It’s a typical Saturday at the Statue of Unity, with no particular excitement that it’s the first Assembly elections since the 182-metre structure was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Kevadia, Narmada district. The inauguration in 2018 was followed by the renaming of the village where the statue is located to Ektanagar, and the start of a ‘tourist circuit’ with over 35 attractions in 2020.
In 2017, the Nandod Assembly seat (ST reserved) under which Kevadia falls was wrested from the BJP by the Congress. So much is at stake for the BJP this time in the seat, which covers both the Unity Statue and the Sardar Sarovar Dam, two of the Modi government’s pet projects that are also central to its election campaign. . The statue stands on the island of Sadhu Bet, overlooking the dam.
However, what is for the Modi government a record feat, raising the tallest statue in the world, does not hold so much appeal for tribals in the region. They struggled to reorganize their lives around the project, especially those who lost their land to Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL). While their plea in court was rejected, the protests lasted throughout the construction and were mainly led by Praful Vasava, a former leader of the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) who is now the candidate of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP ) from Nandod.
Ganpat Tadvi, 40, had to give up his shop and now runs a tea stall near the statue parking lot, earning half of what he used to earn, he says. “Foreigners benefited from the statue… What did the tribal families get? Our properties were acquired while our children are still waiting for the promised jobs,” he said, adding that his two sons had submitted their resumes for a job a year ago.
In September, two hotel projects of the Tata group were inaugurated in Ektanagar.
A resident of Nana Pipadiya village, Ganpat, says: “My eldest son took a computer course in Rajpipla and my younger son is studying in an ITI… A few thousand tribal youths were employed in the statue, but 70% are strangers.
Natwar Tadvi, a resident of Kevadia, had attempted to set himself on fire in June 2020 to prevent the SSNNL from fencing his fields. Now a parking lot with an Amul outlet is where his farmland used to be. “We cannot trust the BJP after what we have lost… We are a family of 40 and we have no land now, nor have we received commensurate compensation as family,” says Natwar.
He also accuses the BJP of co-opting “one of our biggest voices in the local elections”. “The party gave him a ticket and he is now a member of the district panchayat,” says Natwar.
Natwar’s reference is to his neighbor Dinesh Tadvi, who had struggled with land acquisition before winning from Kevadia on a BJP ticket in the February 2021 district panchayat polls.
Also angry at ‘outsiders’ hoarding the benefits, Navagam’s Sharda Tadvi says all parties are the same. “Our MP is from the Rathwa community (Geeta Rathwa from BJP) while our MP is a Vasava (DP Vasava from Congress). This time, each party fielded Vasavas, although the Tadvis outnumbered them by more than 75,000… Neither party thought of that.
Many nearby villages, however, took advantage of the tourism boom and converted their houses into guesthouses, some on their own, without government assistance. One of them says: “We are trying to develop a network of private residences where we can take direct bookings… Why not take advantage of this opportunity? To be part of government stay-at-homes, there are parameters and applications can be pending for a long time or be rejected. In fact, many people are upset because their petitions have been rejected.
Also on the side of the project is a villager whose music group performs the recently introduced Narmada Aarti near the statue. “You can have many complaints, but what is true is that the government has used every aspect of this place to make it a tourist spot. Who would have imagined that the Narmada ghat would be transformed into this! L ‘aarti has created jobs for a dozen tribals and enthusiastic children.
While nearly 4,000 locals, mostly tribals, are hired for various statue-related tasks, including as security guards and tour guides, the number of aspirants remains long.
Ramila Tadvi from Limdi village says, “My son was employed as a security guard for the first two years, but the outsourcing company laid off employees during the pandemic. He’s always waiting to be called back… For skilled jobs, above all, they hire foreigners.
Addressing a rally in Jambughoda on November 1, long before the election was announced, Prime Minister Modi had mentioned the Statue of Unity as one of his government’s initiatives to create jobs in the region. Telling the tribals that he had his finger on their pulse as he had lived among them, he said, “The tribal areas of Gujarat are blessed with places of tourism… We have enhanced the livelihoods of the tribals by developing Saputara and the Statue of Unity.
The BJP also hopes to win back Dediapada, the other assembly constituency in Narmada district, through the statue and its other efforts. In 2017, the Bharatiya tribal party, an ally of the Congress, prevailed over Dediapada.
But there is another factor in the fray, in the form of the AAP, which has fielded influential former construction leaders from both seats. While its Nandod candidate, Prafula Vasava, had led the protests against the land acquisition but has since faltered due to the push of the Modi government project, AAP’s Dediapada candidate, Chaitar Vasava, is on a solid ground.
Apart from the AAP, the BJP also faces a rebel in Nandod. The party fielded Darshana Deshmukh, a gynecologist and daughter of former four-term BJP MP Bharuch Chandu Deshmukh, as a candidate. Harshad Vasava, its president Tribal Morcha and two-term provincial deputy from Rajpipla – which, after demarcation in 2012, led to the creation of Nandod – is running as an independent. On Sunday, the party suspended Harshad.
A BJP leader said that while Harshad will cause a dent, as an independent he was not a big risk. “The times are over when tribals could not imagine what development was like and fell into the emotional manipulation of parties. Now they are siding with BJP policies.
Congress, which won Nandod last time out, dropped veteran MLA PD Vasava for Haresh Vasava. A Congress leader says, “Haresh has a very strong presence. There might be an impact due to AAP’s Praful Vasava, but the tribals are strong supporters of Congress. The BJP is trying to sell cakes to people who can’t afford bread…but the mood of the tribals is clear. They will not vote for a party that is eyeing their property. This project is not finished. Congress, however, did not actively participate in the protests against the land acquisition.
Ironically, while presenting themselves as the true supporters of the tribes, all sides also lay claim to Sardar Sarovar Dam. The Congress speaks of Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru laying the foundation stone of the dam in 1961. The BJP points out that it was Modi’s dedication who saw the dam and “Sardar Vallabbhai Patel’s vision” through it, and got a new steam from the appearance of anti-dam activist Medha Patkar at Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. The BJP also attacked the AAP for once giving Patkar an election ticket. Arvind Kejriwal tries to circumvent this problem by promising Kutch that an AAP government “will bring water from the Narmada to every corner of the district”.
Incidentally, these are also the first assembly polls in Gujarat after the completion of the entire network of main canals of the Narmada Dam, with the opening of the secondary canal at Kutch in July.
BJP MP Bharuch Mansukh Vasava, who is from Rajpipla in Narmada and oversees the party’s campaign in Narmada, says it is not 2017 but 2021 rural polls that the party is drawing inspiration from. “Winning the seat of Kevadia in the Narmada district panchayat polls as well as control of Narmada district has made a difference in the campaign on the ground…The major issues facing the tribals are slowly being resolved,” said said the deputy.
Rajpipla, the district head of Narmada, which falls under the headquarters of Nandod, is also home to Birsa Munda Tribal University, one of the two tribal universities in the state. After the Covid pandemic, the state government approved a medical college in Rajpipla.
For Jigar Tadvi, a resident of Dediapada, these are the questions that are more important. “Even today, health centers are lacking in many villages. Have tourism projects been able to increase the water table or the quality of oxygen for people? Once in power, the parties forget the tribes and trample on our rights,” says Jigar.
Relying on its local leaders to campaign in both seats, Congress denies waging a half-hearted battle with no visible signs of the Navsarjan Adivasi Adhikar Yatra, which was launched with great fervor by Rahul Gandhi in Dahod in May of this year to woo the tribals. A senior leader says, “Congress leaders in both seats are grassroots workers.