Ganpat Tadvi, 35, who runs a road-side tea and snacks stall close to the world’s tallest sculpture – a statue of India independence hero Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel – is making money from the influx of tourists but is unhappy.

The 182-meter tall statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel –also called the Statue of Unity – was built in eastern India’s Gujarat at a cost of approximately US$3 billion. The statue sits on the tribal-dominated Sadhu Bet, an island on the Narmada river in eastern India’s Gujarat, and that’s where the problems start.

Ever since the inauguration of the statue in October last year, there has been an influx of tourists which has led to Tadvi’s average daily income doubling. Tadvi and the 100 other stall owners are happy with their newfound prosperity thanks to the increase in tourist numbers, but are up in arms about plans to expand the site.

The statue was built close to the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Narmada district, near the Valley of Flowers on the banks of the Narmada and a three-star hotel. What has upset the locals was plans to expand the site further with government guest houses for all the Indian states and Union Territories in Kevadiya town.

The Valley of Flowers near the Statue of Unity in India’s Gujarat. Photo: Rajnish Mishra

Protest against statue project

On January 19, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar faces strong protests by local tribal people when he visited Kevadiya for a ground-breaking ceremony for his state’s guest house. Stones were thrown and police detained 30 locals and booked 11 on charges of rioting, including tribal leader Praful Vasava and activist Lakhan Musafir. According to police, all 11 have now gone underground and applied for anticipatory bail.

Prominent tribal leaders also warned the Gujarat government that protests would intensify if the land dispute was not settled quickly.

Octogenarian tribal leader and president of Adivasi Samanvay Ekta Samiti, Amarsinh Jat Chaudhary, accused the government of violating the constitution and said a general strike would be organized if even an inch of tribal land was used for the construction of the proposed projects.

‘Newfound prosperity’ only temporary

Tadvi, who supports the protests, said locals fear their newfound prosperity would be only temporary if big hotels and other projects were built in the area. He said the protesters were the only way to save their land and get better compensation.

“Before the statue’s inauguration, the tourist inflow was minimal in the area,” he said. “The only point of attraction was the Sardar Sarovar dam, which occasionally overflowed during the monsoon season. My daily income was Rs 2,000 earlier, but after the statue’s inauguration, it has gone up to Rs 5,000 to 7,000 a day. I am happy about it.”

But he added that local tribe had three reasons to protest – business, land and culture. “If the project is expanded further, big hotels will open and it will bring in big players. They will create their monopoly and leave no space for us to operate,” he said.

“Also, to build more infrastructure for the project, they will require more land which will result in the people of Kevadiya losing more land. Another thing is that we tribal people love to keep our culture intact but the heavy influx of tourists will affect that also.

“People who come from outside will drink (Gujarat is a dry state) and eat non-vegetarian food (Gujarat is largely a vegetarian state) here and the whole culture of our locality will be disturbed. If they want to see the statue they should see it and go. What is the need to stay here?” he asked.

Delayed compensation

Govind Tadvi, the elected head of nearby Vaghodia village, one of six villages affected by the project, said proper compensation for land taken for a six-lane approach road and other facilities had not yet been paid. “The government has not given us land in lieu of land as promised. It asks us to go to faraway places deprived of basic amenities.

“Despite promises of jobs to locals, only a few have been engaged and that too, on a contract basis. The ones who were protesting genuinely for the land compensation were being beaten up and booked. This is not fair,” he said.

“All we want is land and fair compensation and assurance that we won’t be driven away from our ancestral place in the name of development.”

Tribal land rights and environmental issues activist Anand Mazgaonkar, who has been working in the area for more than three decades, supported the protests.

He said the land where the guest houses and other structures were to be built was acquired by the government in the 1960s for construction of the Narmada dam. However, the dam was built some distance away and the land remained unused, but the government neither took possession of it nor returned it to its owners.

According to the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act and The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, land should be returned to the owners within five or 10 years, Mazgaonkar said.

Narmada District Collector RS Ninama said the government could use the land for development purposes and it was not possible to return the land. He said the land acquisition was completed in 1961. Later, on the directions of the Supreme Court, those affected by the project were offered equal land in the area of the Narmada project.

“We are offering them land in command areas in Vadodara, Chhota Udepur, Ahmedabad and Bharuch districts. But they want to live here. We also don’t want them to leave this place,” said Ninama.

‘Artificial tourists’

According to official figures, about 820,000 tourists have visited the statue, adding US$191.8 million of revenue to government coffers through ticket sales. However, Mazgaonkar claimed the flow of tourists was not natural.

“The crowd is also not all tourists, but (is) being managed artificially. The government is compelling schools and other institutions to bring children and other visitors. It is also holding meetings and conferences here just to increase the numbers but those cannot be considered as tourists,” he said.

Bharat Pandya, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP)  state spokesperson for Gujarat, said: “Even the Supreme Court admitted that the Gujarat government’s compensation and rehabilitation offers are some of the best in India. Since the Statue of Unity is of Sardar Patel, the great unifier of India, all the states should have representation here. Congress and its new ally Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) are misleading innocent tribal (people) from the area to serve their own interest.”

The opposition Congress party’s MLA from Dasada in Gujarat, Naushad Solanki, alleged the government was trying to make a mockery of tribal people. “On the one hand, large numbers of tribals in the area are still deprived of basic amenities and two square meals, yet the government is busy setting up five-star hotels and guest houses. This is nothing but an insult and a mockery of innocent and poor tribal people,” he said.