Narendra Modi’s rising Gujarat hits a wall at Mahuva

Saved by apex court from the ‘fangs’ of a proposed cement unit, an area in Bhavnagar turns against Modi's development theory. They fear voting lotus might revive factory plans, damage local ecology


Brajesh Kumar | December 6, 2012

The unfinished Nirma factory building still intimidates villagers in Mahuva
The unfinished Nirma factory building still intimidates villagers in Mahuva

As catchphrases like swarnim-rising-developed Gujarat charted its path toward a crescendo ahead of the assembly elections in Gujarat, Mahuva, a small taluka in Bhvanagar district, stands out.

Those terms are an anathema here.

Here “swarnim Gujarat” means taking away farmer’s land for the industry. Here “development” means drawing out sweet water from underneath their land that has sustained agriculture for over two decades. Here “rising Gujarat” means destroying agriculture, the only means of livelihood the region has known for centuries.

So why has development in Mahuva assumed connotations so different from the popular perception across the state?  

Not long ago, farmers of this region fought pitched battle to get their land back from Nirma company, which wanted to set up a cement factory in the region.

According to the farmers, 222 out of 268 hectares allotted by the state government to the company covered a waterbody, which was crucial to the region’s flourishing agriculture. The cement factory, the locals contended, would have destroyed their farming, besides causing irreparable damage to the environment.

Although the farmers emerged victorious eventually, after Supreme Court asked Nirma to stop work in a verdict issued in March last year and the environment and forests ministry withdrew environment clearance, two years of uncertainty, helplessness, and the indifference of the Narendra Modi government bordering on brazenness has left a scar on the collective psyche of the region.

Not surprisingly, then, scores of voters in Mahuva and adjoining constituencies are set against BJP and its candidates. While the results to be declared on December 20 could swing either way, there is an apprehension among the electorate that if the BJP wins the Mahuva seat, Nirma could be back to haunt them.

Enter the unlikely hero: a surgeon and former soldier of the ‘enemy’
“The Modi government allotted our land to Nirma in the name of development. What would development mean to us if our lands where destroyed and water drawn out?” asked Bharat Shiyal, sarpanch of Dugheri village under Mahuva constituency.

This sentiment was echoed in almost all villages of the constituency Governance Now visited since the last-ditch campaigning began before the first-phase polling on December 13. So, having won the seat for the last three terms, the BJP is under attack for the first time in 15 years.

Many, if not the majority, of voters we spoke to said they have given up on the BJP this time, rallying, instead, behind the man who won the Mahuva seat on BJP ticket for those three consecutive terms. Dr Kanubhai Kalsaria, a practicing surgeon and the sitting MLA who opposed his own government’s policy and successfully led the farmer’s agitation against Nirma factory, is the cynosure of all their hope.  

Following the showdown with his party and government, Kalsaria left the BJP to float his own party, Sadbhavna Manch, which has fielded five candidates in Mahuva and adjoining constituencies.

While the Manch is confident of its victory in Mahuva and Gariadhar constituency, it is campaigning hard for the other three constituencies: Talaja, Rajula and Savarkundla.

“The movement to drive Nirma out and preserve the coastal ecology won us the public goodwill in Mahuva and surrounding areas,” Kalsaria told Governance Now, adding that the party thus fielded candidates in the four other seats.

The goodwill Kalsaria mentioned had to be seen to be believed, as village after village along the coastal areas went out canvassing for “Saheb”, as Kalsaria is called here. The supporters left no stones unturned in a hope to make him and his party victorious.

“Saheb was with us when the entire government machinery was with Nirma. He fought against his own government to save our land,” said Surajbhai from Dolia village, on whose land the company was building its factory. 

“Bijli sadak aur pani ka kya karenge, agar rotla (rotis made from bajra and jowar) hi nahin milega (what will we do with roads, power and water supply if we don’t get food)?” asked Khimji Bambhania, 27, a farmer from Dugheri village.

Backing ‘Dr Do-good’, in fear of the lotus
Along with the village sarpanch, Khimji and his friends now plan to take out a two-wheeler rally to each and every village where Sadbhavna Manch is contesting in an effort to convince voters about the need to move away from the BJP and rally around Kalsaria.

“We have all been voting for the BJP for years, and now we will have to explain to the voters that Saheb is no longer with the party,” Khimji said. “If we don’t, people might end up voting for the BJP, assuming Saheb is still with the BJP. And Nirma is sure to come back if that happens.”

While it’s highly unlikely that Nirma will make any effort to resume its work again, BJP or no BJP, villagers’ suspicion about a comeback by the company has been heightened by remnants of the unfinished factory that still stands on a huge patch of pasture land in Padhiyarka village. What has added fuel to the fire is rumour that the BJP would exact revenge on the villagers for supporting Kalsaria if the party’s candidate wins.

Officially, the BJP did not touch the sensitive topic during its campaign, its attack being limited to the Congress and its “misrule” at the Centre. At the party’s rally in Mahuva town on December 1, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi spoke largely about his record of good governance and his favourite bête noir, Congress president Sonia Gandhi. 

He didn’t speak a word on Kalsaria and his party, the main opposition for BJP in Mahuva and its vicinity — highly unusual for Modi, not known to be charitable to his opponents.

“That was deliberate,” said a Sadbhavna Manch worker. “Attacking Kannubhai in Mahuva could go against Modi, and he knows that.”

Also, the fact that Modi had to come to Mahuva, once a BJP citadel, to canvass for his party’s candidate was not lost on the audience. “He is here to bolster the chances of Bhavana Makwana, the sitting MLA from Talaja, who shifted her base to Mahuva since she was not sure of her victory there,” said Bharat Gazrela, a local businessman who was present at Modi’s rally.





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