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Statue of Unity project to adversely impact livelihood, downstream biodiversity

Fence around proposed Shreshtha Bhawan 

By Trupti Shah, Rohit Prajapati, Krishnakant*
The National Green Tribunal (Western Zone), Pune bench, issued a notice on April 9, 2015 in the Application No. 32 of 2015 (Trupti Shah & Ors V/s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel RET & Ors) filed against the Statue of Unity project. The second hearing took place on April 16, 2015, and now the next date of hearing has been fixed for May 8, 2015. Since March 2015 authorities constructed fencing around the homes of six tribal families comprising of 70 people for the construction of the proposed Shreshtha (Bhrashta) Bharat Bhavan. Police force stands guard 24X7 outside the newly raised gate which the people have to pass through to access their homes and land – they feel as if they live in a veritable “open air prison”.
Since October 31, 2013 at the time of the laying of the foundational stone of the Statue of Unity project, activists have been writing to respondent authorities raising several important questions about the environmental and social impact of the project on the area and thousands of tribals’ life and livelihood. In several subsequent letters question was raised as to why the authorities have not secured the requisite environmental clearance and public hearing for this elaborated tourism project, but the authorities chose to remain silent and gave work order on October 27, 2014 to start the constructing for the project to the Larsen & Toubro Limited.
A group of concerned citizens – Trupti Shah, Girishbhai Patel, Krishnakant, Mahesh Pandya, Ghanshyam Shah, Chinu Srinivasan, Persis Ginwalla, Rohit Prajapati, Saroop Dhruv, and Rajnibhai Dave – filed a case, Application No 32/2015 (WZ) (Trupti Shah & Ors V/s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel RET & Ors), against the Statue of Unity project on March 23, 2015 in the National Green Tribunal (Western Zone) Pune bench asking for an immediate halt to all work on the Statue of Unity project at the Kevadia village of the Narmada district, Gujarat.
Well-known senior human rights lawyer who practices in the High Court of Mumbai, Gujarat and the Supreme Court of India, Mihir Desai, Lara Jesani (who practice in the High Court of Mumbai and the National Green Tribunal) and Asim Sarode (who practices in the National Green Tribunal, Pune) comprise the legal counsels for the case.
The first hearing took place at Pune on April 9, 2015 and notice was issued to the Chairman, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Rashtriya Ekta Trust (SVPRET), the chairman and managing director, Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd., the Chief Secretary, Government of Gujarat, the member secretary, State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority, the secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, and the chief executive officer and managing director, Larsen & Toubro Limited, and application was fixed for hearing on April 16, 2015. On April 16, 2015 the Government of Gujarat asked for time to file their reply and court granted May 8, 2015 for the next hearing.
The main demands of the application are:
Pass orders staying any and / or ongoing work with respect to the Statue of Unity project, or any component thereof in the Narmada District, Gujarat.
Direct the respondents to take adequate and necessary measures to ensure stoppage of any further work in the Statue of Unity project, or any component thereof.
Direct the Respondents to initiate legal action under Sections 15 and 16 of the Environmental (Protection) Act 1986 against the concerned individuals and companies that have started work or given permission for work of Statue of Unity project, or any component thereof.
Direct the Respondents to initiate legal action under Section 17 of the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 against the concerned officers who have failed to ensure complete compliance of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 before allowing commencement of the work in respect of Statue of Unity project.
Pending the hearing and final disposal of this application to restrain the Respondents from carrying out any further work in respect of Statue of Unity project, or any component thereof.
Direct the Respondent Nos 1 and 2 to take all necessary steps for restitution of the project area to its status quo ante.
Pass such other or further order/ orders as this honourable court may deem fit and proper in the interests of justice.

The Statue of Unity project, as is abundantly clear from the official website (www.statueofunity.in), is not simply the construction of a “mute monument”. It is an elaborate tourism project which includes its principal component, a 182 meter-tall iron statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel built over a project area of more than 120,000 sq.metres surrounded by a man-made lake (reservoir called Garudeshwar weir); a bridge connecting the statute to the mainland; improved roadway between the Statue and the Kevadia village; parking and transport site; and hotel and convention centre (Shreshtha Bharat Bhawan). These project components are proposed to be constructed as part of Phase I of the Statue of Unity project.
Phase II of the project will include the development of banks of river Narmada up to the Bharuch district; development of road, rail and tourist infrastructure; schools, colleges and universities for tribal development; education Research Centre and Knowledge City; tourism corridor from Garudeshwar to Bhadbhut; and clean technology research park and agriculture training centre. These are also part of the composite Statue of Unity project, although the project area of the same has not yet been revealed to the general public.
The environmental clearance required under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of September 2006 has not been sought for any component of this elaborate project. This is despite the fact that the Statue of Sardar Patel, which is the principal component of the project is to be constructed 3.2 kilometres from the Sardar Sarovar dam and adjacent to the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary, the boundary of which touches the Sardar Sarovar reservoir, and on the right of the statue the Nana Thavadia village is part of Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary.
The project will involve extensive construction work in an active riverbed of a perennial river, Narmada, and also is likely to fall within a critical wetlands area as and when the same is to be notified under the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010. The construction of the project and tourism and other human activities after the completion of the project is bound to have adverse effects on the downstream river, its biodiversity, and the surrounding wetlands all of which has been ignored by the respondent authorities. It is also pertinent that for the world’s tallest statue, the respondent authorities have not even engaged in a social and environmental impact assessment which would shed light on the impact of the project and the resultant influx of migrant labourers and tourists on the livelihoods of the indigenous people who have been residing downstream from the project for generations.
The safety and disaster management component of the project has also been casually dealt with, which is particularly shocking seeing as how the construction for the project is on an active tectonic plate in a fault line area which is already burdened with the load of the Sardar Sarovar dam and its massive reservoir! Aside from the blatant violation of the EIA notification, wetland rules, and other relevant laws, the respondent authorities have gone to great lengths to evade public transparency and crush the people’s democratic opposition to the impugned project.
On October 31, 2013 at the time of the laying of the foundational stone of the Statue of Unity, civil society activists delivered a notice to the respondent authorities raising the question as to why the latter has not secured the requisite environmental clearance. Rather than responding to the concern raised, the respondent authorities illegally put some of the peaceful protesters under house arrest, even as detaining others. Further, in March 2015 fencing was constructed around the homes of six tribal families comprising 70 people who live near the site of the proposed Shreshtha (Bhrashta) Bharat Bhavan. Police force stands guard 24X7 outside the newly raised gate which the people have to pass through to access their homes and land – they feel as if they live in a veritable Open Air Prison. The terrorisation of the people continued on until March 28, 2015 when six peacefully protesting villagers and their three children were illegally arrested and held without proper food and facilities.
The respondents had asked for the time for reply. Now the case will be heard by the NGT on 8 May 2015.

*Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, Vadodara

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