Since the first Covid-19 case was reported in Gujarat in March 2020 around Holi, followed by lockdown and imposition of the Epidemic Disease Act, public gatherings and celebrations were banned, the latest being the cancellation of the annual international kite festival and restrictions on Uttarayan celebrations. For the first time, there was no garba for Navratri and Diwali that ushers in the Gujarati new year was muted.
However, the unlock period was marked by political rallies and inauguration of several tourism related projects in the state where leaders exhorted people to visit these sites.
The state saw by-elections to eight assembly seats in November, while local body polls that were scheduled in December were put off because of the pandemic. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, BJP chief CR Paatil and other ministers have been addressing public meetings.
On October 30, Modi spent a night at Kevadia and inaugurated 17 projects that will be a part of the Kevadia tourism circuit, housing the Statue of Unity — the tallest statue in the world, six days after he virtually inaugurated the ropeway at Girnar, claimed to be the “longest in the world”, coinciding with Dussehra that marked the end of Navratri.
The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) launched water sports at the Sabarmati River Front on New Year’s Day that would have marked the culmination of the Kankaria Carnival during the birth anniversary of late prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that coincides with Christmas.
Referring to it as “New year gift”, Ahmedabad municipal commissioner Mukesh Kumar tweeted how the water sports — jet ski, high speed boats, paddle boats and zorbing — brought in 2,350 visitors in the first week.
Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation Limited (SRFDCL) general manager Dipak Patel says, “While a few water activities resumed, some new activities were added at the riverfront on January 1. More will be added soon.”
Before announcing the cancellation of the Kankaria Carnival, mayor Bijal Patel had said, “The country, the state and the city is going through a tough time with the coronavirus. As per the Central government’s guidelines, gathering of people at one place beyond a certain limit is not allowed. Keeping this in mind, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) has decided that the Kankaria Carnival this year would not be organised.”
The carnival with an annual budget of Rs 5 to 10 crore includes several cultural, art and social activities turning Kankaria lake into a popular hub with footfall in lakhs.
Since the Statue of Unity was inaugurated in October 2018, the state government has worked to bring Kevadia on the world tourism map. The circuit now has 35 tourist attractions, of which the Valley of Flowers, Vishwa Van, Jungle Safari, Cactus Garden, Butterfly Garden, Ekta Nursery, Tent City, Khalvani Eco-tourism, Zarwani Eco-tourism, Nauka Vihar and River Rafting, located around the periphery of the statue and the Narmada Dam, were already open when Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated 17 more projects on October 31.
After the site reopened in September 2020, the number of visitors was capped at 2,500 per day to the Statue of Unity visitors gallery. This cap, however, did not apply to the campus. On all days, including Diwali holidays, Kevadia remained packed — from hotel rooms to tourist attractions and even the tent city. Ahead of the new year, the tickets were increased to 5,500 tickets per day, and now the limit is up to 12,000.
While inaugurating the Girnar ropeway, Modi had said how “45 lakh people had visited” the Statue of Unity before Covid-19 struck. Around 1.8 lakh people have already used the Girnar ropeway service to visit Ambaji temple on Mount Ginar near Junagadh city since its inauguration, according to Deepak Kaplish, western region head of Usha Breco Limited (UBL), the private firm that has installed the ropeway and also operates it.
“An average of 2,700 tourists use our service per day with numbers going up during the weekends. Once, during festive season, we had to seek help of police after tourists formed around a kilometre long queue outside our base station,” Kaplish added.
A senior official in Kevadia, holding charge of a tourist section, said, “We had a full house for the new year weekend. It turned into a bit of a crowd but we were able to ensure social distancing… In fact, weekends are extremely busy now. We have ensured that we have enough staff strength to manage the sanitisation and cleanliness. It is good to see activity again.”
Manager of a three-star hotel in Kevadia said, “The tourism industry suffered huge losses with agents and businesses going almost to the extent of starvation. I don’t think it would be right to call the opening up a careless move. All the establishments have been given strict advisories on Covid-19 protocol. It is here to stay and we need to get on with business. How do we sustain ourselves if tourists don’t come in? Diwali and New Year’s are the main days for tourism businesses and we are glad the government considered our pleas.”
A co-owner of another budget accommodation in Kevadia said, “It is true that the businesses never considered Covid-19 a big threat to tourists coming to Kevadia simply because it is a nature spot. It has a healing effect. We are prepared to handle the sanitisation and hygiene part. The increase in footfalls has only been gradual and it is needed… It is important to be practical. Tourism spots such as Kevadia are not like malls in cities. There is a lot of scope to follow the guidelines and the administration has done a fantastic job. No one can say that opening SoU site has has made any difference to the district’s status on the Covid-19 map.”
According to police, decision of the number of tourists to be allowed at a time was the discretion of the SoU management but the police department has been strictly enforcing the Covid-19 guidelines. “We crack down on violations. While the SoU complex is guarded by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), the surrounding area is the responsibility of the district police. The crowd has been huge. Access to the SoU complex is restricted so only those with valid tickets can drive through,” said Vani Doodhat, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Kevadia Colony.
The restrained festivals notwithstanding, the state saw a spike in Covid-19 cases soon after Diwali with the daily numbers crossing 1,200, and the government clamped a night curfew on the cities of Ahmedabad , Surat, Rajkot and Vadodara. The cases are now down to an average of 650 a day even as the night curfew continues with an hour’s relaxation.
Ruling party has an edge: Political rallies go on amid ban on gatherings, not of all parties
Soon after his appointment as Gujarat BJP president in July 2020, CR Paatil toured the state, with his roadshows in Saurashtra and South Gujarat recording huge turnouts, especially on seats that were going to by-elections in November. The Congress in Valsad protested as BJP put out photos of a packed auditorium in Pardi town in August but no action was taken.
In the same month, a rally to celebrate the appointment of Hardik Patel as Congress working president was not allowed by the Surat police citing how “religious and social gatherings” continued to be prohibited under Covid protocol. After Paatil’s roadshows in Talala and Rajkot, local Congress leaders demanded police take action against the organisers of the event but no action was taken.
Paatil had drawn large crowds in Talala, Somnath, Junagadh, Khodaldham and in Rajkot, but at a press conference in Rajkot on August 20 , the BJP president claimed he had not violated state government’s ban on public gathering due to Covid-19 pandemic.
“We have not organised any rally… If some president comes visiting and three persons are driving in his car and 100 other car joins his convoy with just three people in each of them, it can’t be called a julus (procession) or rally. It doesn’t fall under the definition of a rally as only three people are in a car, they have their mask on and they don’t assemble in a group,” he had said.
In December 2020, in an apparent counter to the farmer protests in Delhi, the state BJP organised 10 Kisan Sammelans, each attended by at least 400-500 farmers. Farmers were offered lunch also at the venues. This came barely a week after dozens of Congress leaders were detained by police as they hit the road during the nation-wide bandh call given on December 8 by farmer unions protesting in Delhi.
Days before Diwali, on November 12, Union Home Minister Amit Shah addressed a sarpanch sammelan at Dhordo, the venue of the annual Rann Utsav, the same day when the desert carnival began. Around a month later, on December 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Dhordo to lay the foundation stone of a hybrid renewable energy park, and addressed a public meeting there.
With the local body elections rescheduled to February this year, Chief Minister Rupani has been touring the state launching various projects, including what the government calls the second phase of Kisan Suryodaya Yojana (KSY) in various districts, besides housing and other agriculture projects. KSY was orginally launched by PM Modi on October 24 last year.
On the other hand, leader of the Opposition, Paresh Dhanani, was detained by police when he sat on dharna alone on the campus of Shantaba Medical College and General Hospital in his home town Amreli in July to demand a laboratory in the district for Covid-19 testing. He was detained again while he rode a scooter in Amreli, soliciting public support for the nationwide bandh on December 8.
“Government detains and jails opposition leaders even as goondas roam freely… If five people gather on a terrace, government takes action against them saying the coronavirus can’t infect them. But the same Covid-19 is not a concern when BJP gathers hundreds for campaigning. Are Covid-19 and Kamal (lotus – election symbol of BJP) cousins who won’t harm each other? This is nothing but misuse of state machinery and muzzling the voice of Opposition,” Dhanani said.
Besides Dhanani, dozens of Congress leaders, including Pal Ambaliya, convenor of the farmers’ cell of state Congress were arrested on December 8 during the bandh. Congress held two indoor meetings of its workers in Rajkot as part of its preparations for the civic body polls. Its local leaders also held dharna at Sardar Chowk on Race Course Ring Road on January 7 to protest the arrest of family members of Urvashiba Jadeja, one of the former Congress corporators of the Rajkot Municipal Corporation, in an alleged case of land grabbing.
However, more than four dozen Congress workers were detained by police from Sardar Chowk for staging a dharna without police permission even as an application filed by Congress leader Mahesh Rajput with police commissioner’s office seeking permission to stage dharna was pending.
GOVERNMENT SPEAK: Jawahar Chavda, State Minister for tourism
Isn’t the government showing double standards when it restricts celebration of festivals and encourages footfalls at the new tourism sites?
The government is no longer asking people to remain indoors due to Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, we are encouraging local tourism as inter-state and international tourists, which form bulk of tourist footfalls in the state, are not travelling at all. Livelihood of a lot of people in Gujarat depend entirely on tourism activity and the Covid-19 pandemic has hit this sector the hardest. As people from outside are not turning up, our strategy is to encourage local tourism so that the tourism industry is kickstarted and people who depend on it earn something.
What about restricting visitors at the tourism sites?
There is no cap on people using the Girnar ropeway but some slab is there on the number of entry tickets issued at the Statue of Unity (SoU)… I don’t have those details. SoU is controlled by the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL), which does not come under my ministry. Our role is to create tourism facilities, promote them and let others run them.
Additional Chief Secretary(Forest & Environment Dept), MD SSNNL and Officer on Special Duty for Covid19 for Ahmedabad, where night curfew is in place
Kevadia is doing very well. The tourist influx has increased exponentially. Statue of Unity, Jungle Safari, Children Nutrition Park and Cactus Garden are attracting thousands of visitors every day. On weekends, the total number of visitors exceeds 20,000. We are ensuring all Covid protocols and in addition, regularly testing thousands of staff members manning these facilities. On the New Year’s Eve, more than 1,500 people stayed here during the night, which is an indication that people are coming for longer vacations. The Orchidarium and Ekta organic Hand soap making units are new attractions added to Ekta Nursery.