With Modi Set to Unveil Statue of Unity, Gujarat's Farmers, Tribals Plan Protests

"The new statue means nothing to us when farmers are still facing financial crisis because of the government’s apathy."

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be inaugurating the Statue of Unity – a world’s tallest statue, of Sardar Vallabhai Patel – in Gujarat’s Kevadiya on Wednesday (October 31), Patel’s birth anniversary. However, the grand statue hasn’t received the welcome the government may have expected, with farmers and tribal groups planning large-scale protests.

Farmers protest

Over 1,500 farmers of four districts – Chhota Udepur, Panchmahals, Vadodara and Narmada – have threatened to drown themselves during the unveiling of the Statue of Unity because they have been waiting 11 years to be paid their dues for sugarcane they sold to a mill that later closed down. The dues add up to Rs 12 crore, Indian Express reported.

The farmers have made multiple please to the government asking for intervention in the past, and have even taken the matter to court. Since nothing has happened yet, they are planning a protest during the unveiling of Patel’s statue and have even threatened to drown themselves during it.

“We have our statue of unity here at the factory dedicated to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The new statue means nothing to us when farmers are still facing financial crisis because of the government’s apathy. For the last 11 years, we have been fighting but in vain,” Kaushik Patel, who had sold 389.73 tonne of sugarcane to the mill and is yet to be paid Rs 2.18 lakh, told Indian Express.

Tribal protest; open letter to Modi

The Gujarat government had put up posters for the Ekta Yatra to celebrate the completion of the statue, and protesting tribals in the region had torn them down. In their place now, the government has put posters that prominently featured tribal leader Birsa Munda, with smaller photos of Modi and Rupani.

When asked about the new posters, Narmada collector R.S. Ninama told Indian Express, “New posters that have been put up were made and sent by the agency in Gandhinagar (Gujarat Tourism). We did not decide it.”

The headmen of 22 villages near the Sardar Sarovar Dam on Monday wrote an open letter to Modi, stating that villagers would not welcome him at the inauguration of the Statue of Unity. Local tribal leaders have also announced a boycott of the function, citing the destruction of natural resources due to the memorial.

“These forests, rivers, waterfalls, land and agriculture supported us for generations. We survived on them. But, everything is being destroyed now and celebrations are also planned. Don’t you think its akin to celebrating someone’s death? We feel so,” the letter stated.

“We villagers want to tell you with extreme grief that we will not welcome you on October 31. Even if you come here like an unwanted guest, you are not welcome here,” it added.

They alleged that people’s hard-earned money is being wasted on projects like Statue of Unity though several villages of the area are still deprived of basic facilities like schools, hospitals and drinking water.

“If Sardar Patel could see the mass destruction of natural resources and injustice done to us, he would cry. When we are raising our issues, we are persecuted by police. Why you are not ready to listen to our plight?” the letter said. Earlier this month, tribal activists had announced that people living in 72 villages near the dam will join the protest on October 31 by not cooking food. “We have also urged tribals of the eastern belt of Gujarat, from Dang till Ambaji, to join our protest by observing a bandh that day. We are confident that the entire tribal population will stand up against the injustice,” said tribal leader Anand Mazgaokar.

Gujarat chief secretary J.N. Singh on Monday visited the site to take stock of ongoing preparations.

“We have invited dance troupes from across the country to perform here during the inauguration. Air Force planes and helicopters would shower flowers on the statue during unveiling. I am here today to see how we can synchronise them,” Singh told reporters.

Criticism from opposition

The Gujarat Congress also targeted the BJP government and Modi over the non-completion of Narmada canal network.

Ahead of the inauguration of the statue, leader of opposition in the Gujarat assembly Paresh Dhanani wrote a letter to Rupani and demanded that the Narmada project be declared a national project to give a “fitting tribute” to Sardar Patel.

“The construction of the dam got delayed because of litigations and stay by the Supreme Court. But, there was no ban on the construction of canal network. But, instead of completing the network, BJP only did politics. Thus, canals having cumulative length of of 20,000 kms are yet to be constructed,” Dhanani said in the letter.

Former Gujarat chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela demanded that the contribution of all the royals who had “gifted” their princely states to build a united India after independence should get a mention in the museum built beneath the Statue of Unity.

He attacked Modi saying that the statue is just a “marketing tool” for the ruling BJP and demanded that the plight of tribals and the poor must be heard first.

(With PTI inputs)