EMBATTLED AT HOME
From public anger over mining and casinos to restive allies, Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar finds himself walking the political tightrope
As Union defence minister, Manohar Parrikar fought and won a blitzkrieg his generals in South Block would have appreciated. Moving swiftly after the March 11 assembly election results in Goa, Parrikar snatched victory from the jaws of defeat to form a BJP government in the state. He outmanoeuvred the Congress that had won 17 seats to the BJP’s 13. Six weeks later, Parrikar, in his fourth stint as Goa chief minister, finds himself fighting what the military dreads the most—a multi-front battle.
To begin with, allies outnumber the BJP in Parrikar’s cabinet—seven berths were handed to the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), Goa Forward Party (GFP) and independents. Less than two months after Parrikar as- sumed power on March 14, the euphoria is waning and his government faces real test—protests over rampant iron ore mining, the issue of shifting offshore casinos on Mandovi river and undercurrents of a tug-of-war in his cabinet.
Parrikar’s mettle was tested in north Goa’s Sonshi village on April 11 when its residents came out protesting against the environmental hazard from iron ore mining. The villagers complained that some 1,200 trucks were using the village roads every day to transport iron ore from the mines, kicking up clouds of dust and making breathing difficult. Sonshi is a tribal village of 60 families. It is surrounded by six mines operated by companies Vedanta and Fomento. Forty-five protesting villagers were arrested on April 11 for blocking the movement of trucks and released
on bail six days later. Ironically, Parrikar had once demanded a dedicated corridor for mining trucks.
The ban on mining in Goa was lifted in 2014, but the Supreme Court capped extraction at 20 million tonnes annually. With protesters complaining of rising air pollution and drying up of water bodies, the issue has become a talking point. Ramesh Gaus, a teacher and anti-mining crusader from Bicholim, says the residents of Sonshi were forced to protest as the situation did not improve even during the temporary ban on mining. “Manohar Parrikar is the most irresponsible and discredited politician in Goa,” says Gaus, accusing him of bowing to the mining lobby. Parrikar has argued that the mining trucks belong to the villagers and are providing them employment. Gaus claims the trucks are owned by influential politicians. On Parrikar’s claim that mining has brought economic prosperity, Gaus says people in the state’s mining belt are worse off than those in the other parts.
Bicholim has 42 operational mines, the highest in Goa. A Goa State Commission for Protection of Child Rights team visited Sonshi on April 20 and examined 15 children. Its report says children in the village have been severely affected by water, air and noise pollution from mining activity. Activist Aires Rodrigues has filed a petition with the Goa Human Rights Commission arguing that every citizen has a right over clean air and drinking water and the government must ensure it. After widespread criticism, the Goa State Pollution Control Board on April 29 put an end to mining in Sonshi. It refused permission to 12 out of 13 mining companies to operate in the village because of air pollution.
Another problem brewing for Parrikar is the Union shipping ministry’s plan to expand the coal carrier facility at Mormugao Port Trust (MPT), one of India’s 12 major ports. Here, coal is stocked in heaps in the open before being transported in trucks and rail wagons. The residents of Vasco da Gama, Goa’s largest city, are complaining that the sea breeze brings coal dust to their shores, causing breathing problems.
At 13 million tonnes a year, coal accounts for two third of MPT’s cargo. The shipping ministry’s expansion project will help three major operators—JSW, Adani Group and Vedanta—increase their coal-handling capacity. Once the plan takes off, the volume of coal cargo will go up to 26 million tonnes a year—reason enough for the residents of Vasco da Gama to oppose the plan. On April 27, some 1,000 people attended a hearing conducted by Goa State Pollution Control Board officials. “Coal pollution has become a major health risk,” says Milton Barreto, former chairperson of the Mormugao Municipal Council.
Barreto attended a meeting of residents on raising
awareness about coal pollution from the expansion plan. The residents also approached Parrikar and demanded he intervene. The Congress has decided to oppose the project saying it will destabilise the nearby Sada hill and cause landslides. “Coal pollution has made life miserable for the local people,” says local Congress leader Sankalp Amonkar. “I don’t think the government wants us to breathe fresh air.”
Parrikar has announced he will visit Vasco da Gama for a first-hand assessment. An insider, however, says he is unlikely to take a stand against the MPT project, which was conceived by Union shipping minister and BJP’s Goa in-charge Nitin Gadkari. It was Gadkari’s swift action that helped the BJP form a government in the state despite getting fewer seats than the Congress. “Bhai (Parrikar) understands that the residents’ grievances are justified, but he appears helpless,” says the insider. “It is not in his domain to stop the MPT expansion work. He will not take on Gadkari on this issue.”
Reached for comment, Parrikar conveyed through one of his secretaries that it was too early to discuss his performance—“There is nothing to talk about my work in one month. Do a story when I complete a year in office.”
The relocation of offshore casinos on Mandovi river in Panaji is another controversy. Six casino vessels operate on the river at present. “The government will relocate the offshore casino vessels in Mandovi to another place,” Parrikar said during an interaction with reporters on March 23. He had also announced that Goans would be barred from visiting these casinos and only tourists would be allowed in.
Former journalist Dharmanand Kamat alleges the casinos are polluting the river. “A 7 km stretch of the river, from Miramar to Old Goa, has been polluted,” says Kamat. “Goans have stopped eating fish from this stretch of the river.” Kamat recalls how Parrikar had earlier opposed the offshore casinos. The BJP can draw comfort from the fact that its allies favour shifting the casinos. “Of course, we want them relocated,” says Vijai Sardesai, GFP leader and agriculture minister. “There is a demand to take them into deep sea. Why can’t they be shifted to the shore?”
On the political front, Parrikar faces restive allies. While he kept the all-important home and finance portfolios with himself, he had to give away the crucial town planning, revenue and public works departments to allies. Sardesai is minister for town planning and agriculture. Two other GFP leaders, Vinod Palyekar and Jayesh Salgaonkar, are in charge of the fisheries and housing departments respectively. Analysts believe Sardesai could emerge as the alternative power centre in the Parrikar government in the coming days. His aim is to provide subsidised food to Goans. “For that, we need to increase grain and fish production,” he says. “We will achieve that as both these departments are with our party. It will then be easy to connect with the people.”
Sardesai has also mooted giving land development rights to the local people whose plots fall in the eco-sensitive category. The proposal, if it goes through, will open up private land to real-estate developers. Sardesai’s say in the government was evident when he got Parrikar to rejig the state government’s slogan to ‘Sab ka
saath, sab ka vikas with Goenkarponn (Goa’s identity)’. Says Sardesai: “This is the golden jubilee year of Goa’s referendum to remain a separate state and not merge with Maharashtra. I want the identity and spirit of Goa to be preserved.”
Following in his footsteps, Salgaonkar has mooted an ambitious plan for affordable housing. “We will have tie-ups with big builders to construct government-sponsored homes at lower prices,” he says. “There will be 30 per cent quota for locals in these houses.”
Sensing the threat from Sardesai, Parrikar inducted Vishwajeet Rane, the ambitious former Congress leader, into his cabinet. “Rane and Sardesai will compete for the second position in the cabinet,” says a BJP leader. “Bhai will be safe as long as he maintains the power equilibrium.” The chief minister has barred visitors to the secretariat on Wednesdays and has started avoiding the media. Local journalists say Parrikar is a changed man after his stint as Union defence minister. “In Delhi, journalists don’t chase ministers to their cabins. You should follow them,” he even advised reporters.
Parrikar’s immediate challenge is winning the panchayat elections scheduled on June 17. He will then need to find a safe constituency for election to the state assembly. Curchorem MLA Nilesh Cabral has offered to vacate his seat for him, but Parrikar’s heart lies in Panaji, a seat he has won four times. But Kamat says Panaji won’t be a walkover for Parrikar as his popularity has taken a beating. In the elections in March, the BJP’s Siddharth Kuncalienker won from Panaji by 1,000 votes, the party’s lowest victory margin in the constituency so far. All signs that 2017 could be a year of battles for Parrikar.