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5-yr-old report predicted displacement around Narmada dam despite PESA

By Rajiv Shah 
Though prepared by Bangalore-based tourism NGO Equations in 2008, the five-year-old report, “Public Purpose?”, suggests how relevant its observations are even today at a time the entire Kevadia Colony, next to the Narmada dam, alongside the surrounding rural areas, are being proposed as a major tourism site in Gujarat. The report had predicted that the tourism project would dispossess tribals of 51 plus villages of their land, even as pointing towards how the project is being promoted in complete violation of the laws which make tribal self-rule mandatory in tribal-dominated areas. 
What makes the Equations report, “Public Purposes?”, particularly intriguing is that the tourism project around the Narmada dam is today in the eye of storm, five year after Equations, the tourism NGO, brought it out. It is being developed as part of the Gujarat government decision to build world’s highest statue, Statue of Unity, in the memory of Sardar Patel. Already, work for the project has begun, especially the construction of a weir at Garudeshwar, across the Narmada river, about 12 kilometres downstream of the dam, to create a reservoir to promote water sports.
The scholars who prepared the report for Equations, Souparna Lahiri of the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers, and Aditi Chanchani of Equations, pointed towards how the tourism project was sought to be developed without consulting the tribals, despite the fact that the Kevadia Colony came under the ambit of the the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas), Act, 1996 (PESA), ten years before the Gujarat government first decided to float the tourism project in 2006 by creating a special Kevadia Area Development Authority (KADA).
“On October 2, 1997, the Narmada district was split from Bharuch along with some other districts. Nandod taluka which was part of the Bharuch district became part of the Narmada district. Kevadia colony is in Nandod taluka of Narmada district. Nandod is a declared Schedule V area. Therefore, Kevadia colony is also a Schedule V area where the provisions of PESA are operational”, the authors of the report point out, adding, “The Constitution of India through the Vth Schedule and PESA re-enforces the rights of the adivasis to territorial integrity and the right to decide on then own path of development. It disallows the transfer of tribal lands to non-tribals and corporates.”
The authors explained, “The Constitution of India through the 73rd Amendment paved the way for a separate and progressive legal and administrative regime for tribal areas for a genuine tribal self-rule.” They underlined, “This was done by enactment of the PESA. PESA is a comprehensive and powerful law that empowers gram sabha of the Scheduled Areas to address the Issues that emerge in their daily lives. PESA has attempted to decentralize the control and management of natural resources and several functions of social relevance including adjudication of disputes in accordance with prevalent traditions and customs. It needs to be said that perhaps no law in Independent India has talked so eloquently about customary law, community resources, village as a community, village people safeguarding their traditions and customs, and so on.”
Under PESA, the authors pointed out, “The gram sabha is empowered to approve plans, programmes for social and economic development, identify beneficiaries under poverty alleviation programmes, certify utilization of funds by gram panchayats, protect common property resources, including minor forest produce and be consulted prior to land acquisition.”
Villagers’ protest against tourism project
While the provisions of PESA came into force on December 24, 1996, its importance lies in the fact that the Act “extends panchayats to the tnbal areas of eight states of India, — Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan – with the intention to enable tribal society to assume control over their own destiny to preserve and conserve their traditional rights Over natural resources”, the authors said, adding, “The states governments were required to enact their legislation in accordance with the provisions of the Act.”
Informing that the provisions of PESA were operationalised in Gujarat in 1998 when Gujarat Panchayats (Amendment) Act, 1998 was enacted, the report said, “The Act extended the provisions of Gujarat Panchayats Act, 1993 to scheduled areas of the state with certain modifications. In Gujarat, it is applicable in 5,055 villages of 33 talukas in seven districts”, adding, “The PESA in Gujarat has empowered the Gram Sabha exclusively to execute certain functions, which are:Approving any plan, project or programme for the development of the village;
Selecting beneficiaries to be benefited under the poverty alleviation and other programmes; and
Issuing a certificate for the money spent by the panchayats.”
As regards consultative powers regarding land acquisition for developmental projects, these were given to taluka panchayat. The taluka panchayat has to be compulsorily consulted before “the acquisition of any land situated in the taluka for a development project” and “the rehabilitation of people evicted by such project”, the report said.
The report pointed towards how PESA provisions were not being properly implemented in Gujarat. It said, “According to analysts who have been tracking the Implementation of PESA in different states, in the state of Gujarat, the way PESA has been implemented totally violates the spirit of Central PESA by giving these powers to different tiers of Panchayati Raj institutions, totally excluding the gram sabha from exercising such powers. The Central legislation sought to empower the gram sabha by giving It a pivotal role in the management of natural resources, social and economic development, and protecting tribals from exploitative money lending and market practices. Restricting the gram sabha from exercising these powers is a violation of the constitutional mandate.”
Making a critique of PESA in Gujarat, the report said, “The definition of local area in Gujarat PESA bears semblance to the definition of village under Central PESA. Though it is this local area, which constitutes a village, the official declaration of the same has been left to the governor of the state. In consonance with the basic principles of the Central PESA, Gujarat has now recognized by law that the gram sabha shall endeavour to take measures to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs, the cultural Identity, the community resources, and the customary mode of dispute resolution.”
Yet, the report pointed out, “Section 237 of Chapter XIV of the Gujarat Panchayat Raj Act, 1993 very specifically lays down that the state government shall continue to hold power to prepare for the whole state the five year plan or project or propaganda relating to the construction of roads, water supply, or any other matter. The government shall hold the same authority for undertaking any project or programme concerning any district or more districts. The Act does not specify whether in the process, the government will have to consult the grama sabha in the Vth schedule areas in the state where such activities directly affect the lives of the local communities.”
It said, “All this shows that the will or the urge of the state government of implementation of Panchayati Raj System in the State of Gujarat, and especially PESA, is quite abysmal. According to most critiques, the Panchayat Raj institutions are not given any financial and administrative powers in Gujarat. For example, the health department is of the view that panchayat should not be made responsible to supervise and monitor its work. Unlike the present practice, bottom up approach should be followed to involve community members in the planning of any developmental activities, be it development of Infrastructure facilities like roads or Issues related to public health and family welfare. In Gujarat, Panchayati Raj Institutions have been existing for several years. However, the differences between the elected members of panchayat and government are still to be bridged.”
Despite PESA, KADA was created in 2006 in order to “usurp powers and mandate of local self-governing institutions that have been bestowed on them by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments of the Constitution of India and extension of PESA in the region.” The KADA was mandated to “bypass” the constitutional mandate and provisions of PESA that extended the provisions of Gujarat Panchayats Act, 1993 to scheduled areas of the state with certain modifications. It made them redundant in declared KADA areas. The focus of KADA was primarily marketing, promotion, investment, growth, and infrastructure built-up for the tourism sector.
A declaration was made by the Gujarat government a few months back that it had decided to abrogate KADA, but so far no notification has been issued on how the tourism project, including the Statue of Unity, are proposed to be implemented without the approval of the gram sabhas, required by PESA. Clearly, KADA’s main aims remain intact, and the 2008 report pointed towards how it might create havoc among the tribals of the Narmada region.
KADA had sought to substitute “the general planning process – the General Development Plan drawn by the local self-governing institutes of these areas – formulated under the Gujarat Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 1998 to favour tourism related development process that prioritises and promotes tourism centric developments through special master plans”, the report underlined, adding, “This practice of transfer of power from local self-governing institutes to area development authorities aims to re-establish the colonial praxis that state and not the people are competent to be seized with all matters.”
Pointing towards how tourism played a role in the eviction of indigenous people, fishing communities and people in general from their ancestral lands, packaged in various names like “eco-tourism”. “beach-tourism”, “adventure tourism” etc, the report said, “While it might seem that the land requirements for tourism activities are not high, this is not true.” It gives the example of the tourism and entertainment SEZ in Gorai-Manori which required 1,000 hectares, and the Delhi Commonwealth Games Village STZ which required 250 acres. Further, the multi-million dollar project to build a huge statue of Buddha and develop Kasya (the site where the Buddha spent hours last days) in Kushalnagar as a tourist site had threatened to displace 700 families from 600 acres of cultivable land.
Saying that the decision of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL), the agency which is implementing the Narmada project, to launch an eco-tourism project near Kevadia to meet the growing demand of tourism industry In the name of upgrading the environment is no different, the report emphasized, “This project will affect 51 plus villages near the dam site, causing loss of agricultural land to number of tribal families, many of whom had been displaced during the construction of the first phase of the dam.” It asked the pointed question, whose answer has still not been answered: “Has the project taken into account the impacts on access and control over common property and natural resources, impact on social and cultural aspects apart from physical displacement of families?”
The report wanted both Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Social Impact Assessment (SIA) to be conducted before the project is operationalised – something which hasn’t yet been done. “An independent multidisciplinary expert group should be constituted for examination of the EIA and SIA report. Representatives of the local communities should be included m the independent multidisciplinary expert group constituted for examination of the EIA and SIA. Apart from EIA report, SIA should be given due value. Acquisition and related proposed project should be stopped if SIA indicates negative impacts”, it said.
Pointing towards how handing over the land acquired in Kevadia to private developers had begun, the report said, this marked “a serious departure in the history of the Sardar Sarovar Project. The land in question was acquired to construct a dam by the government. But thus land now stands diverted for the construction of a hotel which is by no stretch of imagination public purpose.” It wondered, “Is tourism public purpose at all?” The development followed Gujarat government diverting a part of the vacant, unused (for the Sardar Sarovar Project) land to different agencies such as Swami Narayan Trust (about 10 acres of Kevadia village land), Shulpaneshwar Temple Trust (about 10 acres of Gora village land) and Department of Forests (40 acres of Navagam village land). The camp and office of the State Reserve Police Force also stand on the same land.”
It was against this backdrop that, in 1999-2000, tribals of the area approached the Grievance Redressal Authority (GRA) in Ahmedabad and got a stay order against the government diverting their extra lands acquired but not used for the project, which was about 200 plus hectares. “The GRA in 2000 also promised that it would compel the SSNNL and the Sardar Sarovar Punarvasavat (rehabilitation) Agency (SSPA) to develop a rehabilitation action plan for the people in these 51 plus villages”, the report stated. Nothing happened thereafter. In fact, the push for tourism project and diversion of unused land for purposes other than public purpose continued.
All this led to a situation where the villagers of Kevadla, Gora, Limadi, Waghoria, Navagam and Kothi found that they might be completely wiped out. There would instead be only Viewpoints 1, 2 or 3, or Ponds 2, 3 or 4, or a Golf Course or a Water Park and, of course, a tribal museum and the dam…

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