20 Nov 2022  |   06:21am IST

Will the proposed amendment to the Goa Land Revenue Rules lead to unchecked conversions?

Goa seems to be suffering from a new kind of pandemic that is an assault on our land, environment in very different ways, which is further degrading our society, our polity and way of life. The name of this pandemic is proposed amendment to the Goa Land Revenue Rules. Under this rule, the Collector's office will decide on conversion cases of agricultural land to non-agriculture, if No Objection Certificates (NOCs) aren’t asked within 20 days. On paper it doesn’t seem to be a headline grabbing subject. But if one delves into the issue, it would seem like an attempt to erode the prevailing checks and balances that are present to prevent rampant illegal land conversions for uses other than what was envisaged. In the weekly Herald TV debate Point-Counterpoint, SUJAY GUPTA digs deep to understand the long-term impact of this new rule in the State, which is already plagued by numerous cases of illegal land conversions.

he government has proposed an amendment to the Goa Land Revenue (Conversion of use of land and non-agricultural assessment) Rules, 1969. Under this amendment, the applications for the conversion of land will now be decided by the District Collectors on the basis of available information, if authorities responsible for issuing related NOCs and submitting reports as well as recommendations fail to do so within 20 days.

The draft amendment is being kept open for public objections and suggestions for a period of 15 days. The report/ NOC/ recommendation shall be obtained from the Town and Country Planning Department and Forest Department, Inspector of Survey and Land Records and Mamlatdar, who shall submit their report/ NOC/ recommendation within a period of 20 days from the date of reference made by the Collector.

In case the report is not submitted within a period of 20 days, the Collector shall proceed to decide the application for conversion on the basis of the information as available after expiry of the said period of 20 days.

All objections and/ or suggestions to the said draft Rules are to be forwarded to the Secretary for Revenue, department of revenue, Secretariat, Porvorim, before 15 days so that they may be taken into consideration at the time of finalisation of the said draft Rules.

The proposed amendments have led to a furore amongst crusaders for Goa. There were stringent checks and balances in place earlier to ensure that all rules were followed before an approval for land conversion was given.

In this particular case, the activists fear that because of the 20-day period and the matter coming before the Collector, s/he would be in turn empowered to possibly give the go ahead without going through the necessary checks and balances. This could open a Pandora's box of large scale conversion from agriculture to non-agriculture land.

Will the proposed amendment to the Goa Land Revenue Rules (whereby the Collector's office will decide on conversion cases if NOCs are not asked within 20 days), lead to unchecked large scale conversions of agricultural land into non-agriculture. If this happens, then the elephant in the room is always the builder lobby and others who could use these loopholes to carry out constructions.

At the same time, it could encourage locals to simply convert land for their own purposes. Conversion itself is not a crime. But when you convert in a haphazard manner, without the checks and balances that are needed, then our environment, land use and everything is adversely impacted.

The safeguards that are there for protecting our lands are gradually crumbling. So, the moot question here is will the proposed amendment to the Goa Land Revenue (Conversion of use of land and non-agricultural assessment) Rules, 1969 will lead to unchecked conversions?

Who will benefit from this amended rule – the common land owner or the builder lobby or the politicians? Will it help streamline the conversion process or give birth to a new set of problems for the administration, which is already reeling under the impact of land scams in the State, exposed by the Herald newspaper?

Soter D’Souza, columnist and Panchayati Raj Activist said that in land conversions, the rich are the gainers and the poor are the losers.

“I am a Gaonkar and belong to a village. When you talk about village panchayat, it means it is a rural economy. Therefore, all these land conversion laws are very dangerous in the sense that they don’t consider whether the economy is rural or urban. Everyone is treated in a blanket manner and that is how we see destruction taking place in the villages,” D’Souza said.

Citing an example of Porvorim, the Panchayati Raj expert said that everyday patches of forest were being cut down in the area.

“We can do nothing because they flash the conversion sanad, whenever we try to stop unauthorized construction. I think we need to rationalize our land requirement needs. Although we need housing and industries because of the climate change phenomenon that we are witnessing, we can’t just replace trees with concrete structures. There are flyovers on one side, tar roads, concrete structures but no trees,” he said.

The senior columnist said that while on one hand the government wants people to pursue agriculture, on the other hand the authorities are encouraging construction at the edge of the fields.

“By allowing constructions around the field, sunlight and wind are blocked, while sewage enters the fields. After some time the place is no longer profitable for the farmer. Hence, we can say that the land conversion benefits the rich and penalizes the poor. They will destroy Goa by doing these kinds of activities,” he said.

Adv Radharao Gracias said that under the present procedure, you move the claim for conversion before the Collector or the Deputy Collector. Then, the Deputy Collector sends the file to various departments like the Land Survey, Forest and Mamlatdar amongst others.

“Now, what the proposed amendment (to the Goa Land Revenue Rules, 1969) seeks to do is if the authorities fail to give a report to the government that the said plot is forest land and hence can’t be converted. Or, the Revenue department can state that the particular area comes under khazan land and hence can’t be approved for conversion,” Adv Gracias said.

What this proposed rule aims to do is if the report doesn’t come within the stipulated time, then the Collector may grant the conversion without reference to the ground status of the land.

“Actually, there may not be much problem with this new system because it gives the applicant the right to get a response to his application in a particular time. But there has to be due diligence involved before approving the application,” Adv Gracis said.

The senior advocate said, “Suppose someone applies for land conversion which lies under forest area, the applicant then connives with the local forest officer, bribes him and keeps him silent for 20 days. Consequently, no report is sent deliberately and the applicant gets the land converted. This is an easy way for everyone to make money.”

The legal expert sought another amendment wherein, every officer is forced to undergo some kind of punishment in case of failure to report about the land conversion ground status within the stipulated period. This, according to him, will ensure intent amongst the officers.

Swapnesh Sherlekar, Convenor Goa Swabhiman Party said that while the clause related to intent sounded good theoretically, implementing it practically won’t be possible.

“If we look at the issue of intent, there is no doubt that the public in general would be the beneficiary. But we have almost all the politicians from BJP involved in Real Estate business. Ideally if I look at it, this is a case of conflict of interest as they themselves are in the construction sector. And, conversion is the basic aspect of getting a land converted from agriculture to non-agriculture purpose,” Sherlekar said.

He said that till now no one has come up with an explanation on the need of this proposed amendment.

“My feeling is since most of the politicians from BJP are in the construction sector; they are conniving with the builder lobby to expedite the process of converting the agricultural land into non-agricultural purposes. Out of the four departments – Town and Country Planning and Forest have their own department. Mamlatdar and Land Survey are under the Revenue department. The Collector is head of administration in the district. If he is unable to get a report from his subordinates, what is the purpose he is serving then?” questioned Sherlekar.

According to him, this proposed amendment is not going to strengthen the system.  As of now, the system is already weakened and the amendment is going to further weaken it.

Speaking about the fundamental flaws in the proposed rule, Abhijeet Prabhudessai, General Secretary, Rainbow Warriors said that legally, this rule doesn’t stand a chance if it is challenged.

“The departments included are TCP and Forest department, effectively. The reports of Inspector of Survey and Land Records and Mamlatdar are always nil. We have seen in numerous cases; they don’t do anything about it. So, only two departments are being consulted,” Prabhudessai said.

Now, at the present juncture, there are a number of laws which state that land can’t be used for other purposes.

“For example, there are Wetland Rules. The Goa State Wetland Authority has identified many wetlands. If this rule is implemented, conversions will take place in violation of that law. When any legislature is being done, it is assumed that it is in accordance with the law. But this shows complete ignorance of the law,” the green activist alleged.

Citing another example, he said that the Command Area Development Act requires no land which is irrigated for conversion. But that data is unavailable.

“You are going to get irrigated land converted, in violation of the existing law. You have the National Water Policies Act, where no recharged area can be touched. That is not being taken into account. You have the Biodiversity Board, which has been given a number of tasks. One recent task is climate change,” Prabhudessai said.

Quoting the Board, he said that 15% of Goa’s land is going to be under continuous flooding.

“The Biodiversity Board must be consulted. Even other agencies like the Panchayat should have been consulted. The fact remains that the land rights have not been granted to the people, neither in Goa, nor in other parts of the country. As a result, the conversion process is usually targeting the land of poor tribals, poor farmers and fishermen who don’t have land rights and therefore are getting continuously displaced across the State,” he said.

The Panchayat has to be considered as it is responsible for a number of other things like inventory and is a constitutional body at the grassroots level.

“This process is ignoring all of them. Now there are more legal aspects like the Supreme Court order, which is there from February 2015. It states that Goa government will not issue any No Objection Certificate (NOC) for conversion of any plot that has natural vegetation like tree canopy. When you are bringing in any new legislation, you have to comply with the Supreme Court orders,” the General Secretary of Rainbow Warriors informed.

The State government has notified 46.1 sq km area in the state as private forest, in compliance with an order by the National Green Tribunal.

He said that Forest department officials have to visit every location to identify these forests.

“For me fundamentally, the most important thing is precautionary steps. The conversion of land is an environmental issue because you are changing land status from agriculture to non-agriculture. Precautionary principle says that unless you know, you don’t change the status. History of Goa is not about the government and the chief minister. The history of Goa is about the struggle for stopping land conversion from mid-2000, starting with the Regional Plan 2006 and Goa Bachao Abhiyan days,” he revealed.

Prabhudessai said that the entire struggle has had one agenda – say no to land conversions.

Soter D’Souza said that the proposed amendment bypasses not only the panchayats, but also the municipalities, which are supposed to implement all the government programmes like the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and ‘Swayampurna Goa’.

“We are only ‘Atmanirbhar’ in garbage now, Swayampurna in dengue and malaria. The reason for this is indiscriminate land conversion. The exotic species of flora and fauna in Goa are under danger. The fallout is that the towns have already been destroyed. Now the villages will also meet the same fate,” D’Souza said.

He said that the Land Revenue Code is a colonial law, which was applied in Goa after liberation.

“Most of the land rights are with the comunidades, but were never accommodated in this law. Even now, the comunidades are not consulted on what would be the repercussions of conversions. Because, this also has a bearing on the comunidade land. It is not just looking after land for housing. It is also looking after the natural resources,” the Panchayati Raj Activist said.

He added that the bigger culprit is the Town and Country Planning Act, which is being used to justify conversions under the Land Revenue Code.

“Everyone knows how the Regional Plans and ODPs are made, how the colour coding for land is done. In many cases orange shade is used arbitrarily, without considering that there could be small patches of forest and lakes. That is why conversion checks are required. Our water bodies have vanished as they have been covered with sand as the entire area is shown in the map as a commercial zone,” he said.

But why would a democratically elected government take decisions that would be actually detrimental to the welfare of the majority of the population, because this affects all local administrative bodies? What purpose does it serve for a government politically?

“This entire conversion issue was the creation of the Congress party in the past. The BJP came to power accusing the Congress party of this mess and promised to offer solutions to it. But now instead of offering any solution, they are capitalizing on it and the real estate lobby is making more money,” Adv Radharao Gracias alleged.

Goa has become a highly desirable place to live. People, who have made lots of money outside through dubious means outside Goa, come here and buy property.

“In a village like Assagao, a four-bedroom bungalow is sold for Rs 8 crore. Is there any Goan who can afford a house for such an exorbitant sum? The government isn’t doing anything to control property rates. The whole issue is who makes more money. In Goa, mining is no longer operational. The only thing that is left is land. The politicians are destroying the land, destroying the villages. The onus is on the voters to clean this mess,” Adv Gracias said.

Accusing the voters of being dishonest, the legal expert said that politicians make money by selling land, which is used to buy the voters who in turn willingly support such candidates.

“This would never happen if the voters were honest. As long as the voters remain dishonest, the situation in Goa will never improve. Many of those who made money through dubious means have contested elections. In every constituency now, at least in the South, many candidates who contested elections made money through dubious means. People are clamouring for them as they are getting a share of the pie,” he said.

He said that the problem has to be addressed at the voters-level. A movement has to be started where the voter is educated and commits to vote on merit.

Endorsing this view, Soter D’Souza said that the voters are electing candidates who are into Real Estate and mining.

“This money coming from mining and construction sectors is circulating in politics. Even in panchayat elections, the sarpanch is involved in Real Estate. If such a candidate is elected, one should not expect him to do social work. He will try to promote his business to make money for buying votes in the next elections. People don’t have the moral right to lament on Goa’s deteriorating situation as they are also a party to it,” he said.

Abhijeet Prabhudessai said that one has to look for the root cause of this problem, which is the feudal system that has prevailed in this coastal State for long.

“There has been a ruling class and there has been an oppressed class, which is in majority. Now, the first thing that should have happened is that land rights and other socio-economic rights of the poor should have been first upheld. The situation today is, the defenders of Goa are the poor and oppressed people. Today, even their houses don’t belong to them,” Prabhudessai said.

This is the situation in almost all talukas, even in Salcete.  Even in Curtorim, the majority of the community can’t speak due to fear of the feudal landlords and the government.

“Today we have around 60,000-70,000 people working for the government. At the time of liberation, the number was only 2,000. These people got circulars warning them against taking up any issue against the government. All of them are naturally not only keeping themselves out of their constitutional duty, they are keeping out another 25 people. They ask these people to remain quiet fearing government persecution,” he said.

In a system where most of the people are oppressed, you can’t bring in change in land use pattern unless the people are given their rights.

Soter D’Souza said that the Real Estate players used the Mundkar Act (The Goa Daman and Diu Mundkars (Protection from Eviction) Act 1975) to get the tenants to fight for land and took it away from them. He said in the 1980s, outsiders did not dare to enter Tiracol village as the entire unit was so strong.

Swapnesh Sherlekar said that the Mundkar Act was a beneficiary legislation, and if someone is benefitting out of it, is not supposed to sell the land. At least under the Agriculture Tenancy Act, he is not supposed to change the land use. This is exactly where the mamlatdar comes into the picture with his recommendation on the conversion sanad.

“If these things are not looked into by the Collector, there is 100% chance that his or her decision to approve or reject land conversion application will always be a mistake. It will be a wrong decision taken by the Collector,” Sherlekar said.

The experts have clearly pointed out the numerous gaps that are there in the proposed amendment. The government authorities would do good by taking a cue from the points that have been made in this debate to prevent a new set of controversies erupting in the State.


IDhar UDHAR

Iddhar Udhar