By Sujit Choudhury
The world’s tallest statue the ‘Statue of Unity’ was inaugurated by Prime Minister nearly sometimes back with huge publicity in Kevadiya, near Sardar Sarovar Dam in Narmada District. In the same day hundreds of villagers of 73 tribal villages in and around Narmada district did not cook as protest and bandh was also observed in many villages in the region. As usual the displaced tribal villagers of the statue site did not receive adequate compensation for displacement till date but the project has been completed in record time.
The selection of the statue location near Sardar Sarovar Dam, in Narmada District raises many questions. Mr. Narendra Modi initiated the project during his tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujrat, but it is not clear why Narmada District is the most suitable place for such a grand statue. Gujrat has a long coastline, Porebandar or Dwarka would have been given better visibility to people even ships going Karachi could have seen the World’s tallest statue. Gujrat also has modern Cities like Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Gandhinagar, Surat, Rajkot where the visibility of the statue would have been much higher, still the statue is far away from large cities and Ahmadabad itself is 4 hours journey from the statue. Now if we look at the district closely, then we notice that nearly 82% of the population of Narmada district is tribal and in fact there are very few districts in India having more tribal concentration than this district. Maybe it is less problematic to displace weaker tribal people than other powerful group in society. The tribal villages of Narmada valley are continuously being displaced by the Narmada Valley Development Project, the single largest river development project in India. Nearly 1.5 million people are affected by this project who mostly belong to the tribal population. This statue near the same site as the last large dam the Sardar Sarovar dam of the project, added further agony to the tribal people of Narmada Valley.
Though India’s ruling class is trying to erase the memories of foreign invaders, they themselves are invading the lands of the people who are the true inheritors of this country and this has a pattern. For thousands of years the tribal in this country have been bearing the burden of the upper cast and now in modern times they are bearing the brunt of development. In India the exploitation on our tribal community has been institutionalized since thousands of years. In upper cast dominated Indian social hierarchy they were characterized as the lowermost strata of the society as ‘Shudra’ along with Dalits, who will work hard to serve the entire upper cast in the society. Till sixteenth century our tribal societies could keep their identity intact in the natural forests and were much better off than today due to lower population, less connectivity and a different production system.
Since the sixteenth century colonial period in India, various tribes become source of labour for the powerful colonial production system; they were the miners of coal, iron ore and other mines and laborers in cash crop like tea and coffee plantations. Their habitats, the vast tropical forests become products of the colonial production system and with rapid deforestation they were gradually losing their habitat. They were the ones who first revolted against the British exploitation and tyranny but in present time when people are trying to correct history they have conveniently forgotten Tilka Majhi the first martyr of India’s freedom struggle.
During the independence movement, the educated political class deeply influenced by individual freedom, democratic rights, equality had brought some hope to the large number of tribal population of India. Jaipal Singh, the captain of India’s 1925 Olympic Gold medal winning Hockey team, Oxford University blue, was from the Munda tribe. He represented tribal people in the Constituent Assembly and his views about tribal aspirations influenced Congress leadership deeply. Sardar Patel told the Constituent Assembly that, “I would like to make one thing clear – is it the intention of people who defend the cause of the tribals to keep the tribals permanently in their present state? I do not think it is in their present state? I do not think it is in their interest to do so. I think it would be our endeavor to bring the tribal people to the level of Mr. Jaipal Singh.” It is ironical that after 70 years of independence, the statue of Sardar Patel has been built the middle of poor tribal villages in one of the most backwards districts of Gujrat.
Though the Indian State aspires to be the most powerful economy in the world, it’s true indigenous population, the tribal are the most economically backward community. As per 2011 census 8.6% of our total population is ST. With rapid urbanization 31.16% of our population is now living in cities and towns whereas ST population is only 2.4 % of total urban population. In all government jobs even with all the reservation controversy only 4.37% are ST. The reasons are obvious, mainly abysmal standard of education and health facilities in Tribal dominated regions. In the tenth five year plan preparation document, 2001, it was stated that from 1951 to 1990, when India’s GDP was growing very slowly at ‘Hindu rate’ of growth, during that period 8.3 million tribal were displaced in different development projects like Dams, Reservoirs, Mines, National parks, Sanctuaries and other development activities like infrastructure building, industry and township development etc.
After independence the tribal dominated areas of Central and North East India were brought under the fifth and sixth schedule of constitution to protect the tribal land and ensure reservations in educational Institutions and Govt. jobs. But with every passing decades with more and more development their lands, forests, rivers are destroyed with many of them becoming ecological refugees in their own land. After 1991 with economic liberalization and high economic growth, this destruction intensified. Tribal dominated Jharkhand State was created in 2000, India’s one of the most mineral rich state at the same time most impoverished. In 2016 the present Jharkhand Govt. diluted the Chotonagpur Tenancy Act 1908 and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act 1949 by an ordinance so that tribal land can be used by others, mainly Industry.
When our economy is changing dramatically due to technological innovation, with automation in mines, factory, even large cash crop plantation then the physical labour of the tribal become redundant and their only resource is rain fed agricultural lands and depleted forests. But the powerful state – business nexus is continuously driving them away from their forests, lands, hills, rivers and homes for timber, minerals and water. The efficiency that the Indian State had shown to build the Statue of Unity in record time if it would have shown the same for the education and health of its tribal citizens then India would have been more united. Uniting them with our modern economy and society is one of our most important responsibilities to fulfill Sardar Patel’s dream.