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.