03 Sep 2023  |   05:56am IST

Face-off with the State over land acquisition ruining lives of people and putting their future in peril

Residents of Bhoma village in Ponda taluka recently staged a protest against the proposed expansion plan of the existing National Highway (NH), expressing concerns over the impact on their village and temples. Despite an agitation for a bypass leading to the cancellation of the NH expansion plan in 2012, the project has been revived, contradicting the Regional Plan. On the other hand, Velsao villagers refused to surrender their land for the rail double tracking project. The villagers have conveyed their resentments against the Government of Goa and criticised the authorities for not even intervening to protect the interest of the locals against the consistent threats from Rail Vikas Nigam Limited (RVNL) to deny them the right to reside in their homeland. The villagers have vowed not to give up their land no matter what. SUJAY GUPTA joins these two important developments together in the Herald TV weekly debate Point-Counterpoint and finds out such face-off between the people and State administration over land acquisition for the so-called development projects is presently ruining people’s lives and puts their future at risk
Face-off with the State over land acquisition ruining lives of people and putting their future in peril

For last few years, villagers across coastal Salcete, stretching into Mormugao taluka are fighting against land acquisition with regard to the rail double tracking project, which has ultimately disturbed the power equation, where people are battling against State power and the brutal land acquisition process is taking place in a manner, which is completely inhuman.

Now, the Velsao villagers in Mormugao taluka have refused to surrender their land for the rail double tracking project. The villagers have conveyed their resentment against the Government of Goa and criticised the authorities for not even intervening to protect the interest of the locals against the consistent threats from Rail Vikas Nigam Limited (RVNL) to deny them the right to reside in their homeland.

A parallel and an equally strong agitation have come up in another part of Goa, which has also got to do with land acquisition. The people are refusing to part with their land for expansion of the National Highway in Bhoma village located in Ponda taluka. 

This project will require acquisition of roughly about 45,000 square meters land, out of which 1,030 square meters is actually temple land. These figures seem to be somehow dismissed as being trivial and not of consequence by the powers that be. The whole agitation has been literally dismissed as saying that about four houses will go and a different alignment is not possible in lieu of the current alignment, which is going to cut through homes and lands. 

While two different incidents occurred in different parts of Goa, if one looks at the bigger picture, it would be found that both are actually interconnected. The narrative is the same. The spirit of the agitation is the same. 

The question is, why are the infrastructure projects always taken up in a manner that is so conflicting with the people, when there are other alternatives available? Why don’t we look at those viable options, instead of getting into an absolute face-off with the public in a manner where it always seems like a David versus Goliath fight?

To make matters worse, instead of assuaging people’s fears, Chief Minister Pramod Sawant recently commented that there is need to come out of “crook mentality” opposing the developmental projects in villages only then progress can take place in the State. 

In case of land acquisition for rail double tracking, the Railways dismissed all the objections of the people and suddenly issued a notice on August 1, stating that the lands of villagers would be taken away. 

This is with regard to acquisition of 0.9985 hectares of land which will be acquired for the project in the villages of Curchorem, Cacora, Sanvordem, Xelvon, Curchorem, Cacora, Sanvordem, Xelvon, St Jose de Areal, Chandor, Guirdolim, Velsao and Issorcim for the double tracking project.

Adv Leona Baretto, lawyer for Velsao villagers, said that just few days ago, the villagers of Pale-Issorcim were served a notice and called by the Deputy Collector, the mamlatdar to be specific, stating their land would be taken over by the RVNL.

“When the villagers were called via this notice, they were devastated. They didn’t know what to do with the notice that just came two days prior, given to them under the Railway Act 1989 and there weren’t any specifics regarding the property or the total area that will be taken away by the Railways. Only survey numbers and the people’s names were mentioned, which also included tenants, mundkars and the rightful owners, who had their ancestral houses from ages,” Adv Baretto said.

However, there was nothing specific given in the notice and it was given under the Land Acquisition Act. 

“So when we went to the Mamlatdar’s office, we raised our objections there and said that the villagers did not want to surrender their land to the railways,” she said. 

Speaking about the particular Velsao agitation, Orville Dourado, Convenor of Goencho Ekvott, said, “We will take one Survey Number 18/1, the land that is deemed to be in compensation. It belongs to 17 or 18 parties. But that compensation award figure of that one survey number is Rs 5.35 crore and nobody knows how many houses are covered in this because they are all adjacent to each other.”

“These are next door neighbours. Nobody has come and measured the area. When you make an award, the primary thing that is done is conduct a survey. No such physical survey was conducted. So people are not aware which part of their land is to be acquired,” he said. 

“Just behind this plot, is the land which is deemed to be in use by the Indian Railways. It’s a buffer zone of about 10 meters wide. Right now this particular land doesn’t have a survey number and this is all through from Mormugao up to Collem. That whole stretch of land on either side of the tracks doesn’t have the survey number,” Dourado said. 

“Now in its haste to hand over this land to the Railways, the government of Goa is conniving with the Central government. The State government issued a gazette notification that it will conduct a survey for awarding the compensation. But it can’t be done by officials sitting in their cozy offices. Nobody has come on the ground to conduct the survey,” he said.

The other fact is that the basic land acquisition, for which the Government had sought objections from the people, has been cruelly dismissed and the process of acquisition is also going on.

“The objections were dismissed on the grounds that some of them are under the environmental laws and not under the purview of Railway Act 1989,” he said. 

The issue here is, while the date of this notice was August 1, many villages got their “future surrender warrants” on August 26, barely three days before the deadline, which the people have outrightly refused. 

Such refusals will happen in village after village. So, what happens after that, because technically, the officials can turn around and say that the people are disobeying a government order? The people are completely right because they’re emotionally charged and they feel they are being completely wronged and they are going to refuse. So, what’s going to happen next, as it is a direct clash now between the people and the Government? 

“Some of the villages have taken legal recourse immediately. But, all the villages unfortunately did not approach the court, as some of the villages weren’t convinced. Now what is happening, because of the opposition, specifically in Velsao, Pale, Arossim, villagers in other areas is also coming around. There is this case of Chico Fernandes in Chandor, who has approached the High Court against land acquisition for double tracking,” 

Along with the issue of double tracking, there is another burning problem of land acquisition for National Highway expansion at Bhoma, in Ponda. 

Explaining the issue, Swapnesh Sherlekar, Convenor of Goencho Awaz said that this Bhoma issue is related to the expansion of the National Highway road stretch, which is passing through the village. There are multiple residential houses and temples adjacent to this road.

“The government’s plans to widen this road will destroy these houses and temples. Everything will be affected. Now, the government knew very well about this. So, as a solution, before deciding on road expansion, it should have implemented former Chief Minister late Manohar Parrikar’s assurance of a bypass road as he had anticipated that the houses and temples would be affected,” Sherlekar said.

“The bypass is the best solution as it won’t affect anyone. It is there in the Regional Plan, which the present government doesn’t want to implement. Bhoma starts from Merces and goes up to Kundaim Industrial Estate. We can’t understand the fact that when a bypass is there in the Regional Plan 2021, why doesn’t the government want to adopt it? It is a simple and viable solution to this issue. But, the government isn’t willing to give a satisfactory answer as to why they want to expand the road running through the village,” he said. 

“In this bypass which is proposed, the larger tract of land, that is Survey Numbers 18 and 19, are already in Government’s domain. The survey numbers clearly shows that it is the Government of Goa which is holding this land. So 30 percent of the land meant for the proposed road, is already government’s land. There are some Real Estate speculators, who have procured that land meant for the alternate bypass,” the Convenor of Goencho Awaz alleged.

“Somewhere in 2021, under Section 16B of TCP Act, the Government had also proposed to drop this bypass for the benefit of these Real Estate speculators. So, here the government is basically trying to ruin the locals in favour of its cronies,” he said.

“Being an engineer himself, Parrikar was in a better position to give a solution to this problem. The Government of the day is actually facing that problem because people are up in arms now,” he said.

In 2010 during Digambar Kamat government, this agitation first occurred. It flared up again in 2023, which is almost 13 years. So, what was happening during all these years?

“Let the villagers themselves answer that because they had been to the court. They got the orders in their favour in the past, which actually resulted in having this bypass on the Regional Plan. But, the present Government does not want to execute this plan,” the activist added. 

Sanjay Naik who is spearheading the villagers’ agitation, said, “We thought that we had won the battle in 2010/11. But today we realise that the battle was left incomplete. We had agitated against the alignment in 2010, which was made by Congress. The ruling BJP, which was in opposition then, had supported us when we protested.” 

The core BJP body members such as the then Leader of Opposition Manohar Parrikar, Vishnu Wagh, Shripad Naik, Rajan Naik, Matanhy Saldanha and others had strongly backed the villagers. 

“The irony now is the current BJP leadership is trying to finish us. We had come up with a committee called Diversion NH 4-A Action Committee, whose convener was Sunil Desai and was headed by Parrikar. Sunil Desai is brother of BJP’s Sanju Desai. All the NGOs had shown support to us as the alignment proposed was not in tune with the ground reality,” Naik said.

“The agitation which began in 2010 ended next year with the order which stated that our objections have been considered and the project has been scrapped. The Acquisition Officer that time, Anthony D’Souza, helped us a lot because even he knew that whatever was going on was wrong. He called NHAI officials and took us to every spot from Mollem to Pernem. Only then we realised that alignment was not proper,” he said. 

“We started early in the morning and reached Bhoma at around 7 pm after observing the whole stretch, the officials who had come from Delhi were shocked when they saw the temples and without taking much time, they told us that a highway was not possible here. Within two days we were informed through order that the plan was scrapped,” he said.

“We also struggled a lot tackling Sudin Dhavalikar in around 2016, who had a lot of influence and was working against us. In 2002, when Parrikar was the CM, he had planned for a bypass which even Bhoma locals were unaware of. It’s only in 2010 when we agitated and went to Parrikar, he asked for the book from PWD and showed us the survey, which had the mention of bypass,” Naik said. 

“Soon after that, Parrikar formed a 10-member House Committee, which gave its report and based on that, the then PWD Principal Chief Engineer J J S Rego ordered for the bypass at the extra cost of Rs 60 crore. We were shown the plan in the Assembly. It’s only when Parrikar went to Centre and was replaced by Laxmikant Parsekar as Chief Minister, we could smell something was fishy,” he said.

“Once I confronted Parsekar and asked him whether the Government was planning to use the same alignment of Congress against us, against which we had fought. He assured us that the things will be done in the favour of the locals and the funds were withdrawn. And today suddenly without any intimation to the panchayat or the locals, acquisition notice has been issued,” he said. 

“We objected the same way we had done during Anthony’s time. These are BJP’s dirty tricks to dislodge mundkars from the lands they have been dwelling on. Mundkars have been nourishing these orchards, the coconuts, the mango trees and likes since Portuguese times and BJP wants to take it from them and hand it over to Bhatkars. This is BJP’s ‘Bhatkar-shahi’,” he said. 

Naik added, “We are protesting against the Bhoma Highway expansion not just to protect our homes, but also to preserve our culture, tradition and places of worship. We have been told that not a single temple comes under the land proposed for acquisition and hence no temple will be harmed. But the holy anthill will get threatened due to impact piling. Hence, the villagers of Bhoma have come together to safeguard this sacred Anthill.”

While elaborating on the Environment Impact assessment report, Naik said that the minister has told that the bypass will be constructed on stilts but as per the ElA report, it has been mentioned that it will be built via filling of land. “Whom is this Government trying to fool?” Naik questioned. 

Additionally, Naik pointed out, there are nearly 10 houses which will be affected, while PWD Minister Nilesh Cabral in the recent presentation has cited only four houses will be affected.

“Amongst those who are protesting, include both - the affected and unaffected people. This is because of the temples, which exist in the proposed land acquisition zone. The religious customs of these temples will be jeopardised,” he claimed. 

Moreover, he mentioned the tradition where palanquin is brought from one temple to another across this stretch of road, will cease to exist once the road widening happens.

“If this expanded road stretch has four lanes or six lanes, how will the villagers follow these traditions? The motive behind opposing the highway expansion is wholly to preserve the unique identity of Bhoma, its serene nature, the festivals, culture, tradition and the deity of the village,” he informed.

Speaking on the legal challenges ahead and the interventions planned in the issue of land acquisition for rail double tracking, Adv Baretto said that there’s already a case filed before the High Court.

“We have filed a written objection before the Deputy Collector and we’re waiting for the reply. However, after we get the response, we’ll be going to the appellate authorities and file our objections. We are going to say no to double tracking as we are not in its favour,” she said. 

“There are already tracks which are underused and which can be utilised to transport coal. This mineral has no use in Goa at all. The State of Goa is only used as a victim here. We are not the beneficiaries in the double tracking matter. There are other routes to transport coal, Visakhapatnam is one of them,” she said. 

“However, in this bargain, there are many ancestral houses in Velsao and the neighbouring villages, which will be destroyed by the RVNL. And it doesn’t end only with these villages. In the near future, RVNL is going to use the neighbouring areas for waste disposal or use it for construction. It’s not only going to be restricted to Velsao, but spread to places like Majorda, Colva and Benaulim,” Adv Baretto said.

“The same thing is going to happen in places like Curtorim and Baina. So it’s not only the battle of Velsao and Cansaulim, it is a battle to save the entire Goa,” she said. 

The experts have emphatically said that the high-handedness of the Government when it comes to the acquiring of people’s land for big infrastructure projects, there are always more questions than answers.

The sad take away from this however is that this whole march of development is crushing those who are supposed to be developed and this is happening everywhere. It has sounded a death knell for a lot of people, who’ve been living here for ages. Whether it is in Bhoma or the coastal belt of South Goa where double tracking is happening, the larger narrative cannot be missed. It is all about the forces of “development versus the forces” who are supposed to be developed.

The people are becoming daily victims of this development. In Bhoma, the sad irony and the bitter truth is that there exists an alternate way which can save houses, places of worship, your heritage, your past, your traditions, your customs, the daily way of life and above all, the sentiments that exist in each one’s hearts. 

All this can be saved if the basic common sense and the existing approach is followed. Let’s simply use another bypass and the point is if you cannot use that bypass which is going to save all of this, then please give an explanation as to why you cannot do it.

The point here is that, all that the villagers are looking for is tangible answers. They are also asking a simple question that the very highway that you opposed in 2010, is being proposed by you in 2023. So between this opposition and proposition, what has transpired? The answer here is that these allegations cannot remain as it is. They need to be replied to. 

With regard to the double tracking, again it is the same saga that continues, where not only you have acquired land, but you are also entering into buffer zones. You are entering into areas where multiple crops are growing. You are entering into areas and declaring it as a public purpose project when no public purpose seems to be achieved. This is what has led to the current state of affairs.

The point here is that if there are so many homes that are getting destroyed, so many brave people who are coming out onto the streets and people rejecting awards, then there must be something wrong in the basic system.

When there are people who are not even directly involved but have decided to pledge their lives to safeguard their villages, there has to be some truth in their allegations. Some weightage should be given to the people’s view also. 

The idea here is that, when there are views of both government and the people clashing against each other, then, efforts should be made towards reconciliation. There needs to be a meeting of minds. You cannot have this conflict going on and on because it benefits nobody.


Iddhar Udhar