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Explained: Why there are protests over an eco-sensitive zone in Narmada district

Tribal communities have been protesting since the beginning of November, when the district administration served the first notice to execute the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) order.

Written by Aditi Raja , Edited by Explained Desk | Vadodara | Updated: December 31, 2020 1:38:55 pm
In Kevadia village, where SSNNL officials took over a land parcel in June this year. (Express Photo: Bhupendra Rana)

Mansukh Vasava, who represents the Bharuch parliamentary constituency, resigned from the BJP on Tuesday, days after he wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging him to withdraw the Centre’s notification classifying 121 villages around the Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary in Narmada district as eco-sensitive zones. In a U-turn a day later, Vasava said he would withdraw his resignation.

Tribal communities have been protesting against the notification since the beginning of November, when the district administration served the first notice to execute the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) order.

Vasava, in his letter to the Prime Minister, said tribals were apprehensive as they were “not taken into confidence”, and appealed to him to withdraw the notification to “mitigate the protests”.

Tribals, especially from the Tadvi and Vasava communities, have been on the edge ever since Kevadia, a sleepy village in Nandod taluka of Narmada district, was developed into a tourism circuit around the Statue of Unity.

Why are tribal communities protesting against the notification?

Firstly, as per the provisions of the notification, land falling in the eco-sensitive zone — including land belonging to the forest department, horticulture department, that used for agricultural use and plots reserved for parks — cannot be transferred for non-agricultural use for commercial, industrial or residential purposes. Any land that needs to be transferred can be done so only after approval from the state government.

Second, a process has been initiated to include the state government as the co-owner of the land in the 121 villages.

Third, the notification, combined with the formation of the Statue of Unity Area Development and Tourism Governance Authority, or Statue of Unity Tourism Authority (SoUTA), by the Gujarat government to govern Kevadia, which now has increased administrative needs owing to the booming tourism, has left tribals in a state of mistrust and fear. They feel the simultaneous implementation of the two government decisions could dilute the “power” vested with villagers under the Panchayat (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, implemented in areas notified under Schedule V of the Constitution.

Gora village Sarpanch Shanti Tadvi, who was the first to receive the notification, said, “We are not sure if this notification for the eco-sensitive zone is the first step in turning this pristine forest into something else. They have not taken us into confidence. We know the development of Kevadia for tourism happened against the will of the locals. The Ekta nursery (an allied project of SoU) and other government land in our village also belonged to our forefathers and were acquired by processes that illiterate villagers of those days could not understand. We are planning to move courts citing the Panchayat (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, but we are poor tribals who feel we will be defeated.”

Why are political leaders joining the protests?

Not just Mansukh Vasava, several former BJP MLAs from the tribal areas have also been vocal in their opposition against the eco-sensitive zone. Former MLA from Dediapada Assembly constituency, Motilal Vasava, who is also the BJP’s state leader for the tribal cell, had written to the sarpanches of the 121 villages to use the upcoming gram sabhas to pass resolutions against the government order to implement the MoEFCC notification. One of the reasons the tribal leaders are flexing their muscles is because of the upcoming panchayat and urban local body elections.

Bhartiya Tribal Party MLA from Jhagadia in Bharuch district, Chhotu Vasava, who had abstained from voting in the Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections in June, said, “Our contention with both political parties — BJP and Congress — is they are unwilling to implement the Schedule V and PESA in its entirety. Tribals are indigenous and cannot be shifted and shunted out of their homes the way they have been so far. The governments, in the name of development, have been grabbing lands of tribals and selling them off to multimillionaires. Our fight is against this planned elimination of the tribal identity. PESA empowers the tribes, but that power has not been handed over to the gram sabhas.”

Chhotu Vasava recently announced an alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi’s All-India Majilis e Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) to fight the upcoming polls.

What is PESA?

Gujarat notified the State PESA Rules in January 2017, applicable in 4,503 gram sabhas under 2,584 village panchayats in 50 tribal talukas in eight districts of the state. At an event held in the tribal district of Chhota Udepur, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani hailed the Act as the “golden period of tribal development, promising a separate security force for the gram sabhas that would have complete power to decide their issues.”

While the provisions of the law deem the gram sabhas as “most competent” to deal with matters related to their territories for safeguarding their customs, traditions as well as the natural resources in the tribal areas, the Act has not been enforced in letter and spirit, legal experts say.

Advocate Bhushan Oza, who has been representing tribal groups, said, “The PESA Act is totally rooted in the cultural and traditional practices of the tribal community and vests ultimate power to the gram sabha to make administrative decisions. But that is not the ground reality.”

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What is SoUTA? Does it contradict PESA?

The government passed the Statue of Unity Area Development and Tourism Governance Authority or the SoU Tourism Authority (SoUTA) Bill last year. The SoUTA has powers ranging from acquiring land for any development project to taking punitive action against those violating/encroaching it. The authority will define the limits of the tourism development area and will be empowered to acquire immovable property under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. It will largely work as a local body that will prepare and execute a development plan or a town planning scheme, remove encroachments and provide civic amenities like water supply, transportation, power supply, drainage, hospitals, medical services, schools, public parks, markets, shopping places, and disposal of waste, among others. The Bill sets aside Rs 10 crore from the consolidated fund of the state for the discharge of functions and duties by SoUTA.

The police, as per the Bill, can assist the authority in prohibiting “any nuisance being caused or prevent any such activity, process, the operation being carried out,” if it opines that it will damage or deteriorate the “tourism potentiality” of the area.

As per the Bill, “Expenses and costs incurred, if any, in removing or abating such nuisance, shall be recovered as an arrear of land revenue from the person who has caused such nuisance.” Persons who fail to comply with directions given by the authority shall be punishable with imprisonment for up to a month or with a fine up to Rs 50,000, or both. The offence will also be treated as “cognisable and non-bailable”. Persons authorised can enter any land or building between sunrise and sunset by giving its occupant a notice of at least 24 hours. The Bill also shields the proposed authority and its members from any legal proceeding or prosecution “for anything which is in good faith done or intended to be done in pursuance of the provisions of this Act or any rules or regulations made thereunder.”

In June this year, after the SSNNL finished fencing village farmlands that were in possession of their owners although the formal acquisition was made in 1961, the deputy director of Kevadia colony also formed teams to book villagers trespassing into the lands. As many as five cases have been booked so far.

While activists and legal experts feel the Act will overpower the provisions of PESA, officials say rules of SoUTA are yet to be clarified.

Last week, the General Administration Department of the Gujarat government for the first time opened management positions for SoUTA with 201 stipulated vacancies at various levels to look after the future requirements of the town, including revenue, law and order, administrative, medical, town planning, fire and emergency services, solid waste management and sanitation. The SoUTA, that will designate the area under it as a separate governance unit, will be led by a CEO, who will be assisted by two deputy district collectors as well as officers for revenue, health, tourism, fire safety and town planning.

The Gujarat government’s position

The Gujarat government has decided to go ahead with its plan to formalise the creation of the new authority for the SoU, which has been aggressively marketed as a tourism destination. On December 23, the state government announced details of SoUTA, where the first circle will include administrators for the Statue of Unity, Shreshth Bharat Bhavan, Gora bridge navigation channel, Jetty service and overall maintenance of the complex.

The second circle will include the administrators for all other projects around SoU.

Each of the two circles will have 112 employees including two supervisory engineers, an executive engineer (civil) and executive engineer (electrical). “As many as 61 existing officials from the SSNNL have been deputed into the SoUTA, along with their offices. Close to 51 other officials will soon be inducted to take the total strength to 201 personnel for the operation and maintenance, water supply, sewage lines, roads, parking, lights as well as the decorative lighting in the area of 25 sq metres of Kevadia colony,” the release said.

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