Gujarat tribals protest land grab around Statue of Unity

The villagers do not want to give up their lands saying the acquisition period has lapsed and the government’s claim should be invalidated

Gujarat tribals protest land grab around Statue of Unity

The Statue of Unity (SoU) site in Gujarat’s Kevadia village is in the headlines again. On June 17, the Gujarat government had deployed five teams comprising a deputy collector, a deputy mamlatdar and other clerical staff in six villages – Kevadia, Vaghadia, Limdi, Gora, Navagam and Kothi where the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL) had fenced farmlands it had acquired in 1961 for the purpose of the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam at the original site, The Indian Express reported.

The structure, built at an exorbitant Rs. 2,989 crore is one of the most ambitious projects of the Gujarat government supposedly “to attract tourists”. The Gujarat government had claimed that the investment in the statue was supposed to promote tourism, and that tourism is “sustainable development”. The tourism brought in by the statue is having an impact on the environment around it. But interestingly, the monument, touted to be a symbol of Indian nationalism, was made by a Chinese architect.

Since the fencing, there have been four cases of trespassing registered against villagers from Gora, Navagam and Limdi. Villagers argue that the government had acquired the land 59 years ago for the construction of the dam, but was now planning to use it for commercial purposes and not for the dam, since the site had changed. Hence, they demand that SSNNL’s claim on the land should be invalidated.

The Kevadia colony is a Schedule V area where the provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas), Act, 1996 (PESA) are in force, giving the rights of territorial integrity to tribal panchayats who are decision makers in the process of land acquisition. However, villagers allege that they had not been taken into confidence in the government’s plan to transform Kevadia into a tourist hub.

The villagers also allege that the monetary compensation offered to them – Rs. 7.5 lakh per hectare (2.4 acres) is way less than the current market value of the land – Rs. 35 lakh per acre. However, the struggle still remains to be about retaining the land rather than the compensation.

PIL dismissed by Gujarat HC

In May this year, the Gujarat High Court dismissed a 2019 public interest litigation (PIL) moved by activists on behalf of the villagers and tribals of the six affected villages, reported IE. The PIL had challenged that while the state government acquired the land parcels in the five villages as long back as 1960, 1961 and 1962, the villagers continued to be in possession of the land and cultivated there. Citing Section 24 (2) of the The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, it was submitted that if an acquired land remains unoccupied for five years, the acquisition lapses.

However, the HC dismissed the PIL saying it couldn’t be treated as one, because the right of possession being claimed was an individual right and it would be upon each individual resident of the said villages to independently and individually claim any right of compensation that was not paid and the state government not having taken possession of their land all these years, IE reported.

The PIL had also raised the issue of compensation saying that though the state government claimed to have awarded compensation, it had not been paid to the respective landowners. However, the HC held that the compensation offered and not received by the claimant would amount to compensation being paid as the State had specifically stated on oath and has also filed documents to show that compensation was not only deposited in the Treasury, but also received by the claimants.  

To understand the situation on ground, Sabrang India spoke to Rohit Prajapati of the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti and environmentalist Lakhan Musafir.

Earlier, in an article carried by Sabrang India, Rohit Prajapati had spoken about how the activities around the SoU did not take cognisance of 1) The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972; (2) The Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2006; (3) The Environment (Protection) Act 1986; (4) The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010; (5) The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016; (6) The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974; (7) The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, and (8) The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014.

Now, speaking to SabrangIndia, Rohit Prajapati said, “The land was not taken up or compensated for after the construction of the dam, thus people wanted to retain their own land. If you look towards the right side of the SoU, there are 70 villages which the government is planning to develop. If you stand on the highest point, you can see two dams – the Sardar Sarovar Dam and the Karjan Dam. You can see the water and the river, but these people have no access to water. If the water can travel to Rajasthan, why can it travel to the ones staying next to it? There is a drinking water problem here too. You want to irrigate the land of Saurashtra and Kutch, but there will be no talk about the tribals. Now the government doesn’t want the crocodiles too. The tribals and crocodiles never had a problem living next to each other. They had a good MoU. Now the government is looking for a water aerodrome. Instead of tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, the government is focusing on everything else. Why does the government want to throw the tribals out?”

In an article carried by Counterview, Prajapati had pointed out, “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.” However, a petition regarding this which was filed by the National Green Tribunal was dismissed by it on grounds of limitation as the petitioners had approached the tribunal in March 2015, six months after the Gujarat government handed over the work order to L&T.

Summing up the issue in a philosophical manner, he added, “If I have two kidneys and you ask me for one, I understand. But if I have only one and you want it, you’re murdering me.”

Lakhan Musafir, told SabrangIndia, “The problem is that in 1961 – 62, land of six villages was acquired for the Sardar Sarovar Dam. However, because the height of the dam was increased, the land was not used. However, the government thought that the land could be used for a colony and built one in Gora and Kevadia. The rest of the land remained with the people and residents never took the compensation for it. However, there was a dispute regarding this as the State government said that we had deposited the money in the Treasury. However, as the land remained unused, the tribals continued to cultivate the fields. When Medha Patkar began the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the people of these six villages also joined the fight arguing that they too had been displaced from their land, but the government didn’t consider it as their lands had not been submerged. In this way, the fight continued through the years. This year, the Gujarat HC dismissed the PIL so now the SSNNL have aggressively started fencing the land.”

He added, “People don’t want to leave their land. Though the government says that it will offer land from its land bank or offer compensation, the people don’t want to leave their land. In the court, the state government had said that all the villages would be rehabilitated in one place, but the people don’t wish to leave their village. We had filed an RTI regarding the claim the state government had made saying it had deposited the compensation amount with the treasury, but there was no mention about this in the reply. We had informed the Gujarat HC about the same too and we doubt that the government had deposited the amount in the first place.”

Lakhan Musafir says that the main demand of the villagers is that they don’t want to give up the little land they have left. He said, “The Adivasi people like to live together. Their culture is here. They are being harassed. The police have set up a camp to keep a vigil on the villagers. We feel like we’re in Kashmir. The people of Gujarat are not getting any benefit from these projects. The environment is also set to get damaged with the influx of tourists. However, till today, that hasn’t happened. In these six villages, at least 6,000 people have been affected. Promised jobs have not been given to them. The people in these villages are not getting water for their own fields. We didn’t take the pittance offered in 1992 and we haven’t taken it now because we don’t want to leave our lands. The Adivasis are a simple people. We just want our promised water. We’ve been fighting for a long time and we’ve been arrested so many times for raising our voices. We request the government to heed our pleas.”

The struggle for their land by the Adivasis goes to show that the movement isn’t centered around compensation or against development. It is centered on sustainable development. The tribals do not want to lose their identity in the name of development and the least the government can do for those it has already displaced is, give them the benefits they deserve.


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