In a scenario, where Covid 19 brought so much distress and grief, through deaths of near and dear ones, financial stress caused by loss of business, of jobs, wage cut, etc, our hearts surely need to go to our brethren in Melauli, who perhaps besides having also encountered some such pain, have today been constrained to ignore safety concerns, incur risks of getting infected by the virus or contracting other ailments and brave scorching sun, solely to assert their rights and stop the Government from dispossessing them of their land and depriving them from their only source of livelihood. Strangely, at a time when some kind people in India and elsewhere and Governments all over the world have been filled with compassion for the various types of victims of the pandemic and stretched out a helping hand, our Government in Goa used this very same opportunity to advance its own pernicious and destructive agenda and literally persecute voiceless, semi-literate and poor people, in an attempt to force them into surrendering land which they have been cultivating and been in possession of, for many decades and generations.
It would be interesting to know whether subjugation of these poor tribals has led them to forfeit their rights due to ignorance or fear of reprisals. They may not be able to have or produce proper documentation of ownership, but the very fact that they have been living on it for generations, cultivating it and surviving on its produce, gives them the title, by prescription. The Government cannot just claim ownership of land by inserting its name in Form I & XIV.
Melauli, a village in Sattari Taluka, situated in Western Ghats, lies in the middle of three major wildlife sanctuaries, Bhagwan Mahavir wildlife to the south, Bondla on the west and Madhei on the east. The Govt draft Notification of October 2018 proposes it as an eco-sensitive zone, where construction of over 20,000 sq mts is not permitted. However, around 13 lakh sq mts are earmarked for IIT. The protestors claim that around 2 lakh trees will have to be felled if the project goes ahead. The villagers state that the fully forested Melauli is an example of the co-existence of agriculture along with forest land. It is fully owned and occupied by the indigenous tribal Gowda community, who have lived on the land for hundreds of years, cultivating cashews and other organic produce. This is their livelihood and the rehabilitation that the Government promises will not take care of their sustenance. Further, they claim that some SC & ST people from in Sattari fiefdom were rehabilitated, years ago, in another village but they are yet to have the land in their names.
IIT project in Goa was rejected in Canacona & Cuncolim, in the former because the people of the area, where land was sought to be acquired, would be adversely affected of their basic requirements, like water, etc but also because the personnel on the campus was likely to outnumber the locals, with little benefit to the latter. A similar situation is likely to prevail wherever IIT is proposed. The Govt must consider ways and means of improving the job scenario by setting up non-polluting industries which can and must provide employment to Goans, instead of proposing high sounding and “prestigious” projects, which only add to the pressure on our scarce resources like land and to the influx of outsiders, unless of course the aim is to strengthen its vote-bank.
The people of Melauli have for months been opposing the establishment of IIT. Just like the farmers in Delhi, they have been steadfast in their struggle not to allow the project. On the other hand, like his masters in Delhi, the CM, equally determined, declared it would be his way or the highway and used the police force to quell the rebellion. Reportedly, the lathi charge on peaceful protestors was not authorised by the magistrate and was unprovoked, though they later retaliated with stones.
The agitators and their supporters must not relent until the officer who stomped on women’s chests is removed from service, as he has shamed the entire Goan police force. Such uncouth and uncivilised officers need training in civility and good behaviour. The absence of human touch and intransigent and aggressive postures, which we are witnessing lately in a democratic setup, lead us to think that the pandemic could have also affected the mental balance of many.
We now have another drama of the MLA of the locality making a U turn, which is nothing new in the BJP and declaring his opposition to the setting up of IIT in the area, due to his people’s opposition to it. Months of agitation, the lathi charge, the cases filed and even his own father’s stand that IIT should not be forced upon the people of the locality, did not move the MLA until perhaps he saw the rug being pulled under his feet and him losing popularity. However, people are determined to continue their agitation until the project is shelved, but there is no reaction yet from the CM.
It is difficult to fathom whether CM’s determination was an attempt at showing his Minister in bad light and cutting him to size, as he has sometimes been projected as a contender for CM’s post or whether this is an effort at saving face, as the agitation gathers momentum with more villages supporting it. We need to wait and watch.
(The author is a retired banker)