It is a usual Saturday at the Statue of Unity, with no particular excitement about this being the first Assembly elections since the 182-metre structure was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Kevadia of Narmada district. The inauguration in 2018 was followed by the renaming of the village where the statue is located as Ektanagar, and the start of a ‘Tourism Circuit’ with over 35 attractions in 2020.
In 2017, the Nandod (ST reserved) Assembly seat under which Kevadia falls was wrested from the BJP by the Congress. So a lot is at stake for the BJP this time in the seat, which covers both the Statue of Unity and the Sardar Sarovar Dam, two of the Modi government’s pet projects which are also at the heart of its poll campaign. The statue stands on Sadhu Bet island, overlooking the dam.
However, what is for the Modi government a record-setting feat, raising the world’s tallest statue, does not hold as much appeal for tribals in the area. They have struggled to reorganise their lives around the project, particularly those who lost their land to the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL). While their plea in court was thrown out, protests lasted through the construction, and were mainly led by Praful Vasava, a former Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) leader who is now the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate from Nandod.
Ganpat Tadvi, 40, had to give up his shop and now runs a tea stall near the statue’s parking area, making half what he earned earlier, he says. “Outsiders benefited from the statue… what did tribal families get? Our properties were acquired while our children are still waiting for the promised jobs,” he says, adding that his two sons had submitted their resumes for a job a year ago.
In September, two hotel projects by the Tata Group were inaugurated at Ektanagar.
A resident of Nana Pipadiya village, Ganpat says: “My older son has completed a computer course from Rajpipla and my younger son is studying at an ITI… A few thousand tribal youths have been employed in the statue but 70% are outsiders.”
Natwar Tadvi, a resident of Kevadia, had attempted self-immolation in June 2020 to prevent SSNNL from fencing his fields. Now a parking lot with an Amul outlet stands where his farmland was. “We cannot trust the BJP after what we lost… We are a family of 40 and have no land now, nor did we receive commensurate compensation as a family,” Natwar says.
He also accuses the BJP of co-opting “one of our biggest voices in the local body elections”. “The party gave him a ticket and he is now a member of the district panchayat,” Natwar says.
Natwar’s reference is to his neighbour Dinesh Tadvi, who had fought against the land acquisition before winning from Kevadia on a BJP ticket in the February 2021 district panchayat polls.
Also angry about “outsiders” cornering the benefits, Sharda Tadvi of Navagam says all parties are the same. “Our MP is from the Rathwa community (the BJP’s Geeta Rathwa) while our MLA is a Vasava (P D Vasava of the Congress). This time, every party has fielded Vasavas, though the Tadvis outnumber them by over 75,000… No party gave this any thought.”
Many nearby villages, however, have tapped into the tourism boom and converted their homes into home stays, some on their own, without government help. One of them says: “We are trying to develop a network of private home stays where we can take direct bookings… Why shouldn’t we make use of the opportunity? To be part of the government home stays, there are parameters and the applications can remain pending for long or get 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. “One can have many complaints but what is true is that the government has utilised every aspect of this location to turn it into a tourist spot. Who would have imagined that the Narmada ghat would be turned into this! The aarti has created jobs for a dozen tribals and enthused children.”
While close to 4,000 locals, mostly tribals, are hired with various tasks related to the statue, including as security guards and tourist guides, the number of aspirants remains long.
Ramila Tadvi of 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 is still awaiting a call back… For skilled jobs, especially, they hire outsiders.”
Addressing a rally in Jambughoda on November 1, much before the polls were announced, PM Modi had mentioned the Statue of Unity as one of the initiatives by his government to get the region jobs. Telling the tribals that he had his finger on their pulse as he had lived amongst them, he said: “Tribal areas in Gujarat are blessed with places for tourism… We have strengthened the livelihood of tribals by developing Saputara and Statue of Unity.”
The BJP is also hoping to win back Dediapada, the other Assembly constituency in Narmada district, on the strength of the statue and its other efforts. In 2017, the Congress’s ally Bharatiya Tribal Party won from Dediapada.
But there is another factor in the fray, in the form of AAP, which has fielded influential former BTP leaders from both seats. While its Nandod candidate Prafula Vasava had led the protests against the land acquisition but has lost steam since due to the Modi government’s project push, AAP’s Dediapada candidate, Chaitar Vasava, is on strong ground.
Apart from AAP, the BJP also faces a rebel in Nandod. The party has fielded Darshana Deshmukh, a gynaecologist and the daughter of former four-term BJP MP from Bharuch Chandu Deshmukh as its candidate. Harshad Vasava, its Tribal Morcha president and two-term MLA from Rajpipla — which after the delimitation in 2012 led to the creation of Nandod – is contesting 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. “Times are gone when tribals could not envision what development looked like and fell for the emotional manipulation of parties. Now, they side with the BJP’s policies.”
The Congress, which won Nandod last time, has dropped veteran sitting MLA P D 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 the Congress. The BJP is trying to sell cake to people who cannot afford bread… but the mood of the tribals is clear. They will not vote for a party eyeing their property. This project has not ended.” The Congress though was not an active participant in the land acquisition protests.
Ironically, while projecting themselves as the real supporters of tribals, all parties also lay claim to the Sardar Sarovar Dam. The Congress talks about PM Jawarharlal Nehru having laid the foundation stone for the dam in 1961. The BJP stresses it was Modi’s dedication that saw the dam and “Sardar Vallabbhai Patel’s vision” through, and has got fresh steam from the appearance of anti-dam activist Medha Patkar’s at the Bharat Jodo Yatra of Rahul Gandhi. The BJP has also attacked AAP for having once given Patkar an election ticket. Arvind Kejriwal is trying to get around this by promising Kutch that an AAP government would “get the Narmada water to every corner of the district”.
Incidentally, this is also the first Assembly polls in Gujarat after the completion of the entire main canal network of the Narmada dam, with the Kutch branch canal opened in July.
BJP Bharuch MP Mansukh Vasava, who is from Rajpipla in Narmada and overseeing the party’s campaign in Narmada, says that it’s not 2017 but the 2021 rural polls which the party is taking a cue from. “Winning the Kevadia seat in the Narmada district panchayat polls as well as the control of the Narmada district have made a difference in the ground campaign… The major issues faced by the tribals are slowly getting resolved,” the MP says.
Rajpipla, the district head of Narmada, that falls in the Nandod seat, 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, it is these issues that are more important. “Health centres are missing in many villages even today. Have the tourism projects been able to increase the groundwater table or the quality of oxygen for people? Once in power, parties forget tribals and trample upon our rights,” Jigar says.
Relying on its local leaders for campaigning in both seats, the Congress denies it is fighting a half-hearted battle, with no visible sign of the Navsarjan Adivasi Adhikar Yatra, which was launched amidst much fervour by Rahul Gandhi in Dahod in May this year to woo tribals. A senior leader says, “The Congress leaders in both the seats are grass-root workers.”