On Wednesday afternoon, long after Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the 182-metre statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and left Kevadia in Gujarat’s Narmada district, the state police gradually released nearly 300 activists who had been detained a day before the grand event. The activists – many of them Adivasi farmers – had planned to protest against the statue for which their land and farms had been taken over. The government responded by jailing them for a day in police stations across the district and deploying an army of special police forces for security at the inauguration.

With dissidents locked away, Modi unveiled the Rs 3,000-crore Statue of Unity – the tallest statue in the world – on freedom fighter Vallabhbhai Patel’s birth anniversary, declaring it a historical day for India. At the base of the statue, he also inaugurated a museum, an audio-visual gallery and a “Wall of Unity”, all aimed at create a new tourism hotspot. By 1 pm, the speeches were over and the dignitaries had left.

But for the Adivasi farmers who had been detained, the long-term impact of the grand statue cannot be wished away as easily.

Lakhan Musafir, an activist from Garudeshwar village whose house is 8 km away from the statue, was among 24 other Adivasis detained for 20 hours in the block’s Pipaliya police station. When Scroll.in spoke to Musafir after his release on Wednesday afternoon, he explained why villagers are angry. The statue, for them, is a colossal waste of public money – a product of Modi’s personal desire for a lasting legacy – built at the cost of Adivasi rights.

Water for tourism, not irrigation

The Statue of Unity in Kevadia has been built in the Narmada river, a few kilometres downstream from the Sardar Sarovar Dam that has already displaced more than two lakh people in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Kevadia and its surrounding villages in Narmada district are a part of South Gujarat’s tribal or Adivasi belt, which stands to lose the most once the government completes the tourism zone it has envisioned in the stretch between the Sardar Sarovar Dam and the statue.

In the tourism zone, farmlands and Adivasi homes will be replaced by a “valley of flowers”, a “Tent City”, guest houses for every state, hotels and a boating lake. To make this possible, the government has almost completed the construction of a weir (a low dam across the river) at Garudeshwar, around 6 km from Kevadia. Once the weir is built, water from the Sardar Sarovar Dam will be released to fill up a portion of the region.

Six villages near Garudeshwar have already lost land to the weir. Once the weir is complete, land in seven more villages on both sides of the river will be submerged.

“These are villages that have been asking for Narmada canal water for irrigation for years,” said Lakhan Musafir. “We have always faced water problems and if the government really cared, they could have extended the canal to include all of our villages in the dam’s command area. But they have no political will to really give us what we need.”

Activist Lakhan Musafir (centre) right after being released from police detention on October 31. Photo courtesy: Michael Mazgaonkar
Activist Lakhan Musafir (centre) right after being released from police detention on October 31. Photo courtesy: Michael Mazgaonkar

Submerged without warning

Experience with displacement has taught villagers of the region that the government cannot be relied upon to provide commensurate compensation. In the 1990s, when 19 villages in Narmada district were displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam project and officially recognised as project-affected, villagers were given alternative plots of land. “But they were forced to disperse far away, in places that have still not been provided with basic water and other amenities,” said Musafir. “For many farmers, their homes are now far away from their farms.”

The insensitivity towards farmers was on display once again during preparations for the unveiling of the Statue of Unity on October 31. “In order to fill up water in the canal around the statue, the government released water from the dam without any warning to the villages near Garudeshwar weir,” said Musafir. At least 30 farmers in two or three villages lost their harvest, he said, all for the sake of picturesque photos of the statue in the media. “Couldn’t the government at least have warned farmers about this in advance? If this is the case now, what will they do once the weir is completed? They want the whole area filled up with water so they can do boating.”

In addition to land lost to the weir, six villages around Garudeshwar also lost acres of land in last month when the government widened the access road leading to the Statue of Unity. When villagers protested the demolishing of homes, shops and water pipelines in these villages last week, they were lathi-charged by the police. Displaced villagers, said Musafir, have now been forced to settle in temporary homes a kilometre away.

People’s participation

As a witness to the suffering of fellow Adivasi farmers, Musafir does not mince words in his assessment of the new “tallest statue in the world”.

“This project has no benefit whatsoever for the people living here,” he said. “Even the little employment they are promising to give locals will be on a contract basis. The government is only concerned about tourism profit, but shouldn’t a tourism project involve participation of the local people? Modi is doing this for himself, for his own immortality so that he can tell people that he built the biggest statue in the world. And he is doing it for the big companies.”

Musafir believes the government would not have meted out such mistreatment to farmers and local villagers if they had not been Adivsai. “If this was Patidar land instead of Adivasi land, they would not have dared to do this. But they think that Adivasis will not speak, and that’s why we have been protesting,” he said.