Abhijit Prabhudessai: ‘The government completely disregards the well-being of the people’
‘If Goa dies real estate projects won't survive’
Civil Society News, Candolim (Goa)
THE green and lovely state of Goa with its sandy beaches and forests might soon become a shadow of its former self if no curbs are placed on real estate projects. Everywhere construction is in full swing. Apartments, bungalows, hotels, highways are all coming up at breakneck speed with no thought, or so it would appear, given to groundwater, green cover or coastal zones.
Environmentalists have for long been warning that this kind of development is unsustainable. Moreover, it is destroying a way of life built on ecological sensitivity, community ties and livelihoods in farming and fishing. Instead of giving priority to people’s concerns and their traditional livelihoods, the government is allowing the state to be taken over by the wealthy from all over.
There is no study yet of the kind of ecological damage being done and the displacement of local people taking place. But there are local voices that capture the Goan angst.
Abhijit Prabhudessai, social activist at Federation of Rainbow Warriors, has been fighting court battles and been part of people’s protests to prevent Goa from being taken over by real estate companies and commercial interests.
“Basically, what you are seeing are large entities being permitted to take away the land and resources of local communities. That’s where the fight is,” he said in an interview to Civil Society.
Q: During the last Assembly election, land was an issue. What has happened post-election?
Unfortunately, we have a government that completely disregards the well-being of the people of Goa. The policies that have taken us to this point are being aggressively pursued. Across the board, whether it is legislative actions, development programmes or even the judiciary, people’s wishes and the necessity of leaving a sustainable world for our children are being disregarded.
Q: You had taken up conversion of orchard land, settlement land and construction on hillsides. Where do these issues stand right now?
Development projects in Goa are sanctioned through regional plans which is basically demarcation of zones across Goa of permissible land uses. In ecologically sensitive zones like orchards, paddy fields, slopes, forests and so on, development activities are not permitted if they are contrary to agriculture or forestry.
But once lands are demarcated and shown as settlement zones, irrespective of present land use, they can become tourism projects or commercial projects. Similarly, the regional plan is supposed to demarcate a number of things which it does not. Like groundwater resources, community lands, prime tenanted agricultural lands. These are often shown as settlement zones in regional plans.
The land use struggle started in 2005 when the first regional plan was put forward by (Babush) Monserrate when he was minister of Town and Country Planning (TCP). It showed huge areas in settlement zones and led to a people’s protest by the Goa Bachao Abhiyan. The regional plan had to be scrapped.
But the 2021 regional plan has gone through the same procedure. People are asking for a sustainable plan while the government goes ahead and shows crores worth of land in settlement zones. So, the struggle challenging the regional plan is going on in the courts. On affidavits the government has said it will look at projects very closely and not permit large projects. But on the ground, we see huge projects being passed across the state — projects on groundwater recharge areas, on slopes, in forests. Half the forests here are not identified and protected.
We are seeing massive projects on the Kadamba Plateau which should be conserved and, of course, in Bardez and in Salcette. This is leading to protests on the ground which are not reported and therefore not in the public eye. These protests are by local communities who feel responsible for protecting and defending the environment. It is closely linked to their own survival.
Flats cover a hillside and a water catchment area in Candolim, North Goa.
Such development is resulting in the destruction of our environment, displacement of our people and loss of culture caused by the local economy being destroyed. Basically, what you are seeing are large entities being permitted to take away the land and resources of local communities. That’s where the fight is. It’s an economic struggle. The government is unresponsive.
Q: What is its ecological impact?
The State Action Plan for Climate Change prepared by the government of Goa frighteningly shows 50 percent of the state’s land is under severe threat from floods and sea-level rise in the next few decades. It also says the regional plan must be reconsidered in view of these flood-prone areas and to protect the land and people.
Water is a serious issue. We are, on one hand, saying Karnataka is taking away our water and therefore we need to fight. A free-flowing river is a principle we should follow. The Mhadei wildlife sanctuary and the tiger reserve are not recognized. Both are under severe threat if our water is diverted. But, at the same time, we are looking at the reckless destruction of our own water resources and that is inexcusable.
Goa was always self-sufficient in water. The water in Goa is in the laterite zone which is in the hills. It permeates through springs and emerges as surface water. What we see now is the concretization of plateaux and the destruction of hill slopes and groundwater recharge areas. If you concretize the hill, you destroy its water springs.
There is the issue of forests which are not identified and therefore not protected. But the government is not willing to even respond to scores of letters with scientific studies. Eco-sensitive areas in the Western Ghats have to be protected but they say they don’t want to because there is scarce land for development. The entire way the government looks at it is that forests, water resources and agriculture are not development. That’s where the government needs to correct itself.
They are not able to unfold the regional plan and execute it because of opposition from people. People are fighting in gram sabhas and panchayats. The powers of the panchayats and gram sabhas are being taken away circular after circular, amendment after amendment. People are fighting back, but they keep losing battles and irreversible change and loss are taking place.
Q: Are most projects real estate ones?
Mostly real estate projects in different forms. Large agricultural land is divided into plots and sold to individual owners to build upon. Or developers build several apartments, bungalows and gated communities. Then there are large tourism projects which are worrisome since they are mostly in coastal areas. Sand dunes are protected in low-lying fields. These are actually flood protection infrastructure. If we lose flood retention areas then you will have floods across those particular areas.
We have real estate projects on hills and slopes which threaten us with environmental disaster in terms of water, soil erosion and vulnerability to landslides. When you lose a large patch in the midst of a microscopic ecological system then the impact on everything else is something we have not assessed. It’s very clear from the disappearance of biodiversity that we are in trouble.
Q: Has any study been done of the loss of Goa’s forest cover, biodiversity or coastal areas?
The situation is that the scientific community is completely under the control of the government. It is, therefore, not in a position to do the work it needs to do. For example, the Mopa airport project or any large project where the government or a large real estate owner is involved — you will not see the scientific community coming forth to provide facts and science. We understand even circulars have been passed that they should not divulge facts to the public.
The national water policy says that all water recharge areas must be conserved. But in Goa groundwater recharge areas have not been mapped at all. If the aquifers and recharge areas were mapped none of these developments would have been allowed. Science is being crushed and subverted to allow all this. Then you have huge interests like in mining, real estate, tourism, industrial estates, and the infrastructure to support all of this.
This infrastructure is not at all studied. But we have seen with our own eyes its impact. If you build a small road in a forested area in the village, the first monsoon year you will see scores of reptiles and animals dead. In a few years the number will be less and in another few years there will be none. You actually end up killing everything that needs to cross the road. Large animals are found dead by the side of the road. All of this has a snowballing effect.
Q: Is it because the government sees only tourism and not agriculture, forests and fishing as livelihood generators?
The first step is for the government to accept and acknowledge the existence of these economies. The GDP doesn’t show it. If you grow your own food or share it or barter it the government doesn’t consider that to be an economic activity. The huge khazan lands are all sustainable farming systems. Some 400 or 600 families live off that paddy the whole year. These are economic activities that sustain life in Goa. And, yes, a self-sufficient village has to be the way forward.
At liberation Goa had a population of 600,000 which sustained itself on local resources. Large tourism projects will not sustain the moment you start losing the ecological balance. And agriculture, fishery, and forestry give more employment than anything else.
Our water bodies, lakes, rivers and nallas are by policy being concretized. Contractors spend crores to build concrete walls replacing an existing laterite structure already there in mud. Instead, you can employ thousands of people to use the existing material and restore it. Pay them handsomely and you will save more than half the money you are at present spending.
But these proposals are not what the government would go for because there is an existing system of contractors who make big profits which fund political parties. This is, though, one way we can change the system.
Q: Will the recent proposal to dam the Mhadei hasten the decline of Goa’s ecology?
Absolutely. I think it’s important this be stopped because once the diversion takes place, it will be difficult to reverse the process. The Mhadei sustains three wildlife sanctuaries. The loss of even a small amount of water would have severe implications in summer when there is lack of surface water for flagship species like the tiger. It also has implications for local communities living on farming and fisheries. The rich stock of fish is due to freshwater from the Mhadei mingling with salty water from the Mandovi river. It will reduce our fish catch.
It’s interesting that Karnataka says Mhadei diversion is for drinking water. On the ground they say the water will go to sugarcane farmers in Hubli-Dharwad. The Sagarmala programme shows, and part of it is already existing, steel plants in the same region which will consume 12 times the amount of water being diverted.
I would assume this water will not go to sugarcane farmers but to the steel and power plants which are consumers of the coal against which we are fighting in Goa. Of course, the government will never speak the truth. For every dam they say it’s for drinking water, for farmers but it actually goes to industries and five-star hotels.
Q: So, you would say there are multiple assaults on Goa’s ecology?
Rivers are under assault in several ways. The nationalization of rivers was a big setback because now the Inland Waterways of India is going to do its best to promote shipping which is what it is required by law to do.
Then you have the Ports Authority Act which allows MPT (Mormugao Port Trust) to plan for rivers; the Sagarmala programme which says 136 million tonnes of coal is going to be transported through Goa. After MPT takes over all the neighbouring fishing areas it can handle only 51 million tonnes. The remaining 86 million tonnes will be transported through Goa’s rivers. There is assault from tourism, casinos, iron ore industries and the barges. Rivers have been decimated by iron ore mining. Fisheries were in abundance but have been reduced to perhaps 10 percent of what they were.
Q: Is there any assessment of the displacement that has been taking place in Goa as a result of these projects?
No. No study has been done. A group based in Delhi called Land Conflict Watch was trying to collect data. But no study has been done of displacement taking place, of displacement that has been prevented by people’s protests and the displacement that is planned. We are not being able to find resources to do these studies.
Q: When conversion of land from orchard to settlement takes place, technically, in terms of the law, is this meant for housing for local people and not for real estate projects?
It’s a very interesting question. Eventually the construction licence is granted by the panchayat. Under the Panchayati Raj Act, the panchayat is only given the function of rural housing. There is no other construction which it would be allowed to permit under the law.
But that has never been the interpretation of the executive, legislature or judiciary. The law is good only as per its interpretation. We have seen the judiciary defending real estate very strongly even in the high court. If you raise environmental, social or economic concerns you are looked down upon even in the high court.