NISHIT DHOLABHAI IN GARUDESHWAR (GUJARAT)
Sadhu Tekri, the island hillock near the Sardar Sarovar dam on which the Statue of Unity will come up. Picture by Nishit Dholabhai
The Statue of Unity that will tower down from an island-hillock in the Narmada has cast a shadow even before it is born. In that shadow, an anti-Narendra Modi refrain is ringing in the heart of Gujarat’s tribal east.
Over 70 tribal villages in Narmada district, two talukas of which fall under the Chhota Udaipur reserved Lok Sabha seat, face the threat of flooding by a weir being built across the river, downstream from the Sardar Sarovar dam.
People from the villages on either bank of the river claim the Gujarat government did not consult them before construction of the weir — a low wall built across a river to control flow of water — started. Chief minister Modi laid the foundation stone earlier this year.
Once the weir is completed, a reservoir of sorts will be created near the island-hillock — called Sadhu Tekri — on which the 182-metre-high statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel will come up. Tourist resorts and adventure sport clubs are planned on little islands in the reservoir.
The weir is not officially a part of the statue project. Sources said it was being built to turn areas close to the statue spot into a tourism hub, about 100km south-east of Vadodara, so that people visiting the resorts would do “statue tourism” too.
The flip side of building the weir is that, apart from creating a reservoir, the Narmada waters will flood Tadvi tribal villages such as Indravarna, Moti Pipariya, Vagadia, Navagam and Limdi and turn them into inaccessible islands.
Some see in the brewing confrontation the other side of Modi’s much-hyped “Gujarat model of development”. Few outside the area know that the ambitious Statue of Unity will cost tribals their ancestral land.
Although the Sardar Sarovar dam supplies water to the far-off Saurashtra region, tribal villages in this constituency have not benefited at all. Residents of Indravarna village, where one end of the weir will come up, say irrigation water has never reached their fields even from the nearby Karjan dam. Nor will the new weir help irrigation.
“We are going to be like rats. When you put water in the burrows, rats have to come out and that is our future. The weir and the Statue of Unity are inextricably linked,” said Kamlesh Tadvi of Indravarna village.
Kamlesh, 35, has turned into an activist to fight for his land that yields bajra, jowar and maize. “We want development too. But at least tell us you are taking away our lands and what our future will be,” he said.
Neither the Left parties nor the Congress is anywhere to be seen. “No one except the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arjun Rathwa has visited this site. Not even our own Tadvi MLA wants to help,” said Kamlesh, before picking up a Janata Dal (United) scarf and heading off to campaign for that party’s candidate, Praful Vasava.
The Congress candidate from Chhota Udaipur is Naranbhai Rathwa, a former junior railway minister. The BJP aspirant is Ramsinh Rathwa.
The AAP’s Arjun claimed about 104 villages would be affected by the project and Modi was flouting the Supreme Court’s observations in Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills case by not speaking to the people who faced displacement.
“Modi speaks of the Statue of Unity. Has he spoken to or of the people who will be displaced by it?” Arjun asked.
“He is also going to displace people from eight villages at Narukot near Jambughoda sanctuary to build tourist resorts,” he alleged.
Kamlesh’s neighbour Somabhai Tadvi is also set to lose his land. His two children have finished college but have no jobs.
“No one cares. Modi looks only at the land in adivasi villages and treats us like animals,” said Somabhai’s neighbour, Savitaben. She has petitioned the National Green Tribunal along with activist Rohit Prajapati to stop construction of the weir.
Hasmukh Tadvi of Nana Pipariya, another threatened village, stands to lose his three acres. But he is scared to talk about his problems. “Don’t take my photograph, the police may come later to harass me.”
Gujarat voted on April 30.
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