Video Editor: Pawan Kumar
"Thousands of Adivasi brothers and sisters from Satpura and Vindhya ranges will get employment every year," said Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October 2018, the day the Statue of Unity in Gujarat's Kevadia Colony, now renamed Ekta Nagar, was inaugurated.
Touted as a means to generate tourism, and consequentially, employment to the residents of the tribal villages in the region, PM Modi said that the statue will become a centre of development and research in the coming years.
Come November 2022, Rajendra Tadvi, one of the few educated youths of the nearby villages, said: "The entire tribal community here is based on farming. If you take away their lands, how are they supposed to survive?"
Ever since the Statue of Unity project neared completion before its inauguration in 2018, residents of six villages right across it - Kevadia, Vaghadia, Limbdi, Navagam, Gora and Kothi - have been protesting and demanding their lands back from the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL).
The SSNNL is a wholly Gujarat government-owned public limited company that executes and manages the Sardar Sarovar Dam project.
Resisting the displacement, residents of these six villagers say that they gave up their lands for the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the 1960s and not for tourism development around the statue as the government has planned. If one dives deeper into the demands, the battle is much more complicated than the villagers just wanting their lands back.
'Why Should We Sacrifice Twice?': What the 6 Villages Want
"When the Statue of Unity had opened here in 2018, I was happy. Who does not like development? Nobody is against development. I was working here at the statue as a guide supervisor," said 31-year-old Ashish.
A teacher by profession, Ashish was fired from his job at a nearby school allegedly for his involvement in the protests.
"Our ancestors gave up their lands and homes for the SSN project so that not only Gujarat, but also the neighbouring states get water. Our people gave up their lands and are proud of it as well. The development of Gujarat happened after our people gave up their lands. But these lands that were not submerged, we want them back. The authorities claim that these lands have been acquired for the Sardar Sarovar Project in 1961. But they have actually started the acquisition now after 60 years," Ashish said.
"They now want these lands for the Statue of Unity and for the benefit of the visitors. Why should we sacrifice again? We were happy when we were giving up our lands so that Gujarat can get water. But why should we sacrifice twice?" he added.
For others like Shakuntalaben Tadvi, the problems have more dimensions. With the lands they cultivated being acquired and fenced over the years, she fears that the house she has been living in for the past 45 years might be taken away too.
"We had 35 acres of land. We would cultivate jowar, bajri, and all other kinds of traditional Adivasi pulses and fend for ourselves. We have cows, buffaloes, and all kinds of farm animals. We now have to look for odd jobs and work as labourers on others' farms," Shakuntalaben said.
"One of our farms now has a hotel, another was taken up for a road for which we didn't get any compensation. Some other farms were fenced.
During our legal battles, they ask for documental proofs, but so many of our forefathers did not maintain any documentation," she added.
The Court Battles
In 2020, the Gujarat HC dismissed a PIL that demanded that the lands in these 6 villages must not be acquired for tourism development around the Statue of Unity The court said that the complaints need to be dealt with at the individual level under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (2013).
Rajendra Tadvi, a graphics designer working with a multi-national company, pursued law along with his job to be able help the movement better. Rajendra, along with Ashish and other youth from the villages have filed a PIL in the Gujarat High Court to challenge the Statue of Unity Act, alleging that it violates tribal laws.
"We have filed a PIL in the high court on the basis that this area is protected under the Fifth Schedule," Ashish said.
The PIL has challenged the Act on some key laws and acts such as:
Article 13 (Laws inconsistent with the fundamental rights)
Article 19 (Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech)
Article 244 (Administration of Scheduled Areas and Tribal Areas)
PESA Act (Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996)
The Indian Forest Act
Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013
"The special rights of adivasis are being infringed upon. In between all of this, the government brought in the Statue of Unity Act, despite Article 243ZC stating that no municipal body can govern in a Fifth Schedule area.
But the government and the SSNNL has side-lined all these rules and are acquiring our lands," Ashish alleged.
Lands, Adarsh Vasahat, Shops Near SoU: Govt's Displacement Package
The government has been negotiating with the protesters and has offered due compensation for their displacement. Responding to an earlier other PIL filed, which the Gujarat High Court had dismissed in 2020, the SSNNL had detailed the compensation offered to the residents of these six villages and had also made them public that year. Here are some of the key points of the displacement package:
The male heirs who were 18 years of age as of 1 November 1989 are to be given land measuring two hectares or the original size of their land — whichever is bigger — as well as a 250 sq feet plot for animal husbandry
Funds to build houses amounting to Rs 4 lakh per beneficiary, of which Rs 2.5 lakh by SSNNL and Rs 1.5 lakh to be given by the state government
One thousand families will be resettled to an ‘Adarsh Vasahat’ project planned on SSNNL land in Gora village.
SSNNL will allot shops in a shopping complex to be built near SoU, including for those who were not part of the original list of beneficiaries from these villages
Accommodate the demands of some beneficiaries who accepted the compensation offered in 1992, but later expressed displeasure and keenness to opt for the revised package of 2013.
A Prolonged Deadlock
The deadlock with the SSNNL and the court battles continue, and so do the struggles of several villagers.
"Whenever we discuss disputes with SSNNL, they tell us to approach court. Our source of income is being taken away, how do we afford to move court?" Ashish asked.
"Our source of income has been taken away from us, how do we continue move court? It is difficult for us to run our houses. When we go somewhere to work as labourers, people get paid Rs 100-150 per day. Do we think about feeding our families or keep running to courts? We cannot afford to move courts. The entire tribal community here is based on farming. If you take away their lands, how are they supposed to survive?" Rajendra asked.
"For the past 2-3 years, my field has been fenced. You see the prices of vegetable today? How will tribals survive? Adivasis thrive on forests and rivers. If you take that away from us, where do we go?" Shakuntalaben said.
"They say 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas', but what vikas did the adivasis get? It's only vinash (destruction) for us," she added.
(The Quint has reached out to the SSNNL for details on any updated compensation package offered other than what was made public in 2020 and its response on the claims by villagers. The story will be updated once the response is received.)