Anant Patel, 45, successfully led the agitation to block the Par Tapi Narmada river-linking project announced in the Union Budget. A former sarpanch who won his first Assembly election in 2017 to become the Congress MLA from Vansda, Patel belongs to the Dodhia tribe. Contesting from the Vansda seat for the second time, Patel speaks about the Adivasi vs Vanvasi debate, how development has not reached the Adivasis, and why joining politics was important for him.
PATEL: Adivasi. Rahul Gandhi also said it. When the whole world knows us as Adivasi, indigenous people, a (distinction) is being created that while adivasi means someone from adi-kaal (ancient times), vanvasi means one who lives in the forest… Like Rahul Gandhi said, Adivasis are the original owners of the land. These RSS people, BJP people don’t think like that. They feel that all the resources are in the Adivasi area – jal, jungle, zameen – and how to take these away by calling them Vanvasi.
Now the Mumbai-Delhi corridor is also passing through Unai, so is the Bharatmala (road development) project. The Surat-Ahmednagar-Chennai road passes through 23 villages here. All these projects are going past the 14 districts of Adivasis.
PATEL: In Kevadia, they said there is so much development and that Adivasis will get employment. But what do they mean by employment? Changing sheets of a hotel room or doing the dishes is employment? We don’t want such employment where the Adivasi has to change the sheets, wash dishes or sweep the floor. Take Saputara, all seven villages were displaced to Navagam, which has no panchayat. So they have no rights to vote for the taluka or zilla panchayat.
PATEL: I am not talking about the Congress or the BJP. I am talking about Adivasis. So, do you want to continue the same thing or bring about some change? The Congress at least gave us land. They made us farmers, farm labourers. These people talk about stealing your land… No hotel owner in Saputara is an Adivasi. If you acquire so much land, at least give hotels to 25 Adivasis to run… In these 27 years, the BJP has not done anything good for the Adivasis. In February 2017, they brought in the PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act), but in a weaker form than the 1996 law.
How do you say that?
PATEL: All the power of the gram sabhas was taken away. They only have the power to decide on timru (used in Ayurveda products) leaves and honey harvesting. Earlier the gram sabha could clear projects that came up on village land; in any police case, what the gram sabha said was final… (Now) in 23 villages, gram sabhas have said they don’t want the Bharatmala project, yet they have finalised it… The Surat-Ahmednagar-Chennai road was to pass through Surat, but because Surat is so developed, they are diverting it via Navsari. They don’t want to disturb the cities.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched his campaign from Kaprada, he said that for him, A is for Adivasi.
PATEL: So, should we eat that to survive? What is the meaning of that? A for Adivasi, then A for Adani, and A is for Anant (Patel) too. What is the benefit to us?
The PM also said that projects like the Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana give opportunities to Adivasis…
PATEL: Is there a single English-medium school in villages except Eklavya schools? They closed 6,000 schools in the name of merging, of which 58 were in Vansda. We took out rallies and did not allow even one to close. There was a secondary school in Kurelia. They have built a compound, a hostel, there is a cook, but the school has not started as there is no teacher….
PATEL: Nearly 50,000 families would have got displaced. Not only that our culture, hopes and identity would go. There is a sizeable leopard population (in the area), and Asia’s largest spider species. When the Narmada dam was still to be built, bears would come to the area, but no longer… We worked hard to flatten the hilly terrain for farming, and now will we allow it to get submerged? We have demanded a white paper (on the project).
It will always be the case that a water-rich region will provide for an arid area. What is the solution?
PATEL: You take water for drinking, we have no problem. But not for industries… Why build Sardar Vallabhbhai statue in Kevadia, evacuate 33 villages? Why break up villages? Why build hotels to develop a place?
PATEL: Isn’t Medha Patkar a citizen of the country? If I am doing an andolan (agitation), and a BJP minister comes, should I tell them to leave? This is Bharat Jodo Yatra, it is not under a banner, Rahul Gandhi is just leading it. It is not a Congress yatra.
… Anybody who tries to do good for Adivasis, their image is slowly distorted. I don’t know if I will still be alive (by then), but they might call me Naxalite in a few days.
After former CM Amarsinh Chaudhary, there has been no tribal leader. Why is that?
PATEL: No party allows a (tribal) leader to rise, the Congress included. But so far (in my party), nobody has stopped me from doing anything. I have told them that for me, samaj (community) is first, and the party second. I will not leave the party, but samaj comes first. Were I not from the Adivasi samaj, would I have got a mandate here? I don’t fight from a general seat, that I have to follow what the party says.
The Congress had won 17 of the 27 tribal seats last time (two in alliance with Bharatiya Tribal Party), but six of the MLAs defected to BJP. Were you also approached?
PATEL: The problem with political parties is that those who get elected, don’t leave their seats till they die. If they leave, only then can youths get a chance. So if you want a party to come to power, this kind of churn on its own is good.
PATEL: I became a leader from the party. I believe that any leader, if he wants to do something for their community, be it Hardik (Patel), Jignesh (Mevani) or Alpesh (Thakor), it is very necessary that they join a political party. If the party forms the government, they can get work done. Before I got to the Vidhan Sabha in 2017, I thought it was not necessary that a samajik leader is a (political) leader. But that is not the case. When you reach the Assembly and something wrong happens with your samaj, you can raise your voice… I said this to Jignesh, and only after that did he come to the Congress. I said this to Hardik and also Alpesh… You cannot be two-faced. If you don’t join an andolan (agitation), and demand a ticket in the name of the community and fight on reserved seats, how does that work either?
PATEL: The implementation of the 1996 PESA and Schedule 5 (giving special rights), big-ticket projects that damage the environment and cause displacement, Adivasi identity, employment.
PATEL: The identity of the Adivasi is the same, he still has his feet on the ground, he still grows paddy. No matter how much I tell my father to sow sugarcane, he will grow paddy, even if it is one bigha… That has not changed even if he follows Christianity. His sanskriti is the same.