Protests over an Eco-Sensitive Zone in Narmada district

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Recently, tribal communities in Gujarat have been protesting against the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) order classifying 121 villages around the Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary in Narmada district as eco-sensitive zones.

Tribal communities have been protesting against the notification since the beginning of November, 2020. Tribals, especially from the Tadvi and Vasava communities, have been on the edge ever since Kevadia, a sleepy village in Nandod taluka of Narmada district, was developed into a tourism circuit around the Statue of Unity.

 

Reasons for the protest :-

  • Land falling in the eco-sensitive zone, including land used for agricultural use and plots reserved for parks, cannot be transferred for non-agricultural use for commercial, industrial or residential purposes.
  • Any land that needs to be transferred can be done so only after approval from the state government.
  • A process has been initiated to include the state government as the co-owner of the land in the 121 villages.
  • Increased administrative needs owing to the booming tourism, has left tribals in a state of mistrust and fear.
  • The simultaneous implementation of the two government decisions could dilute the “power” vested with villagers under the Panchayat (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, implemented in areas notified under Schedule V of the Constitution.

 

Panchayat (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 :-

  • Gujarat notified the State PESA Rules in January 2017, applicable in 4,503 gram sabhas in eight districts of the state.
  • The Act promised a separate security force for the gram sabhas that would have complete power to decide their issues.
  • The provisions of the law deem the gram sabhas as “most competent” to deal with matters related to their territories for safeguarding their customs, traditions as well as the natural resources in the tribal areas.
  • The Act has not been enforced in letter and spirit, according to legal experts.

The government passed the SoU Area Development and Tourism Governance Authority or the SoU Tourism Authority (SoUTA) Bill in 2019. The Bill sets aside Rs. 10 crore from the consolidated fund of the state for the discharge of functions and duties by SoUTA. While activists and legal experts feel the Act will overpower the provisions of PESA, officials say rules of SoUTA are yet to be clarified. It will largely work as a local body that will prepare and execute a development plan or a town planning scheme, remove encroachments and provide civic amenities like water supply, transportation, power supply, drainage, hospitals, medical services, schools, public parks, markets, shopping places, and disposal of waste among others.

 

The powers provided through this act include- :-

  • Acquiring immovable property under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.
  • Taking punitive action against those violating/encroaching it. Defining the limits of the tourism development area. Persons authorised can enter any land or building between sunrise and sunset by giving its occupant a notice of at least 24 hours.
  • Shields the authority and its members from any legal proceeding or prosecution for anything which is in good faith done or intended to be done in pursuance of the provisions of this Act or any rules or regulations made thereunder.

The Gujarat government has decided to go ahead with its plan to formalise the creation of the new authority for the SoU, which has been aggressively marketed as a tourism destination. the state government announced details of SoUTA, where the first circle will include administrators for the Statue of Unity, Shreshth Bharat Bhavan, Gora bridge navigation channel, Jetty service and overall maintenance of the complex. The second circle will include the administrators for all other projects around SoU.