Gujarat government adamant on tourism-cum-statue project at Narmada despite no social and environmental clearances

Tribals protest against the tourism project next to the Narmada river
Tribals protest against the tourism project next to the Narmada river

Tanushree Gangapadhyay* on how the effort to develop tourism next to the Narmada dam is making tribals in the region restive: 

A scenic tribal village beside the Narmada river, in Gujarat’s Narmada district, has erupted in protests. Tribals from 70 villages around the Sardar Sarovar dam in Kevadiya colony have been agitating in Indravarna village against the government’s move to acquire their land for tourism. “Let them first rehabilitate our kin from six villages, including Kevadiya, who were evicted four decades ago,” they say.

The Kevadiya Development Authority (KADA) is set to acquire 70 villages around the dam, 29 of which lie in densely forested areas. Plans are on the anvil to develop the area for ‘world class tourism’ with hotels, a golf course, camping grounds and trekking trails, among other infrastructure.

The Statue of Unity, a 597-foot statue of Sardar Patel, is proposed to be built on Sadhu Tekri, a hillock 3.2 km from the dam. Billed to be the world’s tallest statue, it is slated to be a major attraction. The project also includes a garden, museum, research institutes and so on.

The statue will be built under the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Rashtriya Ekta Trust which has given the mammoth project to a consortium of Turner Construction under a PPP.  The statue will take 56 months to be completed and will cost `2,063 crore. The Gujarat government has allocated Rs 100 crore. The rest will be collected from the people.

But the tribals don’t want any of it. “We will rule our villages. We want development, not destruction. We will give up our lives but not our land. We will fight and we shall win,” they chant.

Ramesh Tadvi, a tribal leader, says, “Our ancestors are buried on these sacred lands.” And the women cry out, ”How can we tolerate the destruction of Ma Narmada and the trees, our gods?” The tribals are upset as the statue will be located on a hillock that they regard as sacred.

Garudeshwar Weir, 13 km downstream of the Narmada dam, which will engulf seven villages, including Indravarna, Garudeshwar and Gora, has become the hub of the protest. There is anger against the displacement that will be caused by both the weir and the tourism project.

The Gujarat government is adamant on continuing with the tourism-cum-statue project despite no social and environmental clearances. The Environmental Sub-Group (ESG) of the Narmada Control Authority (NCA), headed by Shekhar Singh, has written to N.D. Rajgopal, Secretary of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF), reiterating that the project should be stopped as there were far-reaching environmental, ecological and social impacts involved which required study. Since the colossal statue will be built on the riverbed in a seismic belt, its ecological aspects cannot be undermined.

Activists allege that the Gujarat government has been trying to prevent them from holding public meetings here. Rohit Prajapati and other activists from the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, Vadodara, were arrested and prevented from reaching Kevadiya when the foundation stone for the statue was laid on 31 October. Earlier, on 2 October, there was heavy police bandobast for a meeting and tribals were not allowed to enter Indravarna while the bridge in Garudeshwar was cordoned off.

“Women from Indravarna, Piparia and Garudeshwar go to the weir site and stop the running of JCBs regularly,” said Susheelaben Tadvi, a tribal leader. “We have been protesting against the Garudeshwar weir which will evict us. The foundation of the weir is on my field.”

KADA chief executive officer D.B. Rahevar says that they sought the consent of the panchayats but did not receive any reply. The government plans to use the Town Planning Act for developing the project. The CEO of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd. (SSNNL), J.N. Singh, in Gandhinagar  refused to speak to this correspondent.

The panchayats want development under the Panchayat Act and not under the Town Planning Act. They do not want to give up their traditional livelihoods of farming and fishing to get the urban tag, says Lakhan Musafir, a member of the KADA Virodhi Samiti. Bhailalbhai Tadvi, sarpanch, exhorted the people, ”With one voice we proclaim on Hiraji Tekri on Gandhi Jayanti Day, that we shall not bequeath our fertile lands for hotels. We don’t want our children to become slaves on their own lands.”

Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), who has worked in these areas, says, “Rs 2,063 crore allocated for the Sardar statue is more than the rehabilitation package for 250 villages (submerged by the Narmada dam) and a township.” She points out that attempts to urbanise forest-dwelling communities without sensitive socio-economic and ecological planning could have adverse impacts. Installing a mammoth statue in a densely forested area would affect downstream villages.

As for the size of the statue, reputed sculptor Ashish Das is overwhelmed by it’s size. “A sculpture of 597 feet is beyond my imagination. I have never heard of or visualised such a colossal height, hence I cannot comment. It requires a multi-pronged approach. The participatory approach of collecting metal (from each of India’s villages) is a fascinating idea but mere scrap steel will not suffice. The quality of the metal is of utmost importance. Infrastructure for purification and processing, and visualisation of the distance are very important factors.”

Foisting urbanisation and tourism in a primarily rural and tribal area has its own share of problems. Domestic tourism is age-old in the Narmada area, as this is the only river in the country where pilgrims perform parikrama through the year. There are many ancient temples along the river, says Rajni Dave, editor of Bhumiputra who has lived on the banks of the river for many years. “However, we have noticed that many people are now encroaching on these temples. I have also heard of rampant land-grab during the past 10 to 12 years.” He is concerned with plans to force tourism here and likened it to the perversions it has caused in Goa.

*Senior Ahmedabad-based journalist (Courtesy Civil Society Online)

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