In a notification, dated November 7, the Garudeshwar mamlatdar included the entire Gora village, located near the Statue of Unity and the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary, under eco-sensitive zone and added the state government as a “co-holder” on the land survey numbers.
Close to 122 villages on one side of the Statue of Unity across the River Narmada are on the edge after the local district administration initiated a process to include the state government as the second landholder in the Record of Rights —an extract from the land revenue records register that serves as proof of ownership of the land.
In a notification, dated November 7, the Garudeshwar mamlatdar included the entire Gora village, located near the Statue of Unity and the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary, under eco-sensitive zone and added the state government as a “co-holder” on the land survey numbers. Close to 120 land owners in Gora have, so far, filed their objection before the mamlatdar on November 10.
The letter issued by the mamlatdar said: “As per the letter of the Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF), Narmada, dated January 28, 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has published a final notification declaring eco-sensitive zone around Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary in Narmada on May 5, 2016. Accordingly, as per the provisions of the said notification of the Central government, several activities will now stand prohibited in the eco-sensitive zone. The land in the eco-sensitive zone — including that of the forest department, horticulture department, for agricultural use, plots reserved for parks — will not be allowed to be transferred for non-agricultural use for commercial, industrial or residential purposes. Any land that need to be transferred for non-agricultural use will be allowed to do so only after a mandatory approval for such a transfer is sought from the state government, based on an application of the Monitoring Committee.”
The notification further states the area in the periphery of the Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary has been included under the eco-sensitive zone and the entire Gora village has been included in this list. “Since the area is now under the notification of eco-sensitive zone, the process has been initiated to include the state government as the second owner of the land in the villages as per their revenue survey numbers. The inclusion of this entry of the government in the Record of Rights, prescribed under Village Form VII of the Land Revenue Records, has been made as per the above-mentioned notification of the central government,” it stated.
The Village Form VII of the land revenue records includes detailed information about the owner of land and rights and liabilities of the landholder. It also includes details of the cultivable area of the agricultural land as well as the boundary of survey marks, and the survey number of the land. It reflects the changes in ownership of the land, including those passed down through generations as well as the mutation numbers. Also called the ‘7/12 Utara’, the document has to be produced at the sub-registrar’s office when a sale transaction of land is done.
Villagers say the notification was pasted on the office of the Gora panchayat on November 7 evening, a Saturday, thus not allowing the owners to raise immediate objection the next day. “We have handed over our objection letter (vanda arji) to the addition of the state government as a co-owner of our lands. We are close to 120 landowners and this step has been taken without our consent,” Gora village sarpanch Shanti Tadvi said.
According to Tadvi, although the move of the mamlatdar came as a “surprise, without prior warning”, the village had seen surveys been conducted by various government departments. Tadvi said, “The plan is to include close to 121 villages around this sanctuary as part of the eco-sensitive zone. They have begun with Gora. We are not sure what the intention is, but given the history of the land acquisitions for tourism in the area, we are sceptical.”
In their objection letters, the villagers have cited “complete hold” on their lands, as guaranteed by the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA — a law enacted by the Government of India for ensuring self-governance through traditional gram sabhas for people living in the Scheduled Areas of India.
“We will now have to seek permission from the government to be able to do anything on the lands we own. They say that they want to protect it from us, but we are the original owners. Who else can protect us better than we?” Tadvi asked.
Rumours of imminent tourism projects in the area have left most villagers on the edge about the possibility of an ouster from their lands. While the district administration officers deny any knowledge of projects planned, forest officials said the reason was to only “protect the sanctuary”.
A forest department officer, who did not wish to be named, said, “Many of the villages have been protected under The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA), which recognises the three rights of forest-dwelling tribals: their individual rights to occupation and cultivation; community rights for grazing, collection of firewood; and selling of permitted forest produce. The only issue here is that they do tend to encroach on forest land. We have had such issues at Dediapada taluka area of the district where encroachments have become an issue. Having a law in place will help us safeguard the ecology.” The officer denied that any tourism project has been planned in the area.
Shooplaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary has many species of animals namely sloth bear, leopard, rhesus macaque, chousingha, barking deer, pangolin, chital, Indian civet, palm civet, wild dogs, leopards, Indian porcupine among others, the official added. The total protected area is 60770.78 hectares. Of this, 3184.13 hectare was diverted for Sardar Sarovar Project dam in 1987.
In 2017, the executive engineer, Roads & Building (Panchayat) Rajpipla proposed a change of surface of Zarwani-Mathasar road on 1.88 hectare of land in Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, citing that it would ensure road access to remote villages inhabited by poor tribals. The proposal stated that is was necessary to have, “black topping (tarring) of WBM (kachcha) road to convert it into concrete (pakka) road. The sanctuary has 105 villages inhabited predominantly by tribes who are poor and deprived of basic civic amenities. The remote villages are connected by WBM kachcha road and during monsoon the vehicular movement becomes very difficult and often people suffer due to lack of connectivity, especially during medical emergencies and commuting of school children”.
The proposal was approved by the Chief Wildlife Warden with conditions that the wildlife should not be disturbed and the material required for the work would be prepared outside the sanctuary. Later, as the Statue of Unity was completed in 2018, the state government created a simultaneous tourist spot in Zarwani — 28 kilometres from the district head Rajpipla and eight kilometres from Gora village — calling it the Zarwani Eco Campsite. The site is functional for tourists visiting Kevadia colony, which has now been christened as Kevadia Tourism Circuit after Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a total of 17 new projects around the SoU on October 31.
The website of the Zarwani Eco Campsite describes it as a “day picnics or trek with the help of the forest department, with the forest, waterfalls and other natural beauty within easy reach”. Other sightseeing areas nearby include the Zarwani waterfalls, the Shoolpaneshwar Temple, the Gheer Khadi. The facilities inside the sanctuary for the campsite includes cottages with attached bath and toilet facilities, tented accommodations, dormitory for 10 people at one time, kitchen and dining place as well as a campfire area but prohibits smoking, pets and flashlight photography.
Tadvi says, “We are not sure if this is the first step in turning this pristine forest into something else. They have not taken us into confidence. We know that the development of Kevadia for tourism happened against the will of the locals with the government departments arm twisting their way. The Ekta Nursery (one of the ancillary tourist sites around SoU) and other government lands in our village also belonged to our forefathers and were acquired by processes that illiterate villagers of those days could not understand. We are planning to move courts citing PESA Act, but we are poor tribals who feel we will be defeated.”
It is in Gora village that the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) has decided to construct the ‘Adarsh Vasahat’ relocation settlement for the beneficiaries from six villages — Limbdi, Kevadia, Vagadiya, Navagam, Kothi and Gora, who had been protesting the acquisition of their lands in 1961 for the Narmada Dam — over 16 hectares of its land. The SSNNL has also invited tenders for a ropeway to connect the two banks of the Narmada River, across the 1.2 km length of Narmada dam so that tourists visiting Kevadia can reach the allied projects on the other side across the river within a matter of minutes. The drive around the river through the Gora bridge is about 30 minutes long.
Resident Additional Collector, Rajpipla, HK Vyas told The Sunday Express, “The entire process is executed on behalf of the forest department, which has sent the application. The district administration has no role or part in the ownership of the land or the addition of title for ownership,” Vyas said.
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