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Last year on 31st October 2018when the India was celebrating the inauguration of Statue of Unity 75,000 strong crowd was protesting the event by deciding to fast for the whole day. This crowd comprised of residents from Kevadiya, Garudeshwar and other surrounding villages.They protesting against the Gujarat and the central government for violating their tribal rights. Despite holding protests in a peaceful manner these people were being harassed, thrashed and arrested by the Gujarat Police for fighting for their lands and titles and for exercising their right under articles 19 of the Indian constitution.

Background

The statue is located in the Narmada district of Gujarat and is situated right behind the Sardar Sarovar Dam. It is surrounded by Garudeshwar Weir dam which was constructed for beautification purpose in order to boost tourism. It is built in the memory of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who is credited along with V.P. Menon for unifying the 552 independent provinces under the suzerainty of British crown with the territory directly under the British rule, to form modern day India. However not everybody celebrated the inauguration of the statue. There has been thousands of people, including tribal leaders, villagers, farmers, environmentalist, activist etc.who have been voicing their discontent ever since the project was announced.  The reason for their outcry is the environmental and social cost, apart from ₹3,000 Crores that were spent to complete the project, that this project has and will extract.

Why tribal community is protesting?

The statue has been built over 2 hectares of land. And the Garudeshwar Weir dam has been built to createand sustain a 12 km long artificial reservoir. However, the most astonishing part about this dam is that it does not provide any irrigation benefits, is not used to generate electricity and does not contribute towards flood control as well. Its only purpose is to provide a nice background for photography and to provide boating facility to boost tourism.However, in order to provide these inconsequential benefits a huge amount of fertile and irrigable land has been destroyed and thousands of people belonging to tribal community have been displaced. They were promised that in exchange for their lands they will receive compensation, jobs and an alternative land. However, till date only compensation has been provided as per the rehabilitation package.

Around 72 villages in which approximately 75,000 people reside have been directly affected by the project. Their leaders have been subject to harassment, arrests and police beating, whenever they have raised their voices to make the administration accountable for their promises. Administration as per their age-old tradition has turned deaf on their pleas and outcries.

The day on which the statue was inaugurated (31st October, 2018)people from all the 72 tribal villages decided to protest the event bynot cooking food for the whole day. Traditionally, tribal community doesn’t cook food only if they mourning for a dead person. However, even this most elementary form of protest was suppressed by the brute police forceeven though these people did not create any ruckus and did not hijack any public place.They were simply protesting behind the doors of their homesin the most peaceful manner and yet they were rounded up by the Gujarat police.

This form of suppression is not just restrictedto this one instance. Every timebefore any Union minister, State leader or a party member belonging to current government makes visit to the statue the tribal leaders representing the villagers/protestors areapprehendedand thrown in jail either without any charge or on false charges.

And on to of this all each state has been invited to build Bhawan near the statue as a way of paying respect to Sardar Patel, which will require more land and will lead to further displacement of the villagers.

Why Environmentalists are protesting?

The entire project has also been completed at a huge environmental cost and has doneirreversible damage to the surrounding flora and fauna as well. There are many instances to support this statement. The rocks on the bed of the reservoir were blasted using land mines in order for tourists to have unperturbed boating experience. This area was housed a crocodile nest, population of around 500, all of whom were airlifted and shifted to god knows where.Also post the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and Gurudeshwar Dam the ecology around downstream river has been destroyed. A highway, 90 Km long, was constructed connecting Dabhoi and the Statue, despite a road already being present. For construction of the highway thousands of trees were pruned on both side of the road.

How Vallabhbhai Patel would have felt about the statue

Now think from the point of view of Sardar Patel, someone who dedicated his entire life selflessly serving the people of this country, would he had accepted statue made in his memory if he knew that, its construction would led to displacement of thousands of poor tribes who have nowhere else to go, and would result in destruction of the local environment. Would he had accepted this “honor” knowing that an average farmer in Gujarat who is reeling under crop failure, bad debts, finds no way out of his miseriesother than taking his own life. The state which is facing severe drought conditions does it makes sense to a form a 12Km long reservoir which has resulted in submergence of fertile land thereby making it unfruitful forever. Does is make sense to spend ₹3,000 Cr. on a statue where an average Gujarat farmer earns only ₹3,573 a month which is one-third of the income of farmers in states like Haryana and Punjab.

Those who take such decisions like building statues to honor the legacy of our foregone national leaders, should think whether these great personalities would have appreciated their decisions to spend millions and millions of rupees where per capita income of an average Indian is only $8,484 and where education and health sector is in apathetic state, where caste based discrimination is stillpracticed, and where people belonging to a particular community are singled out and lynched publicly on a mere suspicion.

Way Forward

400Kms far away in Mumbai another such statue is being built, at a cost of ₹3000 Crores, to honor Chhatrapati Shivaji Bhonsle, the king of the Maratha Empire. Again, those who took this decision need to rethink whether Shivaji had accepted this honor knowing the abject condition of his people and on realizing that this money can be spent improve the standard of living of the people he fought for.

The only way I see to honor our national leaders, freedom fighters and warrior kings is by following their values and working towards building the nation that they always dreamt off. Statues and memorials are materialistic things which don’t contribute towards development of the people.

Devesh Kumar is a a final year student at IIM Ahmedabad


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