A Statue of Unity in a Gujarat deeply divided
From migrant workers’ distress to farmer protests, the voices of unhappiness over the cost of the Sardar Patel statue—the ‘Statue of Unity’—have found new company in Gujarat
A few weeks ago, as streams of migrants began fleeing Gujarat, engineers at the site of the towering 182-metre tall Statue of Unity of Sardar Patel had to make some quick decisions. Nearly half of the 4,500 workers on site, labouring away to meet a tight deadline, were migrants. They were electricians and fitters and masons. But, in that moment, what mattered was that they happened to be Hindi-speaking men, largely from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
“There were concerns about their safety,” said an official in-charge of the project on condition of anonymity. In the shadow of the world’s tallest statue coming up to symbolize unity—which the Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate tomorrow—rumour and fear spread due to an atmosphere of disunity.
Work stalled temporarily and a one-day awareness program was hurriedly held. “We visited the labour camps and assured them of safety,” the official quoted above said. Since the prime minister was slated to visit soon, local police stepped in and offered all possible support.
Other migrants in other parts of the state weren’t so lucky. An estimated 80,000 of them fled the state in early October, following the rape of a 14-month-old girl on 28 September, allegedly by a migrant worker. Hate messages urging attacks on migrants went viral on social media. The BJP and Congress blamed each other for fanning the fire. Some of the online messages made no mention of the rape, focusing instead on how migrant workers were taking away job opportunities meant for locals. Companies of special reserve police mobilized around the auto and industrial hub in Sanand-Hansalpur area, a cluster seen as a showcase of the Gujarat development model. About 200km away, in one of the few patches of land in Gujarat where migrants went about their work in relative calm, finishing touches were being done on the Sardar’s face.
Atmosphere of fear
For Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who placed a premium on national unity, and whose call for “common endeavour” prominently adorns the government website about the project, the atmosphere was less than ideal to soar into the skies in statue form.
There had already been enough murmurs of unhappiness due to the price tag on this bronze-sculpted piece of Gujarati pride, an estimated ₹2,900 crore ($430 million)—a large portion of which came from the government and public sector firms which doled out large sums from their CSR budget. The Statue of Liberty in New York, on the other hand, was funded largely through private contributions.
Now, with the date of inauguration looming into view in the very month in which large numbers of fellow Indians fled the state; amidst a farming season that has seen acute water stress in the Narmada catchment, where the statue is also located; and with agitators from Sardar Patel’s own community persisting with a quota protest—the voices of unhappiness about the cost have found new company. A number of tribal villages in the immediate vicinity of the Sardar Patel statue have also called for a bandh on 31 October to protest the lack of adequate rehabilitation efforts.
“At a time when Gujarat is facing a water crisis due to lower availability in the Narmada dam, I think the statue project could have been postponed by a year,” said Ghanshyam Shah, a leading political expert based in Gujarat and author of Social Movements in India. “The statue is nothing but somebody’s whim to create the tallest one in the world so that the name of the person who built it will automatically be attached to it. If the statue does not please the Patels or the tribals, whom does it please?” Shah asked.
If the state government is indeed aware of the many ironies that have come to cast a cloud over the statue’s inauguration, then there has not been much public acknowledgment—a fact which is borne out even by the television ad campaign meant to bring attention to the Statue of Unity project.
In the ad, a youth is shown travelling by train while reading a book titled Patel. It has a picture of India’s first home minister on the cover. He turns to his co-passengers and inquiries about their identities, asking even for their passports.
When the co-passengers ask him to prove his identity first, the youth shows them the book he is carrying and explains how people in India would have needed a passport to travel to different parts of the country had it not been for the efforts of Sardar Patel in creating an undivided India that we see today.
The ads were aired as out-of-state workers were boarding similar looking trains heading out of the state.
The impact on business
“The threat to north Indian migrant workers has affected many projects in the state. Most of the large construction projects depend heavily on migrant workers,” said a leading Gujarat- based industrialist who did not wish to be named.
“Many of them working in our under-construction projects have fled and are likely to return only after Diwali. Such incidents may have happened in Maharashtra or elsewhere, but have never happened in Gujarat. It reflects the failure of the government to take necessary steps to curb violence,” the industrialist added.
Even as chief minister Vijay Rupani appealed for peace, the government has also moved to enact a new law which will mandate industrial units to allocate 80% of the jobs to those domiciled in Gujarat. While Gujarat has an existing industrial policy that reserves 85% of jobs for locals, implementation has been lax. The new law is expected to include more stringent provisions in case of non-compliance. A state government official, when asked if the Statue of Unity adheres to the policy of giving 80% employment to locals, refused to comment on the matter, saying only that the issue would be examined.
While there is no official data on migrant workers, estimate pegs their number at 4-8 million, making them integral to state’s economy, said Indira Hirway, director and professor of economics at the Centre for Development Alternatives (CFDA) in Ahmedabad. “The state has the lowest minimum wages in the country and this helps maximise the profits of organizations and factories,” she said. “Luxurious projects like the Statue of Unity should ideally come up in times of prosperity and not when there is such high level of inequality in society,” she added.
The other prominent group for whom the statue has come to represent a litany of pre-existing grievances is the string of tribal villages in the immediate vicinity of the project site. Govindbhai Tadvi, village head of Wagadia, says that about 1,500 people in his village have lost their land and are yet to be rehabilitated. Tadvi, who works as a supervisor at site, says that the locals have not really benefited. The state government has pinned its hopes on the employment which will be created if the expected 14,000 tourists visit the area each day.
But the tribals aren’t buying such long-term promises built on hopes and estimates. About 75,000 people belonging to 70 villages have expressed their intention to oppose the unveiling of the statue by PM Modi by observing a fast today.“No food will be cooked in all these 70 villages and we will put black flags on our houses as a sign of protest,” said Lakhanbhai Musafir, a resident of Mathawadi village that lies about 5 km from the Sardar Patel statue. “We are not against the BJP or Sardar Patel. In fact, we have a lot of respect for Sardar Patel who led a very simple life and I am not sure if he would himself approve of such a grand project,” he added.
Musafir added that the people living near the Sardar Sarovar dam, which is a few kilometres away, are not getting Narmada waters despite the canal passing nearby as the government is yet to finish work on its canal network. According to RTI activist Rohit Prajapati, the government should have spent the money on the welfare of the tribals and in completing the canal network instead of building the statue.
Statue of ironies
“It is a statue of ironies and you can take your pick. They do not want Patel of unity but Patel of uniformity,” said noted sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. “The bigger the statue, the bigger the lie, and that’s how I see it. Given the displacement of tribals in the area, it is more of a displacer than a unifier. Appropriating history in the age of propaganda is not new, but our memories go far back and cannot be displaced so quickly,” he added.
Sardar Patel was a member of the Congress, but is a new-found hero for the BJP, which contrasts his iron man qualities with the perceived weaknesses of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. Modi has, on several occasions, said how Patel had repeatedly been ignored by the Congress and was not allowed to become India’s first prime minister. But the attempts to own or re-own the legacy of one of India’s most-noted leaders from the Patel community have to also grapple with the present-day ongoing agitations for a quota in higher education and government jobs. The movement’s spearhead Hardik Patel has been at loggerheads with ruling BJP governments in both the state and the centre.
With the government in no mood to accede to their demands, the Patels have also threatened an agitation on 31 October, the birth anniversary of Sardar Patel. Hardik Patel is expected to address a rally in Junagadh district, which is likely to feature former finance minister Yashwant Sinha and BJP MP Shatrughan Sinha.
In the face of this unending fight for a piece of Sardar Patel’s legacy by a variety of groups—ranging from castes and states to political parties—noted historian and biographer Ramchandra Guha, said: “All I would like to say is that in the words of Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the Congress ‘disowned’ Patel, whereupon the BJP ‘misowned’ him.”
Meanwhile, work at the Statue of Unity itself has progressed almost in a vacuum, unaffected by the many agitations. After all, it was conceived, in part, to symbolize the development vision and speed of execution of the ‘Gujarat model’ of development which Modi popularized.
For Mohammad Miyan, a 25-year-old electrician from Bihar who has been working on the Sardar Patel statue and the associated museum, the “stories of how people like me were treated” was just stories.
“Our contractor assured our safety. There are about 25 other workers from my village alone here,” he said. Miyan’s worksite colleague, Sandeep Kumar Gord, who is also from Bihar, was taking measurements, checking whether the statue was balanced. “I have only heard that PM Narendra Modi is making this statue. I do not know anything beyond that,” he said.
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