Vil­lagers in Goa fight to keep an­cient com­mu­nity land from univer­sity

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

LOLIEM, IN­DIA: For Meena Varik, a teacher in Loliem vil­lage in south­ern Goa, the Bhag­wati Moll plateau has al­ways been com­mu­nity land meant for cat­tle graz­ing, tem­ple pro­ces­sions and a wildlife re­serve.

But if the state has its way, the plateau on a hillock abut­ting the vil­lage could be the site for an In­dian In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (IIT) and the land given over to class­rooms, lab­o­ra­to­ries and hos­tels for hun­dreds of stu­dents and fac­ulty mem­bers. “We are not against devel­op­ment, but this land is sa­cred to us and our way of life,” Varik said, point­ing to the trees and thick scrub that cover the plateau. “The vil­lage owns this land. No one has the right to take it away with­out our con­sent.”

The plateau, easily ac­cessed by sev­eral trails from Loliem, is the lat­est of Goa’s his­toric co­mu­nidades, or com­mu­nity lands, to be caught up in a dis­pute as de­mand for land for in­dus­trial and devel­op­ment projects grows in In­dia. About 70 per­cent of Goa’s land is col­lec­tively owned by more than 200 co­mu­nidades across the state, ad­min­is­tered by a tra­di­tional code that is cen­turies old.

Over the years, co­mu­nidade lands have been given up for roads, mines, in­dus­tries and ho­tels. Many have been con­tentious de­ci­sions, cre­at­ing deep di­vides across the state that is pop­u­lar with tourists for its sandy beaches and laid back vibe. “These are com­mon lands that have al­ways been meant for the wel­fare of the whole vil­lage, not one sin­gle in­di­vid­ual or en­tity,” said An­dre An­to­nio Pereira, ad­vo­cate and sec­re­tary of an as­so­ci­a­tion of co­mu­nidades. “But we have slowly been los­ing these lands in the name of devel­op­ment. If we don’t pro­tect them, we will lose a part of our his­tory,” he told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion.

The ma­jor­ity of land con­flicts in In­dia are re­lated to com­mon lands, in­clud­ing Goa’s co­mu­nidades, with dis­putes cen­tered around their gov­er­nance, ac­cord­ing to a study re­leased on Wed­nes­day by the Tata In­sti­tute of So­cial Sciences. Com­mu­ni­ties are de­pen­dent on com­mon lands for farm­ing, fish­ing, live­stock rear­ing, salt man­u­fac­tur­ing, and graz­ing.

While pri­vate lands have some pro­tec­tion, gov­ern­ments rarely re­spect the cus­tom­ary us­age or com­mu­ni­ties’ claims over com­mon lands, the re­port said.

Vague bound­aries

Leg­is­la­tion such as a 2006 for­est rights law and a 1996 act on tribal ar­eas aim to pro­tect the rights of farm­ers and lo­cal and in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties over their lands, but the laws are usu­ally di­luted and poorly im­ple­mented, ac­tivists say.

The ad­di­tional chal­lenge with co­mu­nidades, which pre-date the ar­rival of the Por­tuguese and was cod­i­fied in the 16th cen­tury, is their in­for­mal man­age­ment, said Rai­son Almeida, chair­man of the Green Goa Foun­da­tion in Margao.

“The prob­lem is that we are not very or­ga­nized. We don’t even know the ex­tent of our co­mu­nidades - their bound­aries, what’s in them,” he said. “To bet­ter pro­tect - and even mon­e­tise - the co­mu­nidades, we must doc­u­ment them and or­gan­ise our­selves bet­ter.”

In­dia has un­der­taken a mas­sive ex­er­cise to digi­tise land records, even as states strug­gle to sur­vey land and up­date records that are more than a cen­tury old. Mean­while, the Goa govern­ment has locked horns with vil­lagers over sev­eral projects, in­clud­ing land for a new air­port in the north­ern part of the state, as well as for a Na­tional In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in south Goa.

The fed­eral govern­ment ap­proved set­ting up an IIT cam­pus in Goa about two years ago, and the in­sti­tute be­gan op­er­a­tions from a tem­po­rary cam­pus in the state ear­lier this year. “The de­ci­sion to lo­cate the IIT cam­pus in Loliem was made by the state govern­ment in consultation with vil­lage and dis­trict of­fi­cials,” said Vivek Ka­mat, di­rec­tor at the Di­rec­torate of Tech­ni­cal Ed­u­ca­tion.

“If vil­lagers turn down the project, we will have to see.” Vil­lagers in Loliem, which lies in the south­ern­most tip of the state, said they be­came aware the pres­ti­gious univer­sity was to be built on about 300 acres (120 hectares) of land on the Bhag­wati Moll plateau a few months ago. Since then, they have writ­ten to state and fed­eral of­fi­cials, op­pos­ing the plan, and also held a protest march to the dis­trict head­quar­ters. They say co­mu­nidade of­fi­cials, who have given their ap­proval, are act­ing on their own.

Vil­lagers have de­manded a meet­ing of the vil­lage coun­cil, which they say has also not kept them in­formed. The coun­cil will is­sue some of the per­mits for the con­struc­tion of the cam­pus. “It’s a pres­ti­gious ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tute, not a pol­lut­ing in­dus­try, and we will ben­e­fit from it,” said Bhushan Padgaonkar, sarpanch or head of the Loliem vil­lage coun­cil, and a mem­ber of the co­mu­nidade. “There is no in­dus­try in this vil­lage; we need to think of our fu­ture. The IIT will put the vil­lage on the map,” he said.

Sa­cred land

Vil­lagers op­posed to the project will at­tend a coun­cil meet­ing later this month “in large num­bers” and op­pose the res­o­lu­tion ap­prov­ing the project, said Renuka Prab­hugaonkar of the Ci­ti­zens’ Com­mit­tee of Loliem.

“We don’t even have enough wa­ter and elec­tric­ity for our­selves. How will there be enough with a large univer­sity?” she said, dis­play­ing copies of let­ters to state and fed­eral of­fi­cials and a cam­paign to col­lect sig­na­tures to protest the move. “How many jobs can a univer­sity gen­er­ate, any­way? The dam­age to the vil­lage, the com­mu­nity will be far greater than any ben­e­fit from it,” she said.

While co­mu­nidades have au­ton­omy over the com­mon lands, state of­fi­cials are known to in­flu­ence ap­point­ments of their of­fi­cers and in­ter­fere in the run­ning of the co­mu­nidades, said Almeida. En­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists have backed the protests in Loliem, say­ing the plateau is eco­log­i­cally sen­si­tive and is a nat­u­ral aquifer for streams that sus­tain the vil­lage. The state has a spotty en­vi­ron­men­tal record, with ac­cu­sa­tions of un­planned devel­op­ment dam­ag­ing its famed coast­line. A ban on mining in 2012, wel­comed by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, was lifted three years later.

Vil­lagers in Loliem say they are de­ter­mined to fight till the state backs down. “We are sim­ply pro­tect­ing what our fore­fa­thers passed on to us. We want to pre­serve it for our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren,” said Varik, the teacher. “This project threat­ens our cul­ture, our way of life.”

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