09 Jan 2021  |   05:03am IST

Melauli villagers have lost traditional cultivable land and can’t be treated like criminals

Melauli villagers have lost traditional cultivable land and can’t be treated like criminals

Sujay Gupta

Shubham Shivolkar from Melauli village in Sattari, the epicentre of yet another people versus government flashpoint has actually been spending time away pursuing his BTech down South in Salcete.

His father Meghnath Shivolkar was working in Margao Hospicio hospital.

Lata Gaonkar is a specially-abled lady, an Aanganwadi worker from Melauli.

All three and many others from the Melauli and adjoining villages have one painful thread running through their lives. The thread that has literally torn apart their peaceful existence and a settled source of livelihood on their cashew fields, the handover of 13 lakh square metres of land for the IIT project in Shel-Melauli. 

Shubham Shivolkar, the Co-convener of the Melauli Panchkroshi Gram Bachao Andolan, spearheading the protest against the allocation of land which was once their cashew plantations is in the eye of the storm and the subject of the government’s ire.

Meghnath Shivolkar, his father, has been transferred to Canacona from Margao.

Lata Gaonkar, as an Aanganwadi worker, is an employee of the Women and Child Development department. She was suddenly transferred to Sanguem from Murmune, Guleli, almost to the other end of Goa from where she lived and worked. And mind you she is different or specially-abled. She also happens to be the wife of one of the activists protesting against the transfer of land to the IIT and the IIT project.

Even as the focus now is the police action bordering on reported inhumane-ness towards protesting villagers on the site of the proposed IIT project in Sattari, by the police, the root cause of this unrest is getting buried under the narrative that the local villagers are against any form of development. It is the same refrain being used in the case of the anti-double tracking agitation concentrated mainly in South Goa. Ironically many in North Goa actually consumed the spin that the agitations against the three linear projects are limited to a certain section and community, in South Goa, who, according to those spinning this, have traditionally been opposed to development.

The ongoing protests in Sattari against the manner of allotting the land to the IIT project (as opposed to villagers being against IIT, which is again the skewed spin being given), has the same script as the protests against the linear projects. In both cases, locals feel that the projects are mired in a total lack of transparency, with hardly any consultation with the locals and the assumption that all the land belongs to the government, which even if technically true in some cases ignore traditional de-facto land-owning patterns.

There’s something else which is common to both protests. The subtle to the blatant message that these protests will be dealt with brutally with the twin tools of police cases on one hand and other pressures like inconvenient transfers of government employees who are a part of the agitation or those hapless government servants whose relatives or friends are a part of the people’s movement. While there can be no direct evidence of this, indications are more than enough of a possible pattern as the transfers mentioned earlier, were. Several government employees with any form of allegiance to the protestors have been banished to Sanguem, Quepem and Canacona, all geographically very distant from Sattari.

Let us now get into the crux of the problem and underline this:

The Melauli protests are not against IIT or higher education. They are against the usurping of fertile cultivable land and livelihoods.

The government and the ruling party should forthwith, stop referring to protestors an anti-IIT or anti-development protestors. They are mainly protectors of their land and livelihood, snatched away from them with no consultation.

They have been cultivating these lands during the Portuguese era and this has been passed down the generations.

Way back in July, Suraj Nandrekar of Herald, in his on-the-spot report brought out the following facts, which need to be re-highlighted. There was a land survey in 1971 when 75 people requested the surveyors to transfer the land in their name as they were doing cultivation and plantations for ages. But, instead, the surveyors asked the villagers for the papers, which they did not have.

For instance, the land under contention for the IIT project was traditionally occupied by Shamba Vishnu Gaonkar, from Murmune and his successors. In fact, in 1972, Shamba Gaonkar’s son Vishnu Gaonkar (as the deemed owner) filed a case against 13 villagers for allegedly cultivating on his land illegally. The Mamlatdar and Talathi had given them papers that the family had been cultivating for ages, which they presented in court. The court ruled in their favour but even then, the surveyors refused to transfer land in their name, which the government declared as “government land”.

However, locals carried on with their cashew plantation for the next 45 years. But the wheels of the government ensured that 975 people from four other villages, in addition to Melauli like Guleli, Shelgao, etc, also lost their land to the government.

While the IIT project needed 10 lakh square metres, the land allotted was 13 lakh square metres to carry out more “development” or perhaps leave the land for other income-generating projects. But the big ask is will other income-generating projects even manage to offset the damage to the livelihoods of traditional cultivators?

Moreover, this is an eco-sensitive area and eco-sensitive zone. The village has six wards and the area that has been handed over to IIT has eight springs. 

Villagers point out that while potable water supply had started in recent years, earlier they would all depend only on these springs for water. Incidentally, this is still the practice when there is no water supply. 

In such a zone, there cannot be any construction more than 20,000 sq metres. Interestingly, the government has stopped short of notifying the area as such thereby giving it, according to activists, a window to skirt the law and call the move to allot this for a project like the IIT totally legit.

Shubham Shivolkar was quoted in a news report stating, “We have the IIT report received under RTI, which says 40% of the area will be used for construction, which is totally illegal”.

The anger is palpable. A news report quoted Shashikant Sanvordekar, the convenor of the Melauli Gram Panchakroshi Samiti, as saying, “This is a direct stern warning to all those entering our village with the intention to hurt our sentiments, livelihood, faith, and rich biodiversity.”

But the crackdown has been equally harsh. Three activists have been arrested, with the last one,Kalpesh Gaonkar held on Friday evening on charges of attempted murder among other charges. The mere reading of the charges slapped on activists and villagers is a clear indication to anyone with a limited knowledge of the law, that the seemingly disproportionate retribution to the alleged scale of offences, is meant to invoke fear and act as a deterrent to future protests.

The Sections include 143 (unlawful assembly), 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with a deadly weapon), 186 (obstructing public servant and discharge of public functions), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge of his duty), 341 (wrongful restraint), 332 (causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty), 333 (causing grievous hurt to deter public servant from his duty), 307 (attempted murder), 323 (causing hurt), 324-326 and 325 (causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means), 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 426 (mischief), 427 (mischief causing damage to the amount of Rs 50) read with 149 (every member of unlawful assembly guilty of an offence committed in prosecution of common object) of the Indian Penal Code; and Section 3 of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act. 

The stand-off dated back to July last year when PI Sagar Ekoskar, currently in the middle of a controversy where he allegedly stepped on the chest of a protesting woman whisked away protestors who were about to commence a press conference. The video of the alleged police high-handedness went viral on social media and sparked public outrage.

 Meanwhile, the issue is getting politicised with the Congress and other opposition parties planning to capitalise on a people’s issue and claim political ground.

Be that as it may, we must never lose sight of the fundamentals of this agitation.

Traditional land rights of cultivators across generations in the area is a given. The government has denied their rightful inclusion as owners. And then given away this land as villagers hung by the very narrow thread which connects their rights on the ground to their rights on paper. That thread has now been cruelly snapped.

And the outpouring of people’s anger has been given an anti-development and criminal colour. This needs to stop and the government has to take the lead and desist from treating their own people as enemies.

Sujay Gupta is the Consulting Editor Herald Publications and tweets @sujaygupta0832

IDhar UDHAR

IDHAR UDHAR