities. I had heard all about the Gujarat Development Model and how metropolises in this state stand as an example for the rest of the country — primarily why I was quite excited to see what was in store for me on my first trip to Gujarat. Arriving in Ahmedabad in the early hours of the day from Mumbai, I was greeted by a nip in the air before entering my pre-booked taxi.
Apparently any distance that would take more than 15-minutes is considered far in Ahmedabad. The 20-minute bump-free ride from the airport to the city’s centre didn’t seem so bad for someone used to manic traffic and driving. It was impressive to look at Ahmedabad BRTS’s (bus rapid transit) stations, that could easily pass off as tram stops in a European country.
The current state of affairs of “modern Ahmedabad” is the outcome of the transformation the city underwent in the past 15 years. “Ahmedabad was once considered as an overgrown village in many respects, with the old city being its centre. People would flock to the area around the Lal Darwaja for entertainment, food and shopping, and denizens resided in traditional housing complexes called pols,” says Varun Maira, retired IAS officer and chairman of Uttar Gujarat Vij Company Ltd.
“There used to be a bustle in this part of the town; picture smoke coming out of the chimneys and locals enjoying street-food in the erstwhile part of the city. The collapse of the textile mills [once synonymous with Ahmedabad] and its ancillaries made way for the development of the rest of the metropolis and the old township got left behind in the pages of history. The western part of Ahmedabad began to develop. Pin-codes around Naranpura and Gulbai Tekra became the focal point of commerce and housing,” he adds.
Maira believes the transformation of Ahmedabad followed that of Delhi, where the city grew out of its antiquity and turned into a modern metropolis. While the scale of this evolution is smaller, the transformation is quite visible. Modernisation of a metropolis involves massive changes to the infrastructure and urbanisation, and that’s precisely what happened with Ahmedabad as well.
The comparisons became evident for Ahmedabad-based business traveller and CEO of Tower Overseas Ltd. Vimal Ambani, who thinks Ahmedabad is a step ahead of other Indian cities in terms of urban development. “When I make this comparison, it’s of course within India. We are far behind China and Japan but definitely much ahead of even the biggest Indian cities. It’s safe and comfortable to drive at 120kmph in Ahmedabad, without feeling a single bump,” he says. Ambani credits the government for “being supportive and commercially sharp in working with banks, and investing big bucks to improve the quality of Ahmedabad’s infrastructure.”
The Gujarat Development Model executed by the government in the last decade is world-renowned for establishing high-standards in the country. The “Vibrant Gujarat” campaign, implemented by the tourism body of the state is aimed at instilling a sense of pride in Gujaratis, who are anyway known for their keen business sense.
“[With the development model] the government has broadened horizons and indirectly boosted the self-esteem of the businessmen and denizens of Ahmedabad,” says Ambani. “Now days, the Gujaratis travel well and expose themselves to international business practices, which they integrate in their home-grown businesses.”
There has been a huge generational shift in the past ten years, from Gujarati-speaking, dhoti-clad businessmen in their orthodox offices to suited professionals and their snazzy work spaces. Maira calls this the “heir-shift” generation, that are the descendants of industrialists who founded businesses in the 1980s.
Many individuals have also ventured into the service sector. “People are more litigate-minded now. Professionals in law, medicine, telecom, financial services, real estate and banking have either moved from other parts of India or moved out of their traditional set-ups. The “heir-shift” generation of Ahmedabad thinks differently; and like any other city, the change in its business environment can be attributed to the evolved mindset of its people,” says Maira.
While the “heir-shift” generation has not necessarily carried on in family-owned companies, some large establishments have grown tremendously through the vision of generation-next. Even though the service sector is gradually emerging in Ahmedabad, family businesses continue to dominate. Ambani believes that the businessmen who manage home-run setups are more in touch with international markets because of trade with other countries. Global business ethics and values of professionalism are adopted within their internal systems. This reflects in the many businesses that do well here too.
“Ahmedabad is investment friendly and a plethora of industries flourish here. The city is diverse in terms of business and there has been a huge influx of foreign investment in automobiles, pharmaceuticals, textiles and chemicals. While the factories are set up in the outskirts, their ancillaries thrive in the heart of the city. It’s safe to say Ahmedabad is not a one-leg pony anymore, except for perhaps the technology firms that are doing better in cities such as Pune and Bangalore,” adds Ambani. “When it comes to factories, Ahmedabad offers the whole package — industrial land can easily be acquired and power is also readily available. For instance, a large-scaled global BPO can function smoothly without the requirement of a power-generator, a happening that’s a rarity almost everywhere else in India.
More industries lead to higher employment rates that invite professionals from across India to move to Ahmedabad. The standard and quality of living is higher compared to some of the biggest Indian cities. Real-estate is more affordable and young urban Indians can lead a more comfortable life here than say, in Mumbai or Delhi, where one could probably afford a one-bedroom apartment at the rate of a three-bedroom apartment in Ahmedabad. This further allures young talent considering a move to this city.
Interestingly, substantial percentage of Ahmedabad’s population has also invested in entrepreneurial organisations, creating waves in a traditional business city like Ahmedabad that has, until now, believed in the concept of family businesses, high-paying vocations and multinationals.
Abhay Mangaldas’ great-grandfather was one of the pioneers of the textile mills that served as the economic backbone of the city. Instead of joining the family business, he converted their ancestral home into a hotel called The House of MG. With this, he ventured into what he believes is “heritage entrepreneurship”, that entails a boutique property, line of restaurants and stores.
“After completing my education abroad, I spent ten years in Mumbai before moving back to Ahmedabad. It was in the late 2000s that ground-level changes became visible. The western side of the city, the Sardar Patel Ring Road, the Sabarmati Riverfront, Kankaria Lake were developed. High-rise buildings and flyovers were built across the city. The number of hotels increased fivefold, and business travel began to thrive. There couldn’t have been a better time to enter the hospitality industry,” says Mangaldas.
It wasn’t easy to imagine what the city must have been like before its rapid urbanisation. People were warm and wore smiles on their faces, reflecting a sense of contentment in their lives. Ambani points out that the sales of pharmaceuticals in the city has dipped in the last few years, indicating the improving health and happy lifestyle of the denizens of Ahmedabad. The ban on the consumption of alcohol also minimises rates of crime, making this city relatively safer compared to the bigger metros.
Ahmedabad has come a long way in the last decade and it isn’t overstating to say that it continues to exceed standards set by the big cities of India, in terms of infrastructure, business and quality of life. This city of enterprise continues to explore its versatility in trade and culture, making it not just a pitstop for international business travellers, but also a very hospitable home to Gujaratis and Indians from the rest of the country.
Travelling in the local rickshaw or “tuk-tuks” is as easy as hailing an Uber or an Ola. Taxi drivers are friendly and speak Hindi and Gujarati, even English if you’re lucky. Advisable to use taxis rather than the rickshaws though, as being a tourist invites being overcharged.
What to see
Ahmedabad is full of surprises. Its cultural mix of antiquities from different religions is quite enticing. Begin your Gujarati sojourn in the heart of the old-city; drive to The House of MG opposite the Siddi Sayid’s mosque. Since crowd and chaos of the old-city can intimidate the most audacious traveller, it’s advisable to join the Heritage Walk that begins at this hotel. The breakfast walk offered between October to March (7:30am-9.30am; ₹350) and the night walk offered through the year (10pm-11pm; ₹250) is a good idea for those looking to indulge in the historic locales of Ahmedabad.
The stunning edifice built by the Mughals in 1573 is entwined with carvings that depict the “tree of life”. It’s advisable to carry a scarf to cover your head, before you enter as a sign of respect. If adventure is on your mind, skip the Heritage Walk and discover the streets of the old-city or pols on your own to reminisce bygone Amdavad.
Street-food hawkers, traditional shops, Gujarati businessmen running grocery or kinara shops are the common sightings. Walk to Lal Darwaja, a citadel built by Ahmed Shah I of the Gujarat Sultanate in the 15th century and soak in the chaos of the markets that contradict this monument of history. A few 100 metres ahead is the Jama Masjid, regarded as one of the most beautiful mosque’s of India. The masjid’s courtyard is surrounded by corridors that border the complex with perfect symmetry. Its prayer hall with 260 columns is a tranquil space and almost feels cut off from the bustle of the city around.
For those interested in learning about the textile industry that supported Ahmedabad in the 19th century, the Calico Museum of Textiles (calicomuseum.org) can be a visually informative experience. Photography isn’t permitted inside and tours are offered morning and afternoon inside the gallery.
About ten minutes away from here is the Sabarmati Ashram (gandhiashramsabarmati.org), Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s headquarters between 1917 and 1930. With a museum, bookstore and Gandhi’s old residences, the Ashram is an interesting tryst with India’s struggle for independence from the British Raj.