Updated: August 15, 2021 7:56:09 am
When Mahatma Gandhi scooped a fistful of salt, he ignited civil disobedience movements across the country. His Dandi March in 1930 covered 390 km in about 25 days, had over 80 participants and 21 halts from Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, to this village in Navsari, Gujarat, along the Arabian Sea coast. Dhirubhai Patel had only been born that year.
The march was woven into the very fabric of Dandi, with every house having a charkha, even several years after Independence. People spun and wore only Khadi. “Such was the identity that when a family member returned from abroad, he would be received at the Ahmedabad airport with a pair of Khadi clothes, which he would wear before entering the village,” says Dhirubhai, 92, who runs an education trust in Dandi. Were it not for this famous march, the village, with its 1,200 people, would have “gone into oblivion”, he says.
There are signs that read “Dandi Path” all along the 15 km narrow canopied road from Navsari town to Dandi. The village, with its winding paths, has a mix of double-storeyed, concrete bungalows and cottages with terracotta tiled roofs. In April this year, it was in the spotlight when Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu arrived to conclude the Azadi ka Amrut Mahotsav, part of the celebration of India’s 75 years of Independence. There was a commemorative 25-day-long Dandi March, flagged off from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad.
Dominated by Koli Patels, today, Dandi is also a place of pilgrimage for Dawoodi Bohras, with a mosque and a dargah, close to the Saifee Villa, where Gandhi stayed, which is now part of the National Salt Satyagraha Memorial (NSSM).
“Since the memorial opened, we have had about 7,000-10,000 visitors on weekends, especially Sunday evenings,” says Kalubhai Dangar, one of the 80 staff members at the memorial. Visitors are mostly from Surat, Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Daman, Silvassa and Mumbai.
The memorial, inaugurated in 2019, is spread over 15 acres. It captures the experience of the march, from Gandhi’s prayer meet under the banyan tree to the making of your own salt at individual pans. At the centre of the memorial is a lake that harvests rainwater and gives a feel of the sea. Murals and bronze life-sized sculptures evoke the story of the march.
Besides the memorial, the village has little employment opportunities. Salinity ingress and problems of stray cattle and wild boars have reduced those dependent on farming to just five per cent, says former sarpanch Parimalbhai Patel, 60. Most youth prefer to join the Industrial Training Institute in Navsari after Class X and work as fitters, plumbers, welders, or fabrication professionals abroad. Many have been working for years in the Middle East, Europe and North Americas (Canada).
Kapil Patel, 34, joined as a guide at the NSSM at half the salary after he lost his job at a private recruiting firm in Vadodara. In his family, his grandfather and father have worked in oil companies abroad, while his younger brother, trained in welding and piping, is currently working in Indonesia.
For Shilaben Patel, 50, who ran a pakoda and pav-bhaji cart on the Dandi beach with her older sister for the last 27 years, the memorial is an income channel. She had to shift closer to the memorial ever since the beach shut down due to COVID-19. “With the memorial, we now have more visitors but with COVID our income has drastically fallen,” she says.
Shakuntalaben Patel, 49, who came to Dandi as a bride in the early ’90s, recalls there was no road, nor connectivity. A pond in nearby Matwad village was the only source of water. “With only an hour’s supply of water, people would fight over water,” she says. It’s when the NRIs pooled in to sink a borewell in 1992 that piped water finally came to their homes.
Dandi is one of the Samras villages of Gujarat (in which the villagers choose their ward members and sarpanch with consensus and do not go for polls). Vimalbhai Patel, 41, the sarpanch, however, sees a better future for Dandi in the coming years. “With the development at the memorial, where a food zone, Khadi Bhandar and a book stall are under construction, it will bring in more tourists. There are also talks of developing the beach,” he says.
The sea has, after all, receded far from the actual spot where Gandhi had symbolically defied the salt law.
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