Gujarat: Sardar Sarovar Dam, Statue of Unity Made Adivasi Encroachers on their Own Lands

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If 70-year-old Punabhai Tadvi, an Adivasi of the Tadvi tribe, stepped onto his own farmland, he could be charged with criminal trespassing. That’s because on his land now stands a board that says the plot belongs to the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL). 

“In May, the police came with labourers and fenced our land. They said if anyone tried to farm here, they would impose a heavy fine on that person and take strict action against them,” said Punabhai, a resident of Navagam village in Narmada district, Gujarat.

Navagam, along with the villages of Kevadia, Limdi, Gora and Vaghadia, is in the Narmada district of Gujarat, where the SSNNL, a state government undertaking, claims the lands of the Tadvi Adivasis. The lands of these villagers lie in the area around the statue of Sardar Patel in Kevadia, also known as the Statue of Unity (SoU) and touted as the tallest statue in the world. A number of tourism projects have been constructed around this statue, such as the Shrestha Bharat Bhawan, Tent City, Jungle Safari, Zarvani Eco-tourism & Adventure Sports and Ekta Mall. More such projects are in the pipeline.

But the construction of these tourism projects means that many Tadvis have lost their agricultural land without due notice.

Kannubhai Tadvi, a 45-year-old Adivasi from Limdi village, had lost his family’s agricultural land in 1974 when the state government began constructing the Sardar Sarovar Dam.

“In the year I was born, my family lost their agricultural land. The debris of three hills that were cut to make the dam was dumped on our land without informing our panchayat (village council). This made the land unfit for agriculture,” he told The Wire. “In recent years, a helipad was made on my land for the helicopters of politicians. Now the helipad has been shifted to some other place and a parking lot for buses is being developed there instead.”

He added: “When we ask the Nigam officials why our land around the statue was taken away, they say our forefathers gave it to them. But when I say that my father is still alive, so why was his land taken for the tiger safari project near the statue, they have no answer and ask us to go to court.”

Because of the loss of this land, Kannubhai and his family could never practice agriculture. They earn their livelihood as street vendors, selling tea, water bottles and other small items.

Dakshaben Tadvi, a 40-year-old Adivasi woman who works with her husband, Kannubhai, said, “Most of the people in our village are not able to practice agriculture because construction has been done on their lands by SSNNL. Now we only have our homes, on which they want to build big hotels. But we are not going to give our homes away.”

The Sardar Sarovar Dam. Photo: Kashyap Vyas/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As per Punabhai Tadvi from Navagam, people of his village collectively lost 30-40 acres of their land to submergence by waters from the Garudheshwar Weir that is situated near the Statue of Unity. The weir is a small dam and also a power generation component of the Sardar Sarovar Project.

“Nobody informed us that land would be drowned by this weir. Nor have we heard about compensation from any official,” said Punabhai, who grows cereals like jawar, bajra, makai and dals like tuar for a living.

The land of the villagers had been acquired in the early 1960s by the Gujarat government for the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and its necessary adjuncts. But later the engineers moved the position of the dam a few kilometres upwards from the initial intended position because of a technical issue. Hence, the villagers continued to hold “possession” by living and practicing agriculture in parts of the acquired land.

Now the SSNNL has fenced off a part of this land and wants to possess the rest of the land too, but the villagers argue that tourism was not the reason for which their family lands had been acquired in the 1960s.

For the SSNNL, the situation is very clear. “The question of losing land to tourism development is a misnomer because the land is presently not owned by them [the Tadvi Adivasis],” said M.B. Joshi, chief general manager (technical & coordination) of the SSNNL. “The land is owned by SSNNL after having acquired it by completing the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 (LAQ), process, which is also endorsed and stamped by Hon’ble Gujarat High Court. Continuing with the illegal encroachment despite Hon’ble Court’s judgment does not provide them any legal platform to claim any compensation in the name of tourism development.”

In May 2020, the Gujarat High Court removed the temporary stay order that had been in place for a year on SSNNL’s process of physically acquiring the land around the Statue of Unity. As a result , the SSNNL then resumed the process of land acquisition and fenced the various open plots of land belonging to the Adivasis from the five villages.

When the police reached Kevadia village on May 27, they were asked questions by villagers who wanted to know why their land was being fenced.

“They beat up the villagers who demanded an answer. Even the women were beaten up by the policemen,” alleged a farmer from Kevadia on the condition of anonymity. The protests by the villagers to preserve their land led to the police detaining 20 tribals.

“When protests took place before the lockdown, civil society activists from other districts would go to Narmada district to support the tribals. But during the lockdown, nobody could go and the tribals were on their own,” said Dev Desai, an independent activist associated with the tribal cause.

The lack of on-ground support for the tribals during the lockdown came in the wake of serving of a notice of banishment to Lakhan Musafir from the five tribal districts, including Narmada, in March this year. Musafir has been an active advocate of the rights of the Tadvi Adivasis against the proposed tourism projects.

The SSNNL later released a public statement on the Kevadia incident in which it said that only that land that had been measured as part of the acquisition claim had been fenced and that no other private land had been forcefully acquired.

From dam to statue

The basis of the SSNNL’s claims to Adivasi land dates to the early 1960s and is tied to the history of the Sardar Sarovar Dam.

According to the ground report by Equations, a development research and advocacy organisation from Bengaluru, the Gujarat government in 1961 had acquired 1,777 acres of land from 397 families in the five villages named earlier and a sixth village, called Kothie.

“The purpose of this acquisition in 1961 was stated as the construction of a colony and canal under the Narmada Dam project. But later, due to a technical reason, the position of the dam was shifted a few kilometres upstream,” said Anand Mazgaonkar, a legal activist for the interests of Tadvi Tribals. 

Though the lands of these villagers were acquired by the state government, the landholders were never deemed “project affected persons” under the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project because their lands had not been submerged.

“Only a part of the land acquired was used to build a Kevadia Project colony and store dam material. Our forefathers and their generation continued to possess the lands and practice agriculture,” said Shailesh Tadvi, an Adivasi from Vaghadia village.

“The land acquired was in excess of what was required and remained unutilised,” explained Mazgaonkar.

While the Tadvis continued to possess their land and practice agriculture, the Gujarat Tourism Policy 2003-2010 envisioned tourism projects on the banks of Narmada River and attempts were made to pitch eco-tourism projects at various investor summits. In 2010, the Statue of Unity project was initiated by Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat.

Narendra Modi and the Statue of Unity. Photo: Twitter/BJP4India

Situated at a distance of 3.2 kilometres from the Sardar Sarovar Dam, the tallest statue in the world, which is supposed to symbolise the unity among the diverse states of India, stands on a now-flattened river island (bet) which was once worshipped by the Tadvi Adivasis.

“The elevated river island in the Narmada River which is now called Sadhu Bet was known as Wadhita Bawa. Bawa means sadhu or saint,” said Praful Vasava, an activist from Bharuch who works closely with Tadvi Adivasis for their rights.

“For the Tadvis, Wadhita Bawa is the guru of medicinal knowledge,” explained Shailesh Tadvi. “His name is kept in meditative thoughts whenever we go into the forest for work. Once or twice a year, we would also go to the Wadhita Bawa Tekri (river island) to offer coconuts and a clay horse. Those who live nearby would go more often, some even every day.”

He added: “When the statue was being made, the Adivasis of Barfalia from Limdi village had protested and tried to explain the religious significance of Wadhita Bawa. But no one paid heed.”

The Adivasis say they don’t hold any personal grudges against the late Sardar Patel or his statue in the middle of Narmada River. “We were waiting for our land to be officially returned to us after the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam ended. However, now they want to build tourism projects on our land and ask us to shift elsewhere. We object to this change of purpose and the idea of leaving our home,” explained Shailesh Tadvi. Business at his small kirana (general store) shop in the village has suffered over the years due to the many trips he has made to the SSNNL offices to make sense of the land dispute and save his home.

The village Kothie, which is situated next to Kevadia village, was also acquired in the 1960s, but the current official stand of the SSNNL does not claim land there. However, this village has also been affected by the dam and construction activities due to its geographical location and cultural ties with the neighbouring villages.

“Kothie village is in fact the most affected by all these activities and also the most culturally overpowered because it is situated right next to the colony that was built for the dam. The colony infrastructure is all around Kothie village and falling over it. Suddenly the road ends and the village starts,” said Nandini Oza, a former Narmada Bachao Aandolan activist who has worked and lived with the people of the six villages for several years.

The Independent Review Report (1992) of the World Bank Commission led by Bradford Morse also has a chapter on the land conflict regarding the people of the above mentioned six villages in Narmada district who were deemed as not “project-affected” under Sardar Sarovar Dam Project and hence, not considered eligible for the same compensation as accorded to the “project affected persons” category.

Narmada Bachao Andolan rally in Dhar on June 27, 2017

A Narmada Bachao Andolan rally in Dhar on June 27, 2017. Photo: File

The compensation that wasn’t

The SSNNL’s claim to the land of these villages had been challenged earlier in the Gujarat high court through a PIL by activist Maheshbhai Pandya. On July 25, 2019, the court had placed a stay order on the SSNNL’s process of land acquisition. However, in May 2020, the court lifted the stay and questioned the locus standi of the petitioners in its final decision on the PIL.

According to the Gujarat high court’s application of Section 24(2) of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, land acquisition proceedings lapse if, “due to inaction of authorities for five years or more prior to commencement of the said Act, the possession of land has not been taken nor compensation has been paid.”

By relying on the evidence produced in court by the SSNNL on the various instances of compensation and packages given by SSNNL over the years, the court said that their acquisition cannot lapse. However, the court also said that it is open to adjudicate on the land dispute when the Adivasi landholders themselves challenge the acquisition by SSNNL in an individual capacity.

According to the report by Equations, the land of the Tadvis was acquired by the SSNNL in 1961-63 by paying Rs 80 to Rs 250 per acre to the villagers. “To date, there is no clarity as to whether this money paid to the villagers was for their land or for the damage done to their standing crop when the land was bulldozed,” explained Mazgaonkar.

According to the SSNNL itself, the land was acquired between 1962 and 1965 under the Land Acquisition Act (LAQ), 1894, for the purpose of “development of Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) and its allied works”. The SSNNL maintained that compensation was paid to the land owners in cash as per the award declared under the LAQ Act, 1894, and relevant provisions thereof. They added that some owners at that time had declined to accept the compensation and the amount was thereafter deposited in the district treasury of Rajpipla, from where these amounts had been withdrawn by the affected people in due course.

However, some villagers claim that that particular payment was for the loss of standing crops.

“We have the document of our forefather that mentions that the cash given was for the damage to crops,” said Punabhai Tadvi. “This document was given to one person in our village for his crop loss, in whose farmland the dam was inaugurated,” he adds. The Independent Review Report (1992) by Bradford Morse mentions that “it has been almost impossible to establish how much compensation the villagers have received for their losses” and that “a sense of resentment over the low level of compensation and a feeling of being cheated” was observed among the villagers. The report also notes the “insecurity felt by villagers who lived in houses that had been acquired, but not yet taken from them.”

In addition to the compensation under the 1894 Act, the SSNNL has also claimed to have given various relief packages to the villagers over the years on “sympathetic” grounds, as declared by the Government of Gujarat in 1992, 2013 and 2018. These packages include either a plot of land equivalent to that which was lost, or cash compensation of Rs 7.5 lakhs per hectare.

However, not all the villagers have accepted the compensation and relief packages. “They are offering us Rs 7.5 lakhs per hectare for our land but selling it for Rs 30-40 lakhs to the big builders,” said Kannubhai Tadvi.

“If you want us to leave our homes, why not give us the same land as was promised to the project affected persons under the Sardar Sarovar Project? They say we are not eligible for that because our land was not submerged. If that is so, why build tourism projects on our land? Why not give it back to us? Instead, they offer us a package. We are not living in jhopadhpattis (slums), neither are we outsiders. We don’t want any monetary package and neither have we accepted any from them,” said Shailesh Tadvi.

The SSNNL is also building a new residential society for the resettlement of villagers, an adarsh gram (ideal village) township in Gora village in which each individual block would be 125 square metres with a constructed house and open space for cattle, with enabling infrastructure like roads and primary healthcare centres around it. But the proposed resettlement area is not a place where Adivasis can imagine living their lives.

“We rely on jal, jungle and zameen (water, forest and land) for our livelihood. Our close association with the forest is a critical part of our life. How can we live in an urban building as planned by the SSNNL?” said Kannubhai Tadvi.

A view of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Photo: www.sardarsarovardam.org

“Where will our animals live, where will we take them to feed if all of us live in a building? Nigam officials tell us that our land is theirs. But they do not tell us how it’s theirs, nor do they show us any documents to prove it. Displacing us from our lands will lead to the erasure of our very existence,” said Shailesh Tadvi.

According to Vasava, the land that was fenced by the SSNNL in May was the “reserved land” of the Adivasi villagers, which is used for agriculture or as grazing for livestock. This land is reserved for use by future generations of the Adivasis. “How can the SSNNL, a non-tribal entity, claim land in a tribal area without the informed consent of the gram sabhas (village assemblies comprising all the adults of the village)?” he asked.

Seizing tribal land one tourism development authority at a time

Indeed, in the Samatha vs. State of Andhra Pradesh (1997) judgment, the Supreme Court had said that “Government lands, forest lands and tribal lands in the Scheduled area cannot be leased out to non tribals or to private industries”. The Narmada district is in the Schedule V area under the Constitution of India.

Schedule V areas are declared in certain parts of a state by an order of the President of India under Article 342 of the Constitution of India. These areas are governed by regulations issued by the governor of the state after a compulsory consultation with the Tribes Advisory Council of the state. The purpose of these areas is to preserve the autonomy of scheduled tribes and prevent the dispossession of their lands.

Scheduled areas are governed by the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996, which grants numerous functions and powers of administration to the gram sabhas of the village. For any project in a scheduled area, the informed consent of the gram sabha is necessary since it has the power to decide on the management of community resources and to conserve tribal identity.

However, according to M.B. Joshi of the SSNNL, “Since the land acquisition process was completed in the 1960s as per the provisions of the LAQ Act, 1894, the question of taking the informed consent of the gram sabha at this stage does not arise. ”

“The fact is that many of them are willing to accept the compensation package and join the mainstream of development. Our idea is to help them improve their living conditions while relocating them, despite the fact that they have been using SSNNL land as encroachers and have no legal standing for such compensation,” he said.

However, on 31 October 2018, when the prime minister inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar Dam and the Statue of Unity, the gram sabhas of as many as 15 tribal districts in Gujarat had passed resolutions to unequivocally oppose the acquisition of tribal lands for tourism projects.

“The idea of development promised under tourism is not in national interest, but for the interest of the capitalists, as we saw in the case of the Dang tribals in the hill station of Saputara. The natives there don’t have land to make a house. The development of Adivasis didn’t happen there as promised because their land was given to the capitalists for tourism,” said Vasava.

The Statue of Unity (SoU) Area Development and Tourism Governance Act, 2019, enacted in December last year, creates a ‘Tourism Development Authority’ for the area around the SoU, with no representation from the gram sabhas of that region. Instead it is constituted of SSNNL officials, with the purpose of ensuring the planned development of tourism in the scheduled area.

According to the legal analysis of the Act by Rohit Prajapati and Krishnakant, this law identifies tribals whose land is claimed by the SSNNL as illegal possessors of the land and usurps the power of gram sabhas.

This is not the first time that a tourism development authority has been instituted to encroach on the powers of the gram sabha. According to the research by Equations, this is a pattern observed across the country, in Kerala, Hampi, Chilika, and Bhuvaneshwar, where tourism projects are steered by newly enacted tourism development authorities that take over the governance powers of the already existing local self governments.

When the Statue of Unity (SoU) Area Development and Tourism Governance Bill was introduced in the state legislative assembly in December 2019, Jignesh Mevani, an independent MLA from Vadgam constituency, burnt a copy of the bill, saying it was a means to snatch tribal lands and displace people from 70 villages. However, despite the opposition staging a walkout from the house over the unjust bill, it was passed by the house.

Indian tri-coloured balloons fly around the “Statue of Unity” portraying Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, one of the founding fathers of India, during its inauguration in Kevadia, in the western state of Gujarat, India, October 31, 2018. Photo: Reutes/Amit Dave

The state government has justified the statue and the tourism projects on the grounds of the development that will take place in that area due to the money earned from the Statue of Unity.  The state’s forest minister Ganpat Vasava informed the house in December last year that since the inauguration of the Statue of Unity in 2018, revenue of Rs 82.51 crores had already been generated.

Human character in tribal land acquisitions

On June 27, SSNNL officials visited the Limdi village to talk to the Adivasis. “They asked us to give our names and wanted us to sign a blank sheet of paper, which we refused to do,” said Dakshaben, whose land is her only asset. “When we asked for what purpose our signature would be used, they didn’t give clear answers,” said her husband, Kannubhai Tadvi.

“They said they haven’t come to take but to give. However, their proposed monetary compensation of Rs 7.5 lakhs is not acceptable to us, because for us this land holds more value than any amount of money,” he added.

In an interview, Raghav Chandra, former secretary of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) had said that, “Whenever land is acquired from scheduled tribes they must necessarily be given land in return – not just for homestead but also agriculture. It is not good enough to give them monetary compensation, because monetary compensation is very evanescent, very transient.”

In recent years, in a similar case of excess acquisition of tribal land and non-utilisation of that land for the proposed purpose, the NCST had recommended to the governor of Odisha to ensure the unused land of the Adivasis living in scheduled areas was returned to them by the Rourkela Steel Plant. The Chhattisgarh government too announced in 2018 that it would return acquired but unused land to the tribals in Bastar. This land had been acquired for a Tata Steel project.

Resistance by Adivasis

Meanwhile, with the branding of tribals as “illegal encroachers” and the development of Shreshtha Bharat Bhawan, the tourism projects around the Statue of Unity show no signs of halting.  “The SSNNL officials are taking advantage of the pandemic to tighten their grip on the land and weaken Adivasi unity,” said Praful Vasava, who submitted a petition in June, signed by 200 other tribals, to the district magistrate of Narmada to express their discontent against the unconstitutional displacement of tribals from their lands in Schedule V areas.

Kevadia Bachao Aandolan Samiti, a grassroots level organisation that has been instrumental in resisting the pressure of giving up tribal land, has joined hands with other tribal organisations to oppose infrastructure projects like the Bharatmala, bullet train, national highway and so on that are detrimental to both the environment and Adivasi interests. 

“A campaign for signatures by 5,000 villagers is going on  in the eastern tribal belt of Gujarat to make them aware of the destructive impact of such projects to the environment and to the lives of the Adivasis,” said Vasava.

“If they are taking away our lands, then that means we don’t have the right to citizenship in this country. If that is the case then why push us out of our homes? Simply shoot us down, because having no land means having no right to live,” said an angry Kannubhai Tadvi to the SSNNL officials in one of his many interactions with them.

(All interviews for this story were conducted over the phone in June)

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