Kevadia, home to Gujarat’s largest dam named after Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel on the Narmada river and the world’s tallest 182-metre Statue of Unity (SoU), has turned into a tourism hotspot since the last local body polls were held in 2015. Since 2018, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the statue, Kevadia, has seen 31 additional tourist attractions and the formation of the Statue of Unity Area Development and Tourism Governance Authority or Statue of Unity Tourism Authority (SoUTA), which by default overrides the power of the local bodies. On the ground, however, parties have fielded candidates to fill the mandatory seats for the Narmada district panchayat and the Garudeshwar taluka panchayat.
The BJP, which came into power in Garudeshwar taluka panchayat — the only one of the five in the district the party managed to win in 2015 — has been out of power in the district panchayat. For local BJP leaders, winning the district panchayat in Narmada, where the Congress has the majority is a matter of prestige due to the growing relevance of the district on the tourism map.
The Kevadia seat for the district panchayat is currently held by Congress’s Dinesh Jesinh Tadvi.
This time the BJP has fielded a local tribal and the namesake of the current Congress representative, Dinesh Tadvi, from Kevadia village. More so, because Dinesh Tadvi, until June last year, was also leading the people of six villages that were protesting the land acquisition by the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) in Kevadia, Vaghadia, Limdi, Gora, Navagam and Kothi. Dinesh Tadvi, who withdrew himself from the protests mid-way last year, is now hoping to win the seat for the BJP — the party that he was vehemently opposing until last year.
In his maiden election contest, Dinesh Tadvi says, “The reason for contesting is to ensure that the people here have a voice in the panchayat, where speaking up can bring change. The fact is that the government has already made its decision to take possession of the lands they acquired in 1961. They have decided to shift most villagers out based on the documents they have. Those who are not directly affected need a voice and I am only trying to be the means for it.”
A local resident catapulted to a panchayat candidate, however, has not gone down too well with the local party leaders, most of whom have stayed away from his campaign on foot. Dinesh Tadvi, however, has been campaigning in the villages that are closest to the SoU and seeking votes for “development”.
While at some places, villagers have asked pointed questions: “are they going to take our homes?”. At some others, villagers have come out in support and blessed the “son of the village”.
Locals do not deny that the SoU and the ancillary tourist businesses that are coming up in the taluka have generated employment opportunities for local tribals. Ramila Tadvi, a resident of Limbdi village, says, “Many youths of the village have been chosen after training to work in various capacities in the projects and it has definitely made up for the missing opportunities but there are many more youths who are still unemployed and some have been rendered landless during the displacement. There are many families that have not been able to find their stability after being uprooted. So many elections have gone by and we are still living in the fear of being evicted. When will this end?”
A few metres away from Dinesh Tadvi’s own house in Kevadia, where another villager Natwar Tadvi attempted self-immolation in June last year to prevent SSNNL from fencing his fields, the family of 40 members is unsure if they would vote for their fellow villager.
Natwar Tadvi says, “Dinesh is a friend and he fought for us but he did withdraw his support when we needed it. We cannot trust the BJP. The Congress and the BTP have been more vocal in supporting us. The issue of our lands and homes has remained unresolved. We have not been offered any decent compensation yet and to top it, the new Authority will soon be breathing on our neck.”
The Congress candidate this time is the son of the current sitting panchayat member Dinesh Jesinh Tadvi and is not a resident of Kevadia village. But the mostly illiterate villagers can’t help raise the pertinent question of the relevance of the panchayat seats for local issues since the SoUTA is on the cards — construction has begun to build the sprawling office from where the officers will administer the area.
In December last year, the General Administration Department (GAD) of the government of Gujarat released the government plan for the SoUTA, announcing two circles of management that will have 201 personnel for the operation and maintenance, water supply, sewage lines, roads, parking, lights as well as the decorative lighting in the area of 25 sq metres of Kevadia colony.
A top government official of the district says, “Kevadia will be governed by the SoUTA. All civic needs and developments will be taken care of by the SoUTA. The power to use the funds that the government sends for the local area development will also rest with SoUTA. But one cannot say that the relevance of the panchayat will be gone. There are many other issues that need to be tackled at the panchayat level, which will be outside the purview of the SoUTA — for instance roads inside villages. But the panchayat will not have the power to override the SoUTA wherever it is applicable.”
Kevadia, which is part of the Garudeshwar taluka panchayat and one of the 22 seats of the Narmada District Panchayat, is hardly touched by the election fever that has gripped other parts of the neighbouring talukas. The Congress had won the Narmada district panchayat with 10 of 22 seats while the BJP and BTP (as JD(U)) won six each.