Natwar Tadvi, a 55-year-old villager from Kevadiya village, with a can of kerosene in hand, threatened to immolate himself while joining the ongoing protests against land acquisition by the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd. (SSNNL) in Gujarat. Tadvi is one of many tribal people residing in villages around the Statue of Unity in Kevadiya colony, Narmada district. The tribal people have been protesting against the acquisition of their land for the statue and other projects surrounding it.
For the past one month, the people of these villages have been protesting against the fencing of land by the SSNNL. The latter claims that the land had been acquired for the Narmada Dam project over six years ago, but it had not taken possession of it.
“If the land on which we farm is fenced, we will have no means of livelihood,” said Tadvi.
Tadvi was arrested after police personnel, who were deployed at the site of protest, stopped him and took away the can containing kerosene from him.
“We have detained him and have initiated a Chapter Case proceeding against him as part of preventive action under the CrPC,” said Vani Doodhat, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Kevadiya.
Fresh protests came up in early May, when SSNNL began work on the fencing of the open plot of land around the Statue of Unity located at Sadhu Bet, Kevadiya Colony. The tribal people of the land, which covers six villages surrounding the statue – Navagam, Limbdi, Kevadiya, Kothi, Gora and Vagahadiya, rose in protest. Last week, the protestors clashed with local police after SSNNL officials began fencing the land. About 20 of them were arrested.
On June 5, after a month of protest, the fencing work was stopped to facilitate talks with the locals.
While the Gujarat government has claimed that the fencing has nothing to do with the Statue of Unity, the locals hold that the fencing was yet another ploy to acquire their land for tourism-related projects around the Statue of Unity.
“We have laid fences only on open plots of SSNNL. No one has been asked to vacate, even if they are living inside a fenced plot. We have covered a number of plots through this exercise till now. However, we stopped work to initiate a dialogue with the tribals and make them aware about the government packages,” said Nikunj Parikh, Deputy Collector of Kevadiya.
Notably, the SSNNL has announced a relocation plan for the displaced families, and agreed to allot commercial shops to affected beneficiaries, among other compensatory measures.
However, the villagers maintain that the project which began with the construction of the statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel at Kevadiya, will displace at least 5,000 tribal people who live close to the statue.
SSNNL began the construction of the fence and the process of acquiring the disputed land in May, after the Gujarat High Court gave permission. Earlier, the High Court had stayed the process, after a PIL was filed which challenged the government’s claim on the land.
Ahmedabad-based environmentalist, Mahesh Pandya, had filed the PIL in the Gujarat High Court in 2019, against the land acquisition in six villages around the Statue of Unity.
“The Gujarat government and the SSNNL are set to evict more than 5,000 tribals under the guise of tourism development projects, without following due process under the Land Acquisition Act. The authorities are acquiring the land by claiming that it had been acquired in the 1960s. They say that since there was no possession and no need for the land, people were allowed to settle there,” Pandya’s PIL stated.
“Today, the same land is being used for Sreshtha Bharat Bhavan and tourism related projects, in gross violation of due process under Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act,” said Praful Vasava, a tribal-rights activist and member of Boter Gam Adivasi Samaj.