Gujarat Elections: River Linking, 4-Lane Highway, Zinc Smelter Dominate Issues in South
Dang, Tapi, Narmada (Gujarat): Tribals from the South Gujarat region have been up in arms against the government regarding the proposed river-linking project, four-lane highway and zinc smelter. They claim that the project will displace people of the region and despite their multiple protests in the last several months, there has been no result in their favour.
Ahead of the Gujarat elections, the tribals say that they have pledged for a “final battle” if the government goes ahead with the planned projects, which they say will displace the adivasi community, cause loss of their properties and livelihood, impact biodiversity, make fertile land barren and eventually spread several diseases.
“No more protests and talks; it’s enough as we have been doing the same for the past several months to no avail. Now, either they go back, or we are ready to sacrifice our lives,” said the protesting tribals.
The tribal belt of South Gujarat is a traditional Congress stronghold, although the grand old party now has only eight of the 35 seats in the region. Everyone in the region readily talks about the issues regarding the projects.
The Par-Tapi-Narmada River Linking Project was sanctioned in 2010 when a tripartite agreement was signed between the central government and state governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra. The project proposes to transfer water from the surplus regions of Western Ghat to the water deficit regions of Kutch and Saurashtra in Gujarat.
Envisioned under the National River Linking Project (NRLP), formally known as the National Perspective Plan of 1980, the Rs 10,211-crore project proposes construction of seven dams — Chasmandva, Paikhed and Mohna Kavchali at Dharampur taluka in Valsad district, Kelvan at Vyara taluka in Tapi district, Dabdar and Chikkar at Dang taluka in Dang district of south Gujarat and Jheri at Nashik in north Maharshtra.
As per the plan, a 395-km-long canal would take the water from the proposed reservoirs to take over a part of the ongoing Sardar Sarovar Project’s command in Narmada district while irrigating small en-route areas.
The project proposes to link three rivers — Par (which originates from Nashik in Maharashtra and flows through Valsad in Gujarat), Tapi (originates from Saputara in Gujarat and flows through Maharashtra), Narmada (originates in Madhya Pradesh and flows through Bharuch and Narmada districts in Gujarat and Maharashtra).
Around 61 villages will be either partly or fully submerged in water. It will directly affect 2,509 families in the tribal villages.
A four-lane state highway is planned to be built, connecting the Statue of Unity at Kevadia in Narmada district to Saputara via Galkund, Ahwa, Subir, Songadh, and Ukai. The government claims that it will generate employment opportunities at the local level.
The highway’s detailed project report (DPR) suggests that a 15-metre area on both sides of an existing road on the proposed stretch will be acquired. However, the local tribals fear it would be more than 1 km in the name of construction of connecting roads and other properties such as fuel stations, wayside amenities, rest areas, complexes, etc.
In Tapi district alone, according to the protesters, 1,500 people would lose their generations-old residential land, and 70 of them would lose their entire land holding.
Vedanta Group’s Hindustan Zinc Limited (HZL) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Gujarat government in October 2020 to set up the company’s largest smelter with a production capacity of 300 kilotonnes of zinc ingots every year. It will be done in the areas owned by the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation at Doswada in Songadh.
The ingots are mainly used for galvanising steel to protect it from corrosion and for making alloys.
The above-mentioned three projects, which would be taken up simultaneously, are being fiercely opposed by the Gamit, Chaudhary and Vasava tribal communities residing in the three south Gujarat districts (Narmada, Tapi and Dang). These communities depend on agriculture and animal husbandry for a living. They say the project would severely affect their livelihoods, health and environment.
BITTER PAST EXPERIENCES
Urmilaben Gamit, 38, a mother of two, asked how they can expect their resettlement anytime soon when over four lakh people displaced due to the Ukai Dam — the second largest water reservoir in Gujarat — have not been rehabilitated even after 42 years.
“We have been living and doing agricultural farming on the land pattas (lease) allotted to our forefathers for housing plots and cultivable lands for generations. We have made the land here cultivable with our blood and sweat. Suddenly, a so-called development project comes and we are asked to migrate. Where will we go and how will we survive when our source of livelihood will be snatched away?” she asked while speaking to NewsClick at her home at Sogadh’s Chapaldhara village in Tapi district.
Talking about their previous unpleasant experiences, she said those who were evicted earlier for the Ukai Dam construction were allotted land at Songardh, Uchchhal, Nijhar and Kukarmunda talukas of the district. However, they cannot do agricultural farming most of the year, especially the rainy season, because the land is submerged with water due to the dam, she said.
“If you go there during monsoons, the entire stretch would look like a river without any trace of life. The water takes months to recede. Hence, they are able to perform agricultural activities only during the winter season once the water level in the reservoir recedes. Only those who are away from the dam can do farming,” said Urmilaben, who has spearheaded several protests against the proposed dam, highway and zinc smelter projects in the past months.
She was echoed by many of the migrants, and alleged that the Ukai Dam accumulates and sends water to Saurashtra — 1,200 km away from Tapi — but they are not getting water for irrigation despite being just 20-30 km away from the reservoir.
When asked why they cannot use the water flowing through en route canals, one of them said, “First of all, there is no canal in our area. Even in a few areas that are close to the canal, people cannot pump out the water for irrigation as it is not meant for them.”
“Forget about water for irrigation, we don’t even get drinking water from the Ukai Dam,” said Balubhai Rajyabhai Gami, a resident of Nana Bandharpada in Songadh taluka of Tapi district, while speaking to NewsClick. He said, “One needs to obtain permission, which is never granted, from the district administration for drilling borewells for domestic and agricultural purposes. When we cannot dig a borewell on our own land, even if we manage to afford it, how can we pump out water from canals that are not meant for us?”
Bhartiben, 36, from Chikar village in Dang district, sounded resolute as she said, “We will die but not let the Par-Tapi-Narmada River Linking Project roll out as it will endanger our survival as well as livelihood.”
Sitting on the veranda of her kutcha house at the small hamlet located in the Chikar Hills with one of her disabled son, the mother of two said. “We need vikas (development) but not the vikas that follows a vinash (destruction).”
“If the government is really concerned about us and wants our development, it should try to solve the problems such as health, education and shortage of drinking water that we face in our day-to-day life,” she said.
Sunilbhai Chandubhai Gamit, a member of the Sangharsh Samiti, under whose aegis the anti-dam protest is held in Dand district, said the tribal population of Dang, Tapi, Valsad and Narmada districts or the entire country depend on water, forest and land. The “jal, jungle aur zameen (water, forest and land)”, he said, are related to their survival, culture, customs and traditions.
“And therefore, any nefarious design to snatch it in the name of development won’t be tolerated at all,” he warned. He added that if the government does not roll back the proposed river linking project, budget for which has already been allocated in the last budget session of Parliament, the “worst” would come.
“Para 4 of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution that deals with administration of scheduled areas where tribal communities are in a majority provides for establishment of a Tribes Advisory Council (TAC), which will approve any welfare project in scheduled tribes areas. But such approval has been sought. The project will leave more than 50,000 people from 37 villages of Dang homeless. They will also lose their agricultural land,” said Sunilbhai, who is an advocate in the district court and also contesting next month's Assembly elections on an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ticket from Dang.
Why are they worried when the government assures them that the displaced population would be rehabilitated?
“Under the government’s rehabilitation policy, the affected people will be allotted a house as per the provisions of the Indira Awas or Sardar Awas Yojana (the state’s housing schemes). When will it happen? There is no time frame. We have at present a spacious place to live in, but the houses allotted under the schemes will bundle us in one-room sets. Most importantly, we will lose our fertile agricultural land. Even if the government, as it claims, allots us fresh leases of land for agriculture, we will have to begin from the scratch to work for years to make it fit for cultivation,” he explained.
Asked why they are opposing the project that aims to ease the life of citizens in water-starved regions with the surplus water from South Gujarat, he said the government is duty-bound to supply water for domestic and agricultural purposes to every citizen of the country, but without “destroying” anyone’s life.
“The government must make local arrangements to accumulate rainwater and recharge groundwater. It should make reservoirs and canals in nearby areas that are not water deficient instead of such a big river-linking project. The fact is that its aim is not to provide water to Saurashtra or Kutch but to the big companies in Surat, Vadodara and other parts of the state,” he added.
Sunilbhai further said the hilly areas would be water starved if the proposed dams come up as it would divert the rainwater stored in ponds and lakes at the height. “Even if we do a lift irrigation, it will not work because of the huge cost of lifting the water,” he added.
The displaced of the Ukai Dam, said the tribals in Tapi, were “betrayed” and allegedly given smaller pieces of land for housing under the “land for land” policy.
“They were not allotted pattas, as agreed, for agricultural farming. They are cultivating crops on unauthorised land in the region and always fear the destruction of their crops at the hand of the Forest Department officials,” said Balubhai, a resident of Tapi
In Narmada district, the tribals displaced from Ekta Nagar (previously known as Kevadia) and surrounding villages for the construction of the Statue of Unity and developing tourism also feel the same.
“People from six villages here were displaced in the first phase. Soon after, notices were served to the residents of another six villages surrounding the statue, and they, too, were evicted in the second phase. Now, 60 more tribal settlements have to be emptied, and the residents there have already been served notices. Though they have not left their places so far, their crops are destroyed by the administration,” said one of many people who live in such settlements in Narmada.
They added they had been promised monetary compensation for their losses apart from proper rehabilitation, but the promise was allegedly not met. “Residents of the six villages who were evicted in the first phase only got the compensation, but we were displaced in the second phase and have not even gotten a single penny so far,” they added.
Similarly, when Saputara in the Dang district was developed as a tourist hotspot, those who were evicted have allegedly not been properly resettled.
“Tribals have royalty rights on the areas that are developed. But they are always deprived of their due share in the development process. Take Saputara, for example; when the hill station was developed to promote tourism, big corporates came in. They constructed hotels and other amenities. We were completely forgotten. Even our rehabilitation was for namesake only,” said Lalubhai Vasava, a social worker in Dang who has authored a book on the glorious past of the tribals and runs a blood bank and a school in Dang.
He said the tribals are not against development; they only want to be the beneficiaries of the process instead of victims. “If you replace us, give us our due share in the development process. Give us loans so we can set up hotels and other facilities to earn a decent living,” he demanded.
In Tapi, people said they were assured in the Ukai Dam MoU that 80% of the management posts of the dam would be filled by the locals. “But it emerged as a lip service only to pursue the innocent tribals to willingly give away their land,” alleged Haresh Kumar Kantilal Gamit, 25, from Kati village in Tapi’s Songadh.
NO PAPERWORK, BUT FUNDS TRANSFERRED
Those, who would lose their land to the proposed four-lane state highway, have allegedly been transferred a total amount of Rs 15 lakh by the company which got the contract, even without their knowledge and required paperwork.
They said they were unofficially informed about the development by the company officials who had come for a survey but returned after the locals protested.
“When the team visited our villages for a land survey, we registered our protest and did not let them carry it out. We were then informed by them that they have been asked to do a survey because the company has already transferred the sum to our bank accounts,” said Maganbhai Dhediyabhai Gamit, 43, a resident of Tokarva village in Songadh.
He said all who received the fund approached the district administration to enquire how it happened, and they said they were not apprised of anything in that regard.
“The government says it would give monetary compensation for our losses, but what will we do with it? How long would it last? We would get compensation as per the circle rate, which is much less than the actual prices at which the land on the proposed highway stretch changes hands. While the circle rate varies between Rs 1.5 lakh – Rs 2 lakh per bigha (17,427 square feet in Gujarat), the actual rate varies between Rs 3-5 lakh per bigha. And, what will our next generation do as the funds will exhaust very soon?” he said.
Haresh from Kati village said people in the region would have accepted the “land for land” deal had there not been betrayal in the past.
He said the entire project is illegal because, as per the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act or PESA, 1996, the Gram Sabha has to permit any such acquisition in the scheduled areas for tribals. “But without the Gram Sabha’s nod, a DPR was finalised and a gazette notification was issued,” he alleged.
Therefore, said Urmilaben, these residents who would be affected by the highway construction project would “put down their lives” on the line as they are fed up with the “protests and dialogues that serve no purpose”.
HEALTH HAZARD IN WAITING?
Soon after the HZL signed an MoU with the state government to set up the smelter in October 2020, the residents of Doswada and surrounding villages in Songadh began protesting against the project. They alleged that it has been planned without their permission.
They claim the smelter plant would severely affect their health, environment and livelihood.
“A public hearing was organised by the district administration on July 5 last year strangely amid the outbreak of COVID-19, when gatherings were prohibited. We were sent notices 20 days before the hearing. Instead of being supplied with an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report, we were asked to study it at the district collector’s office,” alleged Lalsingh Gamit, a resident of Songadh. He is also a part of the tribal activists’ group called Adivasi Ekta Parishad.
However, the meeting was cancelled after over 5,000 people from Doswada and surrounding villages staged protests at the GIDC office.
Lalsingh said that 16 Gram Panchayats passed a resolution rejecting the project after the notices were served to the villagers. At least 42 of the 47 gram panchayats located within a 10-kilometre radius of the proposed project site have passed resolutions rejecting the zinc smelter.
A team of villagers from Tapi also visited Rajsamand and Udaipur districts in Rajasthan in June to inspect villages where the HZL has mine and smelting complexes. The team also visited the 240-ha tailings pond in Dariba, where the company dumps its sludge.
They reportedly found a high number of cases of cancer, skin diseases, mental and physical retardation in children and miscarriages in women and animals. Once a fertile land, the area has turned barren and the groundwater has become polluted.
Urmilaben, one of the visiting team members, said they met people who had been diagnosed with high levels of lead in their blood.
“If the toxic effluents from the company destroy our agriculture, who will compensate for it?” asked Sheela Gamit from Doswada village. She grows vegetables, pulses and sugarcane on her half-a-hectare field and sells 10 litres of milk daily to the village dairy cooperative, earning Rs 4-5 lakhs a year.
“Pollutants from the tailing pond have seeped into fields and destroyed crops. We saw stunted maize plants; farmers say the yield has reduced to four sacks per bigha (0.25 hectare) from seven sacks,” said Pramila Gamit from Chapaldhara village, also a member of the team.
Showing a bottle of saffron colour water brought from there, Urmilaben said, “Water from hand pumps and wells within the 10 km radius of the plant has turned to the colour of tea. It is no longer potable, and animals have died after drinking it.”
They said the situation would be no different for Songadh if the smelter came up. During smelting, HZL will also recover heavy metals like cobalt, nickel, lead, copper, mercury and cadmium found in zinc ores. The cleaning of the metal produces impurities, which — the company claims — will not be released into the atmosphere.
“But this is difficult to believe given Vedanta’s track record, particularly at its aluminium refinery at Lanjigarh in Odisha and copper and zinc smelters at Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu and Rajsamand in Rajasthan,” said the activists.
The proposed smelter will cater to the international market rather than domestic demand. As per an EIA report, India’s current supply of zinc ingots is sufficient to meet existing domestic demand. The projected demand of 827 kilotonnes in 2025 will also be less than the projected supply of 837 kilotonnes.
NOT A VIBRANT GUJARAT
The tribal areas and the hilly villages in South Gujarat continue to lack even basic necessities. There is a severe water shortage in the hill villages as the groundwater is not recharged.
“When it rains, the water does not stop and flows to the plains through the rivers in the absence of smaller check dams. The hand pumps start running dry after April. We get water sufficient for our daily needs only after July-August when it rains and the groundwater level rises,” said Bhartiben from Dang’s Chikar village.
She said the state has 108 ambulance services round the clock to transport the sick to hospitals, but the majority of remote villages do not get cell phone networks. “There are ambulances, but we cannot call them in case of any emergency as the cell phone connectivity is extremely poor,” she added.
The areas, Bhartiben said, have public and community health centres at distant locations and a civil hospital in the district headquarters.
“It becomes difficult for us to travel to the health centres and bigger hospitals as the hilly areas have difficult terrains and no means of transport. Even the Civil Hospital at Ahwa (the headquarter of Dang district) does not have specialised doctors. If you one suffers cardiac arrest, they will refer the patient to multi-speciality hospitals in Valsad or Surat, which are hundreds of kilometres away,” she said.
The other major issue in such villages is related to education. There are primary and upper primary schools, but they do not have the sanctioned strength of teaching staff.
“Most of such educational institutions are running at the mercy of one teacher who manages the whole affair. If the government wants to ensure development, it should work on such issues instead of constructing huge dams that will not develop but destroy us,” said Bhartiben, who has done masters in Hindi language and a bachelor's in Education.
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