As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the worlds tallest statue, the Statue of Unity, in Narmada district in Gujarat on October 31, 2018, the residents of 72 tribal villages who have been directly or indirectly affected by the project boycotted the inauguration by not cooking food. They released black balloons in the sky and burnt tyres to mark their protest.
Ahead of Modis visit, the heads of 22 villages in the vicinity of the dam had written an open letter to him, stating that the villagers would not welcome him at the inauguration. Local tribal leaders announced a boycott of the function citing destruction of natural resources due to the construction of the memorial. A day before the inauguration, several tribal activists and local people were detained as a preventive measure.
The affected people consider the statue a "colossal" waste of public money. The government has envisioned a tourism zone in the stretch between the Sardar Sarovar Dam and the Statue of Unity. It is touted to have a "valley of flowers", a "Tent City", a guest house for every state, hotels and a lake for boating, for which the government plans to release water from the Sardar Sarovar dam. The tribals fear submersion of their villages and crops. Some of the villages also lost many acres of land in October when the government widened the access road leading to the statue.
Of the 72 villages, the residents of only 32 villages have been compensated so far. However, in 19 of these villages, rehabilitation is yet to be completed. People of six villagesNavagam, Vagadia, Limdi, Kevadiya, Kothi and Gora in Kevadiya Colony have been displaced and are living in temporary shelters. As reported by human rights activist Anand Mazgaonkar, these six villages are not recognised as projectaffected. Other affected people include those who have been paid monetary compensation but are awaiting land and jobs as promised under the rehabilitation package as well as those who have been compensated with land but are unhappy as it is unproductive.
Tribal activists also allege that the Statue of Unity project has not taken environmental clearance. According to a report in Down To Earth, the activists wrote a letter to the environment secretary, stating that the statue violates the Environment Protection Act of 1986, environmental impact assessment notification of 2006 and a few orders issued by the National Green Tribunal. The Statue of Unity is only 3.2 km from the Shoolpaneshwar Sanctuary. According to a Supreme Court order dated December 4, 2006, if a project requiring environmental clearance is located within a 10km radius of a wildlife sanctuary or national park, the project requires the approval of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife.
Meanwhile, the residents of Kevadiya Colony on December 17, 2018, locked the executive engineer of the Sardar Sarovar Punarvasvat Agency in his office at the Statue of Unity site to protest against the lack of jobs for the local people. They also complained of the lack of basic facilities for those displaced by the project. However, police rushed to the site and brought the situation under control.
On July 25, 2019, the Gujarat High Court ordered a status quo on the acquisition of land for various tourism projects and asked the state government not to evict anyone until further orders. The courts decision came after a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed against the land acquisition in six villagesKevadiya, Vagadiya, Navagam, Limbdi, Kothi and Gorasituated close to the Statue of Unity at Kevadiya near the Sardar Sarovar Dam. The PIL was filed by Ahmedabadbased environment activist Mahesh Pandya.
In the petition, Pandya alleged that the government and the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited want to evict around 5,000 tribals residing in the six villages under the guise of tourism development projects without following due procedure under the Land Acquisition Act. He stated that the land is being acquired for tiger safaris, hotels and other buildings planned near the Statue of Unity to develop tourism. The petitioner further claimed that the land acquired from several tribal families was never utilised for the purpose for which it was acquired and that the physical possession of the land was never taken over.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for August 21, 2019.