The Gujarat High Court has ordered status quo on land acquisition for tourism projects near the Statue of Unity in Narmada district till further orders, PTI reported on Thursday.

The court also asked the state government not to evict Adivasis in six villages near the 182-metre statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, which is located close to the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada. The six villages are – Kevadiya, Vagadiya, Navagam, Limbdi, Kothi and Gora.

A bench of acting Chief Justice AS Dave and Justice Biren Vaishnav passed the directives after going through the public interest litigation plea filed by environmental scientist and activist Mahesh Pandya. The court served notices to the Gujarat government and Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited. The case has been posted for hearing on August 21.

In his petition, Pandya alleged that the state government and Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited wanted to evict around 5,000 Adivasis “under the guise of tourism development projects without following due procedure under the Land Acquisition Act”.

The government claimed that the land in question was already acquired in the 1960s when the Sardar Sarovar Dam was coming up. However, the petitioner claimed that the villagers retained the possession of the land as the authorities had never used it. He argued that original acquisition had already lapsed and for the last 58 years the land had remained with the Adivasis.

“Though the respondents [government and SSNNL] have large tracts of unused land at all such villages, they want these tribals to shift elsewhere,” the petition read. “Once the acquisition has lapsed, the respondents have no right, title, or interest in the land in question.”

Large-scale displacement

The Statue of Unity is in Kevadia, 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 Adivasi belt, which stands to lose the most once the government completes the tourism zone it has envisioned in the stretch between the dam and the statue.

The police in Gujarat had arrested several Adivasi activists before Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the statue in October.

Farmers and Adivasi activists had also threatened protests on the day of the inauguration to demand compensation for the land used to build the statue, and called the project a waste of people’s money. 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.