Terrorism of tourism: Statue of Unity Project is alliance against environment, life and livelihood of tribals

statue
Work for constructing Statue of Unity in progress on Sadhu Bet, off Narmada Dam

By Rohit Prajapati*

“The Economic Times” on April 26, 2015 reported, “Tea sellers in India can have contrasting fortunes. While Narendra Modi who sold tea as a youngster has grown up to become the country’s prime minister, Ambalal Tadvi, 40, a tea seller from Gujarat’s Narmada District is staring at an uncertain future. His stall and the little bit of farm land will soon be taken up by the Statue of Unity Project, a 182-metre tall statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel along with tourism infrastructure coming up nearby.”

In March 2015, after the area for ‘Shreshtha (Bhrashta) Bharat Bhavan’, a three star hotel, which is coming up as part of Statue of Unity Project was cordoned off, the Government of Gujarat attempted to evict six families comprising 70 people from their homes, land and livelihoods. The terrorisation of the people reached a fever pitch on March 28, 2015 when six of the affected villagers and three children while registering their peaceful protest for not even receiving compensation for their “acquired” land were illegally arrested and held without proper food and facilities.

Now a police force stands guard 24X7 outside the newly raised gate through which the people have to pass in order to access their homes and land, turning their homes into in a veritable “Open Air Prison”. But this is only the most recent event in a long line of repression against the people’s democratic opposition to the controversial project. Harassment of activists and locals started right from the time of laying the foundation stone of the Statue of Unity (October 31, 2013), when they questioned the Gujarat government over not securing the requisite environmental clearance for the project. Rather than responding to the concerns raised, the government illegally arrested local tribals; some other activists were put under house arrest.

The strategy of the Gujarat government was to follow its routine practice of “preemptively” arresting local activists as and when any state or corporate function was organised. Indications are aplenty that this is just the beginning of the crackdown; in the coming years the Government will step up its offensive as conflicts mount over increasing number of tribals being forced to leave their tea shops, marginal landholdings, and ancestral homes to give way for this luxury tourism project and the “development” regime.

The eagerness with which the government wishes to somehow complete the project is evident in its willingness to sell off tribal land for a pittance; for example a December, 2014 Resolution of the Gujarat government clearly states: “Considering the security of Statue of Unity and Sardar Sarovar Dam if the need arise the remaining land for Garudeshwar weir can be bought at the rate of Rs 7,50,000 per hectare”. This price is a pittance compared to the market price for land in the region.

What is equally alarming is the fact that the Gujarat government has casually circumvented the entire legal mechanism for environmental and social impact assessment. Environmental clearance required under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification of September 2006, has not been sought for any component of this elaborate tourism dream project.

What becomes abundantly clear from the official website (www.statueofunity.in), is that the statue project is not simply the construction of a “mute monument”. It is an elaborate Tourism Project which includes its principal component, a 182 meter-tall iron statue of Shri Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel built over a project area of more than 120,000 sq.mtrs. surrounded by a man-made lake (reservoir called Garudeshwar Weir); a bridge connecting the statute to the mainland; improved roadway between the Statue and Kevadia village; parking and transport site; and hotel and Convention Centre (Shreshtha Bharat Bhawan).

These project components are proposed to be constructed as part of Phase I of the Statue of Unity Project. Phase II of the Project will include the development of banks of River Narmada up to Bharuch District; development of road, rail and tourist infrastructure and tourism corridor from Garudeshwar to Bhadbhut. These are also part of the composite Statue of Unity Project, although the actual project area of this stretch of about 90 km has not yet been revealed to the general public.

A serious concern which has been disregarded is that the project site is located on an active tectonic plate in a fault line area which is already burdened with the load of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and its massive reservoir. The construction of the tourism project and other human activities after the completion of the project is bound to have adverse effects on the downstream river, its biodiversity, and the surrounding wetlands all of which has been ignored by the Gujarat government.

It is also pertinent that for the world’s tallest statue, the Gujarat government has not even engaged in a Social and Environment Impact Assessment which would shed light on the impact of the project and the resultant influx of migrant labourers and tourists on the livelihoods of the indigenous people who have been residing downstream of the project for generations. Surprisingly, the Gujarat government had allocated Rs 500 crore in the 2014-15 budget and Government of India also had allocated Rs 200 crore in the 2014-15 budget for the Statue of Unity Project by presuming that the Statue of Unity Project does not require environment clearance from the concerned authorities.

This was also confirmed by information received in response to our RTI application filed in June 2014 about the environment clearance. The concerned authority clearly states, “Environment Clearance is not required to be obtained; hence Environmental and Social Impact Assessment of the Statue of Unity Project and its contribution to the cumulative impact of all the projects and activities in the area is not carried out.”

The Statue of Unity Project will have a widespread impact on the existing infrastructure in the area, land use within a 20 km radius of the project site, flora, fauna, birds and aquatic life due to mechanical structures and lights, aquatic life due to dredging and disposal of dredging materials, surrounding communities due to land acquisition, fishing activity, the existing traffic network due to the influx of tourists and transportation of construction materials, and broadly the air, surface water, groundwater, air, biodiversity, noise and vibrations, socioeconomic status and public health.

Other impacts due to quarrying of stones and transportation and also emissions from DG Sets are also expected. The construction is bound to result in damage to the river, riverbed, downstream river, its biodiversity, its active water body, the people living downstream and their livelihoods. The project will also result in displacement of people from Kevadia Village and people of the other areas; the full extent of displacement is not yet known as the planned location of the project’s other components has not been made public.

While the Statue of Unity tourism project might be considered as a dream project, in reality, this project is nothing but a project which will rob the home, land and livelihood from the tribals, adversely affect the Narmada river, Shoolpaneshwar Sanctuary, biodiversity of the area, downstream river, and the ecology of the area.

The Gujarat government and Modi-led Central government think they can hide behind the 182 meter, towering Statue the full extent of environmental destruction that will be caused by the Statue project. Local citizen’s groups, social movements, democratic rights groups and concerned citizens have already begun tearing down the lies and exposing the casual nature by which the statutory authorities have abdicated their legal and procedural responsibilities as regards obtaining Environmental Clearance, public consultation, and Social Impact Assessment.

The statue is symbolic of the model of destructive development which the government is promoting. While evaluating the need for such tourism projects what is required is a holistic approach to development which focuses attention to issues relating to Human Development Index, the Multidimensional Poverty Index and the Composite Development Index. In the absence of such a holistic approach to development, the Modi government will have turned its back on the adivasis of Kevadia Village or the Gujarati “chai wallah” for good.

People are determined to fight back `terrorism of tourism’ and assert their fundamental right to live with dignity in their homelands.

*National organizing secretary, People’s Union Civil Liberties. Contact: rohit.prajapati@gmail.com. Also published in PUCL Bulletin (June 2015)

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