From jobs to water: PM’s Dahod rally boosts BJP ahead of Gujarat polls, but tribal concerns linger

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing the Adijati Sammelan in Gujarat’s Dahod last Wednesday, spoke about the proposed Rs 20,000 crore electric locomotive manufacturing plant workshop that, he said, would generate employment for about 10,000 people, the large tribal audience cheered and applauded.

To many youths in the gathering, the PM’s announcement of the upgraded locomotive project in the tribal-dominated Dahod district came as a glimmer of hope. The district witnesses large-scale migration of its workforce, the highest in Gujarat, due to lack of employment opportunities, with over one lakh people migrating from the district annually in search of work.

A 24-year-old tribal Kishan Damor said, “Modiji has made a huge announcement that tribal youth will be employed here. We do know that with Statue of Unity (SoU) set up in Kevadia, deserving tribal youths have been able to make their lives.” With some older men from his group watching him skeptically, Damor said, “There are always people who do not make it but it does not negate the possibility that the project will open up for those who qualify… Not everyone has to become an engineer to get a job there, look at what tourism has done to Kevadia. Dahod has always been known for its railway workshop.”

Another local Rajesh Bhabhor said, “If big projects are set up in Dahod, it will create more indirect employment for other jobs that are not necessarily related to engineering… Setting up a project of the Indian Railways will open so many avenues for our children in the coming years… What SoU has done for Narmada, the revival of the railway workshop will do for Dahod. At least the next generation can hope they can break the cycle of being migrant labourers as it will also motivate them to study.”

Dahod also saw the highest number of MGNREGA jobs during the Covid pandemic, logging 2.7 lakh single-day labour employment in June 2021. PM Modi referred to migrant workers who returned to the district during the Covid lockdown without work and income. “I kept awake to ensure that the stove of the poor kept burning as the people of Dahod who go to cities for work returned home when everything was shut down. We have created a world record by providing free food grains to 80 crore people for the last two years,” he said.

Another major concern of tribal inhabitants of the belt has been the scarcity of water. The PM also inaugurated the Dahod District Southern Area Regional Water Supply Scheme worth Rs 893 crore that is envisaged to bring water from the Narmada river via Hafeshwar in Kawant taluka of Chhota Udepur district to Dahod.

A group of women from Dhanpur taluka villages could barely conceal their excitement over the prospect of getting tap water in their homes. Dholki Damor, a 28-year-old mother of five, said, “Our home would have tap water because of this project. When the project was announced in 2016, I had been married for three years and was pregnant with my second child, and fetching water was a tiresome process… It has been a dream of many years to have tap water.”

As many as 285 villages and a town in South Dahod along with 85 villages and a town in Chhota Udepur district would benefit from the water supply project involving a 1550 km-long pipeline. Many of these villages, which relied on depleting groundwater for years, have been getting water through tankers during the summer months.

There were also dissenting voices at the PM’s tribal rally for which about 2 lakh people were ferried from five districts — Dahod, Mahisagar, Vadodara, Chhota Udepur and Panchmahal — to its venue for which a 17.98 lakh square feet dome, “the biggest in Asia”, was set up. The five districts make up a total of 26 Assembly seats, including 10 Scheduled Tribes (ST)-reserved seats, of which both the ruling BJP and the principal Opposition Congress have currently five each.

The BJP hopes Modi’s Dahod rally will boost the party’s prospects in tribal belts in the run-up to the state Assembly polls late this year. The Congress is also looking to galvanise its tribal units by kicking off a mega Adivasi Adhikar rally on May 1, which is likely to be attended by Rahul Gandhi.

In his speech, the PM, while iterating that he had spent a long time as a BJP worker in Dahod, said, “During my early period of public life, my area of operation was the entire tribal region of eastern Gujarat from Ambaji to Umargam. Staying among the tribal community… and understanding them were part of my early years of life. These tribal mothers, sisters, and brothers guided me, taught me a lot, and today I am motivated to do something for you because of that.”

Like most women from her Gutardi village, located in Vadodara district’s Savli taluka, Leena Vasava has come to the rally accompanied by her husband. She said, “Our husbands told us to dress up and come along… We do not know what are the important issues they are going to speak about but my husband knows everything… I am not literate but I know there is a water crisis in summer, the cost of eating a meal has gone up considerably, and our children are not able to cope with the reopening of schools after Covid… there have been losses.”

Further away at the rally venue, Ratan Baria, a 25-year-old driver from Chhota Udepur, said, “We know that Modiji will come here and tell us about the various schemes that are available for tribals but our district is acutely suffering from healthcare services. We do not have doctors, hospitals, and bloodbanks… we can only attempt to save lives by rushing to Vadodara, which could be as far as 150 kms for remote villages in case of emergencies. Why is healthcare in the tribal areas so neglected?”

Another tribal group from Kawant taluka of Chhota Udepur district, which is the origin of the proposed water supply scheme, mentioned the water crisis in the district’s remote areas. One of the men asked, “Summer has come and all villages in the district are back to digging borewells in search of water…The government wanted to complete the Par-Tapi-Narmada link project and promised that it would bring the water of Narmada to Chhota Udepur but the project has been suspended and so have our hopes yet again… Even if it is completed, the tribals at some other location will be at a loss… But how many year

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