Rajendrabhai Naranbhai Tadvi, a tribal youth from Gora village, about four kilometres from Kevadiya, the location of Statue of Unity in Narmada, Gujarat, attempted suicide to protest against the ongoing fencing by Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL).
In a similar incident in June this year, a 55-year-old Natwar Tadvi from Kevadiya village had threatened to self-immolate to protest against the fencing work.
“Situation has changed a lot since the Statue of Unity was built in Kevadiya. The government has been aggressively acquiring land for projects. Tribals have been arrested for entering their own land, their tractors or other agricultural equipment have been seized for farming,” Praful Vasava, a local tribal rights activist told NewsClick.
“Tribals have been farming these lands for years. Without their land, they don’t have an alternate source of income. When the Statue of Unity was to be built, the government told us that it will bring jobs for the tribals. But nobody has got employment; instead, their source of livelihood is being taken away,” added Vasava.
Tribals of six villages around the Statue of Unity – Navagam, Limdi, Kevadiya, Kothi, Gora and Vaghadia – rose in protest in May this year, when SSNNL undertook fencing around the open land surrounding the statue. In early June, 20 tribals were arrested after a clash with the local police as SSNNL employees began the fencing work. Later, on June 5, after about a month of protest, fencing work was stopped to facilitate talks with the locals of the six villages.
While the Gujarat government maintained that the fencing has nothing to do with the Statue of Unity, the local tribal villagers held that this was yet another ploy to acquire their land for tourism-related projects around the statue.
“The land they (SSNNL) want to fence is where we farm. If they fence that land, we will have no means of livelihood,” said Natwar Tadvi.
Gujarat government has been acquiring land belonging to tribals of 72 villages of the area since early 1960.
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“In 1961, we lost about 20%t of our land when the government acquired it for the Sardar Sarovar dam. We built our lives on the remaining land until 1981-82 when the Gujarat government acquired our land again. After that, my family was left with two patches of land that we used for farming near Sadhu Bet (where the Statue of Unity stands currently). When Garudeshwar dam was built, it drowned plots of farmland including ours. Currently, all we have is a house. Since the Statue of Unity was built here, the government has been harassing us to acquire the land on which our home is built,” says Punabhai Dalsukhbhai Tadvi, former Manjhi Sarpanch, Navagam village.
Villagers of Kevadiya were asked to vacate their homes a week before the inauguration of the multi-crore project, the Statue of Unity. The land was to be acquired for the widening of the road that leads to Sadhu Bet from two lanes to four lanes. This was after land had already been acquired for the Statue of Unity and other related tourism projects around it.
Amid strong protest against the sudden notice to leave their homes, the local police reportedly lathi charged indiscriminately injuring men and women alike. Tribals of Kevadiya were detained and returned after 24 hours only to find all the homes along the road had been demolished. The villagers of Kevadiya currently have settled a few kilometres away on a rocky patch of land where they cannot farm at all.
Sarojben, a local tribal from Kevadiya, who had led the protest, was allegedly under constant police watch for several following months. Another local tribal rights activist, Lakhan Musafir, who played a crucial role in organising the tribals of various villages, was given an externment notice in March this year.
The Sub Divisional Magistrate of Rajpipla, Narmada issued the notice asking Lakhan Musafir to give reasons as to why he should not be externed from five districts – Narmada, Bharuch, Vadodara, Chota Udepur, and Tapi for two years. The notice came after a FIR against Musafir, a resident of Garudeshwar taluka, accused him of spreading misinformation and blocking government work.
Tribals claim that 72 villages around the Statue of Unity, comprising a population of about 75,000, have been affected by the project. The worst affected are six villages, Navagam, Kevadiya, Vaghadiya, Kothi, Limdi and Gora, that are immediately around Sadhu Bet. While Vaghadia village has lost all its land to the project, Kevadiya has lost about 90% land. Tribals of these villages are living in temporary shelters.
“The tribals in these 72 villages primarily depended on their land for income. They are all farmers. Tribal land is being acquired in complete violation of Schedule V and against the will of gram panchayats,” says Vasava.
Two years after its inauguration, the area being developed as a tourism spot now has a tent city which is an accommodation facility for tourists in luxury tents, a flower garden, Shreshtha Bharat Bhavan with a luxury hotel by Indian hospitality company the Sankalp group as well as the Statue of Unity and a museum besides the statue.
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