Prabhubhai Tadvi, a senior leader of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) passed away on April 28, 2021. An Adivasi himself, Prabhubhai’s village Vaghadia was one of the six villages, lands of which were acquired for the building of Kevadia Colony, the project colony of one of the largest dams in the world on River Narmada, called the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP).
Popularly called the Jeeva Dori (lifeline) of Gujarat, the SSP is justified in spite of great environmental, economic and social costs on the grounds that it would solve the water scarcity problem of Gujarat permanently.
But today, the SSP project colony, the Kevadia Colony is famous for an entirely different reason. It is home to the world’s tallest statue, and the official website of what is named the Statue of Unity states with pride:
“The tallest statue of the world enjoys a splendidly scenic location facing the Sardar Sarovar Dam, 3.2 kilometres away. This colossal statue stands on the isle of Sadhu-Bet in River Narmada, at Kevadia in Gujarat. The statue is fast becoming one of the country’s top tourist attractions…”
About the Sardar Sarovar Dam, the same website claims:
“SSNNL management team and its engineers have built one of the tallest concrete gravity dams in the world…”
Thus, one of the tallest dams and the tallest statue in the world facing one another are at the centre of and symbolises what the country today know as the ‘Gujarat model’ of development. However, what the country does not know well is that these symbols of the Gujarat model, particularly the SSP has a chequered history mired in controversies, inter-state disputes, displacement and dispossession of local communities, including tribals, destruction of the environment, and several powerful people’s resistances that have challenged all these.
While I do not wish to engage here on this chequered history of the SSP, I wish to share the story of hundreds of Adivasi families including that of Prabhubhai who lost their lands to the construction of this now world famous Kevadia Colony.
It was in 1961 that prime agricultural lands of Adivasi families living in six villages – Navagam, Gora, Limdi, Vaghadia, Kothi and Kevadia – were acquired to build infrastructure like warehouses, offices and the SSP Colony, named Kevadia Colony after one of the six tribal villages.
Sadly though, the Adivasis who lost their lands to the dam colony have never been considered as those affected by the project and never have been rehabilitated. Their lands were acquired in independent India through the British era Land Acquisition Act 1894, in the name of “public interest”. The people who were made to sacrifice for this “public interest” had no say in the matter and were never consulted.
The details of how Adivasi lands were acquired in 1961 have been poignantly narrated as oral history by the late Muljibhai Tadvi, a five-time sarpanch of Kevadia village who was a young man in 1961. Muljibhai’s own lands were acquired for the building of a helipad for India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to land to lay the foundation of the dam, which was much smaller at that time and was called the Navagam Dam. Tadvi’s interview in Gujarati has English subtitles and can be accessed at Muljibhai Tadvi – Oral History Narmada.
However, as Adivasis were not rehabilitated and as the SSP work got delayed due to the Narmada interstate water dispute, the affected families were allowed to cultivate these acquired lands, but only after they paid rent to the government as their lands were now government property.
It was only after a long dispute among the party states over the height of the dam and a delay in getting environmental clearances that the work on a much higher dam, now called the SSP, started in the 1980s.
As the dam construction work began, the Adivasis of these six villages who were till then allowed to cultivate their acquired lands began to be pushed to the margins as more and more of these lands were diverted for the dam construction-related requirements.
For example, for the offices of the dam builders; staff homes; workers quarters; godowns for cement, iron and steel; parking areas and big roads for the heavy dam construction machinery; police station, helipads, gardens and circuit house for VIP guests; and hospital and school for the staff and their family, etc.
As the Adivasi families could no longer cultivate their lands with this development, many among them become labourers at the dam site to make ends meet. Many Adivasi women had to work as domestic help in the homes of officers. Some particularly vulnerable women had to take to brewing and selling liquor, which is illegal in Gujarat.
The kind of work many Adivasi women were compelled to do after losing land to Kevadia Colony can be understood from the oral history of late Kapilaben Tadvi, (Kapilaben Tadvi – Oral History Narmada at time 01:14:10 to 01:23:14), a fiery leader and activist of the NBA, and also the wife of Prabhubhai. Her interview in Gujarati has English subtitles.
Considering the outright injustice to the affected people, the agitation against the building of the dam gained momentum in the Narmada Valley. And then, due to the powerful people’s movement, NBA, the work on the dam got delayed and questions began to be raised on the World Bank’s involvement as a promoter of SSP.
Losing credibility, the World Bank put pressure and the Gujarat government announced a new cash package of Rs 35,000 rupees in the 1990s for the affected Advisai families of the Kevadia colony. But this meagre amount was refused by most on the grounds that it would not fetch them even a buffalo, leave aside land.
The agitation of people displaced by Kevadia Colony continued seeking land-based rehabilitation and parity in the rehabilitation policy with those who were to be displaced by the dam itself. The matter finally went to the Supreme Court where the NBA case was heard for over six years in the 1990s.
During the course of the hearing, the Supreme Court ordered the setting up of the grievance redressal authority (GRA) to look into the issues of the oustees, including those displaced/affected in Gujarat but not considered project-affected.
The NBA argued before the GRA in Gujarat that more lands than required were acquired for the construction of Kevadia Colony, as is the case in all such projects, and these should be returned to the oustees if not required for the project.
The NBA also demanded that the colony affected families be rehabilitated. It opposed before the GRA the diversion of the Adivasi lands acquired for SSP by the Gujarat government to build five-star tourism facilities, as this was a blatant change in the purpose of their original acquisition, and hardly constituted “public interest” that would justify compulsory acquisition.
The issue of lands acquired in excess of the requirement for building the Kevadia Colony and the struggle around it has been explained in detail by the late advocate Girishbhai Patel, one of Gujarat’s leading public interest lawyers, in his interview from 00:12:00 to 00:16:00. This interview in Gujarati has English subtitles.
Finding NBA’s arguments reasonable, the GRA issued a directive in 1999:
“Information in respect to lands of six villages…which were acquired between the years 1961 and 1963, Under the provision of Land Acquisition Act, 1984 for the public purpose of Kevadia Colony…Such lands or any portions thereof shall not be made use of for any purpose other than that which is directly and proximately related to the execution of SSP without the prior approval of the GRA.”
Another directive was issued by the GRA in 2000:
“A fresh rehabilitation package for the persons whose lands were acquired (for Kevadia Colony) is pending finalisation and approval of GRA…the directive is issued in order to ensure that status quo in terms thereof is maintained as regards these lands pending finalisation and approval by the GRA…”
Unfortunately, after such assurances, the matter of the Kevadia Colony was not heard by the Supreme Court. The NBA’s plea that the Gujarat government was planning to change the purpose and divert these lands for the luxurious tourism fell on deaf ears. NBA’s case was finally dismissed with a split judgement in the year 2000. The rest is for all to see.
Once the matter was out of the Supreme Court, the GRA also lost its powers. No rehabilitation package was declared for the Kevadia Colony oustees. And when the dam got completed in 2017, the lands where there once stood godowns, workers’ quarters, parking areas, etc., were no longer required for the SSP and were cleared.
But instead of returning these lands to the Adivasis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the Statue of Unity exactly a year after the completion of the dam. Large parts of these lands as well as lands of more villages began to be diverted for extravagant tourism purposes, five-star hotels, lavish resorts, plush restaurants, malls, etc. The Statue of Unity website brags:
“The landmark Statue of Unity now has in its vicinity a renowned Luxury Hotel Brand –Ramada Encore…the hotel provides an amazing view of the grand Statue of Unity… Luxury, refinement, and attention to detail are what Ramada Encore stands for… With 52 chic rooms with tastefully done plush interiors, the hotel promises a unique leisure experience for tourists…”
Lack of infrastructure
But on the pitiful side, the only hospital at Kevadia Colony built for the staff of the project was shut down around the same time the construction of the dam about was to finish. Although this hospital was built for the staff of SSP and not well-equipped, this was the only facility that the Adivasi oustees of the Colony sometimes used. But with most of the SSP staff gone now, the hospital was no longer required and shut down in total disregard of the local people’s needs.
Therefore, when the second wave of COVID-19 struck India, it hit even the people who had sacrificed their all to the Colony, who are now cornered by the tallest statue and the mega dam, but no hospital to go to at Kevadia. While the local people in and around Kevadia colony have the dam and the statue, the nearest hospital catering to COVID-19 patients is far away at Rajpipla, and is overcrowded.
So, when one of the tallest Adivasi leaders of NBA Prabhubhai Tadvi felt breathless on April 27, 2021, a private doctor at Kevadia said his oxygen levels were falling to dangerous levels. Unfortunately, with no hospital nearby and the only one at Kevadia shut down, desperation and helplessness set in, and in the tumult that followed, Prabhubhai breathed his last soon after.
Not officially declared as Covid-19 casualty, but although one, Prabhubhai is most certainly a casualty of the Gujarat model he had been opposing all his life. This is the very essence of the Gujarat model, where there is the tallest statue in the world and one of the largest dams, called the life line of the state, all within a radius of few kilometres, on Adivasi lands, but there is no infrastructure to provide life support to the very Adivasis who lost their everything to this devastating model.
This piece is a tribute to Prabhubhai, a warrior who fought the skewed Gujarat model, which the rest of the country is waking up to only now, albeit only after paying a very heavy price.
Nandini Oza, currently the President of Oral History Association of India, was an activist with the Narmada Bachao Andolan. A researcher and writer, her books have been published both in English and Marathi. She can be contacted at: [email protected].