Gujarat’s Statue of Unity is a threat to the ecology and tribal communities in its vicinity, and it is not the only danger to them, writes SUHIT K SEN.
Six time Member of Parliament, Mansukh Vasava of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) resigned from the party on 29 December 2020 over a Union government notification that he said would adversely impact tribal communities in the Narmada basin. The next day, he retracted his resignation after a meeting with Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani. But the issues raised by him in the first place are not going to go away.
A week before that, Vasava had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking the withdrawal of a circular issued by the Union Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) notifying 121 villages, populated mainly by tribal communities, as an “eco-sensitive zone” where farming and forest-related activities would be curtailed, harming the interests of tribal people and farmers. Government officials, he had written, were harassing them, while seeking Modi’s intervention for the withdrawal of the circular.
Vasava had written that officials were using the notification to interfere “in the private properties of tribal people”, who had not been taken into confidence and were preparing for a “mass protest”.
These 121 villages are located in the vicinity of the Statue of Unity—the world’s largest statue, depicting Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and built at a cost of Rs.2,989 crore. Modi has been personally interested in developing the area into an “international tourist destination”.
Vasava had written that officials were using the notification to interfere “in the private properties of tribal people”, who had not been taken into confidence and were preparing for a “mass protest”. Last Tuesday, he had sent his resignation to the Gujarat BJP chief, saying he did not want the image of the party to be damaged by his mistakes and announced his intention to resign as Member of Parliament. Curiously, when he retracted his resignation on Wednesday, these issues were not referred at all.
Nevertheless, Vasava’s U-turn does not sweep away the fact that tribal people in these villages have been passing resolutions through their traditional “gram sabhas” against the MoEFCC notification. They have also begun preparing for a mass protest, compelling Dediapada BJP legislator Motilal Vasava to write letters to tribal village headmen supporting the resolutions.
The movement against the notification began in early November, when the district administration served the first notice in respect of the MoEFCC order. There are several issues to be kept in mind. First, the order flies in the face of the Panchayat (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996, which empowers gram sabhas in designated areas to be self-governing in respect of customary resources, minor forest produce, minor minerals, minor water bodies, selection of beneficiaries, sanction of projects, and control over local institutions. It mandates the sanction of the communities affected by proposed projects.
Nevertheless, Vasava’s U-turn does not sweep away the fact that tribal people in these villages have been passing resolutions through their traditional “gram sabhas” against the MoEFCC notification.
The affected villagers apprehend that the notification is the first step towards encroachment of pristine forests and will adversely affect their livelihoods. They are planning to move to the court, but given the balance of power and the prevailing political economy, are not optimistic of judicial redressal.
These apprehensions are not misplaced given the record of the Union government. At this point, as a matter of fact, a movement is being mobilised in Goa against a trinity of “infrastructure” projects that would destroy the fragile and biodiverse ecosystem in the Western Ghats.
In April last year, the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBW) cleared the doubling of a railway track, the expansion of a highway, and the installation of a new power transmission line. These will pass through Mollem National Park and the adjoining Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary, together spread over 240 sq. km. The projects will splinter the sanctuaries by diverting 378 hectares of land and cutting some 40,000 trees. The two sanctuaries are host to several endangered wildlife species, including the pangolin, Bengal tigers, black panthers, and a great diversity of endemic species of flora and fauna, including the gaur (Indian bison), Goa’s state animal.
At this point, as a matter of fact, a movement is being mobilised in Goa against a trinity of “infrastructure” projects that would destroy the fragile and biodiverse ecosystem in the Western Ghats.
The projects are illegal on several counts, but have been approved, citing the old chestnuts of public and national interests. Affected villagers and advocacy groups in Goa have been protesting against these projects and litigation has been initiated both in the Bombay High Court and before a committee of the Supreme Court, but work on the railway tracks has already begun.
Apart from the ecological concerns, citizens of Goa also feel that these projects, especially those related to the railway tracks and the highways, have been rammed down their throats by the Centre for a purpose that will bring little benefit to the state: the increased transportation of coal from Goa’s Mormugao Port to the steel mills in Karnataka.
What is evident from the above instances are two important features of governance, evident since 2014: first, is the penchant for unilateralism and reign by fiat rather than consultation, consensus, and a respect for due process and statutory process of obtaining appropriate sanctions, by the infringement of the provisions of PESA; and, second, disregard for the rights of forest-dwellers, mostly tribal people, and environmental concerns, manifested in the short-circuiting of due process, to enable “development” projects.
The projects are illegal on several counts, but have been approved, citing the old chestnuts of public and national interests.
The first flows, of course, from Modi’s authoritarianism. His contempt for procedures and institutions, especially evident in the manner of passing the three farm laws which could well prove this regime’s nemesis, has been on display more times than can comfortably be counted. Demonetization, the rushed passage of the Goods and Services Tax, the imposition of a national lockdown at four hours’ notice, the manner in which the unconstitutional Citizenship (Amendment) Act was passed, the revocation of Article 370 and its aftermath, together testify not just Modi and his government’s absolutism, but also an addiction for grandstanding.
As for a studious disregard for environmental and ecological concerns, the foregoing instances top a long litany of malfeasance. One important initiative has been the draft Environment Impact Assessment policy issued in May under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, which seeks to significantly water down the 2006 rules, making it easier for the government and private sector to implement projects without environmental scrutiny. It contravenes existing legislation and constitutional provisions.
One observer has noted that theNBW, which is supposed to convene once a year, has not done so even once since Modi came to power in 2014. Its standing committee did, however, meet for the first time in April this year to clear 30 projects, 16 of them passing through national parks, sanctuaries and other eco-sensitive zones.
To be fair, the two previous United Progressive Alliance’s record was not exactly burnished, but the first minister for environment, Jairam Ramesh in the UPA II government, made strenuous efforts to ensure compliance with environmental regulations, earning the disfavour of his ministerial colleagues. His successor, Jayanthi Natarajan, too, made an effort. The Modi government’s environment ministers, Prakash Javadekar, Harsh Vardhan and the late Anil Madhav Dave, have been indifferent, when not hostile, to environmental and ecological concerns.
One observer has noted that the NBW, which is supposed to convene once a year, has not done so even once since Modi came to power in 2014. Its standing committee did, however, meet for the first time in April this year to clear 30 projects, 16 of them passing through national parks, sanctuaries and other eco-sensitive zones.
One would have thought that the COVID-19 pandemic and the rekindled focus on the threat of zoonotic diseases would have given the government a pause in its relentless invasion of wildlife habitats. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.
(Suhit K Sen is a freelance journalist and researcher. The views are personal. The article was first published by Newsclick.)