Tourism over tribal livelihoods

Questions over Prime Minister Narendra Modi's seaplane ride

Print edition : December 04, 2020

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurates the seaplane service to the Statue of Unity in Kevadia from the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad on October 31. Photo: Gujarat Information Department/AFP

The first seaplane carrying Narendra Modi as it landed on the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad on October 31. Photo: Ajit Solanki/AP

The recently launched seaplane service at the Statue of Unity in Kevadia, Gujarat, flouts the Centre’s Environment Impact Assessment notification 2006 and reflects the State government’s priority of promoting tourism over tribal livelihoods.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew on the inaugural flight of the seaplane service from the Sabarmati waterfront in Ahmedabad to the Statue of Unity in Kevadia, Narmada district, Gujarat, on October 31, it was in violation of the Centre’s Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2006.

The 182-metre-tall Statue of Unity, constructed at a cost of Rs.2,989 crore, has proved to be a popular destination ever since its inauguration on October 31, 2018. However, its very construction wrecked the local ecology and economy. Local people lost their homes, farms and fishing rights, which were compensated for only meagrely. Meanwhile, tourism revenue generated by the statue till date has been about Rs.83 crore.
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To facilitate ease of access for tourists, and as an added attraction, the Gujarat government and the Ministry of Civil Aviation launched a 45-minute seaplane service from Ahmedabad to the statue. (By road, this distance of 256 kilometres takes about five hours.) If the construction of the statue rode roughshod over the local people and their livelihoods, the seaplane service, too, has flouted the EIA notification 2006. Two water aerodromes were built for the launch of the service at the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad and the Panchmukhi Lake (Lake 3) of the Sardar Sarovar Dam at Limdi village in Narmada district. This was done despite the fact that their environmental clearance is still pending with the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).

To obtain an environmental clearance, an application is made to the EAC, which decides the specific terms of reference for each project. An EIA is conducted over two seasons and then submitted to the MoEFCC and to the State’s Pollution Control Board along with an environment management plan. If the terms of reference include a public hearing, the pollution control board issues advertisements calling for public responses within a 30-day period. The public hearing itself needs to be recorded on video and sent to the MoEFCC. The EAC then debates the issues raised during the public hearing and concludes whether or not to give environmental clearance.
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According to the environmental activist Rohit Prajapati, this procedure is still ongoing in the case of the water aerodromes. Only two EAC meetings have been held so far. However, the floating jetties were built and the flight service was inaugurated before the study could be completed.

According to Rohit Prajapati, the minutes of both meetings, held in April and August, show that the EAC had inserted a clause saying a public hearing was necessary for the two water aerodrome sites, given that they will affect “air, water and aquatic biodiversity”. No such public hearing had been held until October 31 when the flight took off with the Prime Minister on board. Neither was any EIA or environment management plan submitted to the Ministry of Environment or the Gujarat State Pollution Board.

Citing the minutes of the April meeting, Rohit Prajapati said: “Public hearing is to be conducted. Issues raised during public hearing and commitments made by the project proponent on such issues should be included in final EIA/EMP Report [environmental impact assessment and environmental management plan] in the form of tabular chart with financial budget for complying with such commitments.”

The same points were made at the August meeting. Quoting further, Rohit Prajapati said the EAC felt such public hearings were necessary because “the water aerodrome is not a listed project/activity in the Schedule to the EIA Notification, 2006 and its amendments. However, a view has been taken by this EAC that the activities proposed under water aerodrome project may have similar type of impact as that of the airport. Considering water aerodromes are emerging in the country as new mode of transport involving sea/river fronts and its likely impacts on water, air and aquatic biodiversity including flora and fauna, the EAC has also taken a view to follow the EC [environmental clearance] process as per category A of item 7(a) ‘Air Ports’ of the Schedule to the EIA Notification, 2006.”

While public hearings are essential at both water aerodrome sites, there is a special urgency for the one at Panchmukhi lake near the Statue of Unity. Once a pristine wilderness, this site now has hotels, malls, a “tent city” and recreational activities such as boating, jungle safaris, ecotourism, adventure sports and so on. Fields and scrubland have been replaced by artificial gardens with exotic plants. Tribal communities who farmed and fished to eke out a living find themselves labelled encroachers on their own land.

Many of these people had been living on land acquired in the 1960s for the Sardar Sarovar Dam, upstream of the Statue of Unity. After the initial acquisition, plans changed and the dam was moved a few kilometres upstream. So some acquired land was not used and was not submerged. But at no point was the land officially returned to the people. However, they continued to live and farm on their acquired land for decades until some years ago when the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited, the body that administers the dam and the statue, tried to reclaim it for constructing subsidiary activities around the statue.
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The tribal communities argued that the land had been acquired for a dam, not for a statue. In July 2019, they obtained a stay order from the Gujarat High Court but in May, during the lockdown, the High Court lifted the stay.

This move has dealt the tribal communities of Kevadia a double blow. Not only are they likely to lose their land, homes and livelihoods, but since their land was never used for the dam, they are not categorised as Project Affected Persons and are thus not eligible for the compensations offered under that category. Instead they have been offered lumpsum payments that do not reflect the current market value of their land.

A new residential colony is being built for them, but the tribal communities say they are uncomfortable with it since it includes neither their cattle nor their need to stay close to the forest. These people now exist in a grey zone made murkier by the High Court saying that it will decide on the land dispute if the tribal farmers approach the court as individual petitioners, an unlikely proposition since they lack the means and the know-how to do this as individuals.

The government further cemented its position in December last year by enacting the Statue of Unity Area Development and Tourism Governance Act. The Act proposes to create a Tourism Development Authority for the area, and overrides local gram sabhas who will have no say in the development of the area. Recognising the Bill as a means to take over tribal land, Jignesh Mevani, independent MLA from Vadgam, had burnt a copy of the Bill, but his was a lone voice. It was passed by other members of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly.
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