The recent amendment into the Goa Panchayati Raj Act envisages that if a Block Development Officer (BDO) fails to determine whether a construction permission should be given or not and communicate his decision to the applicant within a period of thirty days from the date of intimation by the Secretary or receipt of the appeal, immediately upon expiration of such a period of thirty days, such permission shall be deemed to have been granted to the applicant to execute the work.
The government’s stated objective for the amendment is “to create a transparent and efficient mechanism to streamline the process of grant of permissions, licenses and occupancy certificates under the said Act”.
However, in a bid to create a transparent and efficient mechanism, the only change the government has incorporated from the original law, is that instead of putting the onus of finally granting or rejecting the permission on the Deputy Director of Panchayats, it has now been shifted to the shoulders of the BDO if the panchayat body drags its feet on the application. In addition, the secretary of the respective panchayat is duty-bound to accept the fees for construction or renovation applied for after the 60 days period as the permission is deemed granted.
The bill was passed earlier this year during the winter session of the Assembly, on January 18, and on the same day, the Goa Regularization of Unauthorized Construction (Amendment) Bill, 2023, was also passed providing an additional 90 days period for applications for any unauthorized construction carried out before February 28, 2014. Both the bills were passed by show of strength in the Assembly and with the Governor’s assent, the amendment bills have now become laws.
A closer scrutiny of the two laws is necessary and the amendments in the two Acts if taken together will unleash precedence for large-scale unauthorized and illegal construction in the rural landscape of the State. Once a project receives technical clearance from the Town and Country Planning Department - unless the panchayat or the BDO specifically rejects the application - the construction is bound to proceed. The only remedy that remains later is to challenge the construction and demand a demolition, which is a far-fetched reality to dream about. The case in example is the ongoing tussle to demolish the alleged illegal bungalow constructed at Old Goa within the close vicinity of the Basilica of Bom Jesus.
Under the original Act, the failure to communicate the decision by the Panchayat over the application was deemed ‘remiss’ in the performance of duties by the Panchayat. However, the amendment neither implies that the panchayat or the BDO have failed in their duty nor has the government found it fit to penalise the panchayat or the BDO for the dereliction of duty.
The real estate lobby, as well as individuals are seemingly vying to take away a share of the rural land pie in the form of commercial establishments or individual as well as multi-dwelling complex projects. With the current provision and no clause or caveat for holding any elected representative or officer responsible, has the government opened the gateway for rampant construction in the garb of ‘permission deemed granted’ in the green zones of Goa?
Kumar Kalanand Mani, Secretary, Peaceful Society has witnessed the process of giving construction licenses up and close since 1983.
When asked about the difference he found between the panchayat’s approach back then and now, Mani said, “There is a lot of difference between the functioning of panchayats in the 90s and now. Panchayats earlier were village-oriented and now their approach leans more towards business. It took me only seven days to obtain a construction license and four to five hours to get the occupancy certificate during the 90s in Madkai village.”
“No officials expected any money from me and there was no concept of red tapism back then. But when I was building my house at Kadamba Plateau, I had to run pillar to post between TCP, panchayat and Health departments,” he said.
“As per the 73rd amendment, panchayats were supposed to have more rights and become stronger. But I feel panchayats before this amendment were more independent. Today the revenue in the panchayats may be more, but they are not functioning the way they were designed to. The government was expected to enable the process of implementing the 73rd amendment through DVC or through the Finance Commission but both of these big systems have failed to do so. Hence, panchayats today have become political pawns and manipulative centres,” Mani said.
The government should assesswith a neutral approach why the panchayats are not carrying out their legal duties and the measures required to take to strengthen them.
“The government for the last many years has been downsizing the panchayats through amendments and that is not right. Instead, the government should focus on how to strengthen the bureaucracy and functionaries and make gram sabha as a village parliament. Unfortunately, Goa is losing its identity due to the construction, which is mushrooming everywhere,” he said.
Reacting to the concerns that this amendment could encourage rampant constructions, Adv Yatish Naik, BJP spokesperson said, “When an amendment is introduced and passed, there is an intention behind it. That intention is understood only after thoroughly studying the amendment. It was specifically said that mushrooming of buildings will occur due to the amendment, but that is not so. The intention of the legislature is actually to ensure accountability is brought into the administration of the panchayats.”
The panchayat steps in when the applicant requires the final construction license. However, the technical clearance is issued by the TCP. Many times what happens in technical clearance is given, but the panchayat does not issue licenses. That means if one department does not approve the plan and the technical clearance, he/she cannot do anything.
If the plan is approved and the applicant has the technical clearance, but the panchayat or BDO doesn’t issue the license, then does it seem like an attempt to reduce the power of panchayats?
Mohandas Lolyenkar, ex-sarpanch, Loliem VP said, “If my memory serves me right, this provision was already there in the earlier Panchayat Raj Act. But the question is why 60 days? Nearly six months are wasted making rounds of Health Department, TCP etc and then the file is given to the panchayat. The panchayats only work is to check the file, issue the license and collect fees. The technical clearance is already obtained and the panchayat is not the technical body.”
Why have 30 days been stipulated with the panchayat and another 30 with the BDO? Even after all this, what is the accountability?
“There are some officials who will purposely keep the files for 30 days. The panchayat secretary should put the file in the meeting within eight days and sort out this issue. If we were to check the legality of the constructions in rural area as per the TCP Act, then 95% of the houses would be found illegal,” Lolyenkar said.
“The government should first understand why people build illegal houses in the first place and that is because of procedural hassles. They have to run around to obtain various permits. The process is not smooth at all. When I was sarpanch in 1990s, I had proposed a solution where the person building the house should sit down with town planner, mamlatdar and all the other required officials at once and get all the files cleared,” he said.
In the neighbouring states of Maharashtra and Karnataka, a person building house in the rural areas is required to obtain license only from the panchayat. How does one see it?
“Why other permits required anyway? The lawmakers just want the common people to stay trapped in government red-tape. I will give you example of Canacona. There is a railway line at a distance of 30 meters, there is seashore at 500 meters, there is a highway at a distance of 60 meters; so, aren't people supposed to build houses here? Should their houses be then declared illegal?” the ex-sarpanch of Loliem village panchayat said.
All these legalities are not making things convenient for the common people and in fact, are adding more stress to them.
“A common person cannot approach BDO without a mediator like an advocate. So, that means he has to spend more money. And even after all this, the accountability of the officials is still questionable. No official's increment has ever been stopped just because he has kept the proposal pending for 30 days. Now GIA fund has to be given to all the panchayats equally. Suppose there are 25 panchayats in Salcete, but the funds are cleared for only two panchayats. Does the government conduct any inquiry into such actions?” he asked.
When asked whether this amendment be helpful in curbing the corruption or let it rise, Joaquim Santano Rodrigues, who is a former member of Curtorim Zilla Parishad and Convenor of Goa Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) Union, said that BDO actually does not have the role in the Panchayat Raj Act.
“Unlike in the neighbouring States of Karnataka and Maharashtra, who follow three-tier system, Goa follows two-tier system. Earlier there was a Block Advisory Committee (BAC). Now the government has given its role to BDO. These BDOs, appointed by the ministers, don’t listen to us. They will give the licenses as per their will. BDO means Block Development Officer but they don’t facilitate any development,” Rodrigues said.
The BDOs who came after 2010, have become BDOs as per the TCP Act and not the Panchayat Raj Act.
“At our time, only the Deputy Collector and Director of Panchayats would run the development section. Now you have an Additional Director, Deputy Director, there are multiple BDOs and so on. The administration keeps expanding but there is no development. The demographics of the villages have changed. The sarpanchas earlier would sign the documents even at the tea shop and the officers would act promptly,” the convener of Goa PRI Union said.
Let alone the houses, if a mega project is coming up in a village area, then the whole demography changes. A village like Dhargal, which is close to the new airport at Mopa, is witnessing humongous changes.
Bharat Bagkar, Chairman, VDC, Dhargal VP, as a resident of a fast-developing area, had clear thoughts about these amendments.
“I am always prompted to think about the intentions whenever an amendment is introduced. Are the intentions sincere or do they have some other motives behind it? Secondly, which constructions do they intend to regularise as per the Regularisation Act?” he wondered.
Giving an example, he said that suppose a man has four sons who grow up, marry and extend their families. Now they need to move into individual houses, but do not have money to buy land. So, the father allots the agriculture land to them to build their houses.
“Of course, those houses will be considered illegal because they are built on cultivable land. I feel, the government should come up with a plan where they should check the authenticity of the ownership of the land and if the land really belongs to that person, then they should regularise his house. What happens actually is that beneficiaries are someone else. Tomorrow if the slum areas pop up in the State and they get regularised, it would add tremendous stress on the resources here,” Bagkar said.
He said that the government should study the constructions, prepare data and then regularise the constructions.
“The important question is whose properties are being legalised? The government should have a clear intention and should take people along,” the chairman of VDC, Dhargal VP said.
Mani added, “What I don’t understand is the need to bring this amendment. I have been to many villages but I have never heard that panchayats asked money from people to do their work. But since the entry of developers and builders’ lobby, the mega projects that come into the villages have started to destroy its culture, demographic and the overall economy.”
“I wonder if the amendment is brought to facilitate the lobbies. Panchayat is a constitutional body that is meant to protect the village. It is up to the panchayat and its people to decide things they want or the ones they don’t in the gram sabhas. Administrators sitting in Panjim and Delhi do not have the right to decide what the panchayats want,” he said.
“You do not see the real Goa from Arambol to Palolem. People at the gram sabhas understand the real Goa. If we talk about the efficiency, how efficient the TCP, PDA, Health Department and so on, are? As per their independent regional plan, panchayats can decide what their future requirements are, how much land and other resources are available in the panchayat are etc,” he said.
But today, the panchayats have become mere transfer agencies. When the new cultures get mixed up with the existing cultures of the village, people feel insecure and that is why they look at these amendments suspiciously.
Kalanand Mani said, “Villagers never felt the need to have deemed permission. Whom are you trying to support through backdoor using amendment? If the locals don’t analyse their benefits and losses, then who else will?”
One of the issues with getting the construction licenses is that the process is not people-friendly and due to delay, the overall cost of construction rises. Will the new amendment make this process easier for people?
Yatish Naik quoting other panelists said that in other states, the panchayats itself grant the permission.
“We have to understand that in Goa, municipalities have the technical cell, but the panchayats do not have in-house technical cells. The technical things such as where the soak pit should be or the placement of the toilet, its distance from the well, the place of the water tank etc need specialised assessment,” Naik said.
“You simply cannot wish away the TCP because that is not the way things function. TCP or the PDA in urban areas has a mandate, which should be taken care of as per the Regulations Act. Those technical aspects should be dealt with for proper planning,” Naik said.
Another point that was raised is that once the matter reaches BDO, there will be interference of agents, brokers etc, but that is not so.
“The panchayat secretary has been given the authority to pass the file to BDO even if the applicant does not do so. Again with the BDO, it has been made clear that he needs to act within 30 days. So, the time limit for both of these authorities is the same,” he said.
Contradicting Naik, Lolyekar said that the areas under panchayats such as Navelim, St Cruz, Taliegao, Calangute have become urban settlements. The government has directed the panchayats to give the token numbers to the houses. Most people in rural areas build houses illegally but the government never tried to find out why.
“The government should cite an example for buildings that have received all the technical clearances, but the licenses have not been given. It is not possible for the local people to obtain these technical clearances. Only the big builders who can splurge money get all the technical clearances,” Lolyekar said.
“But many times these big projects are questioned during the gram sabhas and that is why they have brought in this amendment,” he said.
Yatish Naik however said that things don’t work like this, urging the panelist to “read the amendment” properly.
Joaquim Santano Rodrigues said that these amendments are decided by the top brass and pushed to the ground. It should be the opposite. People at the ground level should be consulted and final recommendations should come from the grassroots as such decisions affect the general people, who live at the bottom of the social pyramid.
“There is a municipality as well as Zilla panchayat. Now Mani baab talked about Regional Plan which has No Development Zone (NDZ). Now how come TCP is passing the plan when there is the NDZ? How come the Revenue Department is granting the conversion? What is the need of Panchayat Raj Act? It’s better we scrap it. Let the officers and bureaucrats do everything,” he said
Bharat Bagkar said that now multiple projects are due in the rural areas.
“I have a suggestion regarding giving special status related to lands. Now most of the areas in Pernem are tenants on land which were cultivated by Kul or communities. Those communities should be given the ownership of those lands and terms and conditions should be put in place that these lands should be used only for agriculture and not for commercial purposes,” he said.
Now, the locals who want to build houses there should be exempted.
“As said by Lolyekar baab, 95% of the houses which were built nearly 100 years back are illegal in Goa, so why is the government not taking any action on that?” he asked.
Lolyekar said that the government should first conduct a survey and present the data in front of people that as per the amendment, these many small houses and the big projects have not been given the licences.
“Only then will I believe that the government is doing this for the common people. I have 100% doubts on the intentions behind this amendment,” he said.
Kalanand Mani said that there was still opposition regarding the provision to file appeals before the Deputy Director of Panchayats. It was not in the original law, but now amended. Does this fit into democracy to disrespect the panchayats?
“You can bring in any law through brute power, but are these laws meant to uplift the people or suppress them? Because of the past experiences, panchayats and people have become cautious and that is why they question the objective of these amendments,” he said.
“I remember during 1990s, the construction permission file used to be first sent to the panchayat and not to PWD. Today the file goes first to the TCP. If this is the way the system works, then what is the need of panchayats?” Mani asked.
The activist said that just like the State has the power to decide whether it wants a particular project or not, the panchayat too has the power to decide whether they want to allow a certain project in their jurisdiction.
“Hence, the file should first go to the panchayat. This rift between centralisation and decentralisation has been going on for years. Saying that these laws are meant for greater accountability is a false narrative. It's fully evident whether these laws have helped the Goan villages to progress or regress in the last 20 years. That is why these amendments are questioned and rightfully so,” he said.
Lolyekar said that with reference to the lack of technical staff with the panchayats, earlier once the file reached the panchayat then it would be sent to the Assistant Engineer of PWD's Building Section for the
technical clearance and soon after that the panchayats would issue the construction license.
“Today it has become a tool to trouble the common man by making them run from pillar to post. They have brought in this amendment only to allow the big projects in the panchayat areas as the government knows people would oppose these projects,” he said.
Rodrigues said that through the amendment, the government has even taken away the power of panchayats to discuss the housing projects in the gram sabhas.
Based on the observations made by the various experts, is it possible to ease the legal process to obtain technical clearances?
Adv Yatish Naik said that some measures are already in place such as Notary Architect, which aims at reducing the agony of people standing in queues.
If today a person wants to build a house, let alone a big project, how much time does it take to obtain all the required permits?
Lolyekar said that he has a house in the village of Loliem where houses of both his neighbours are at a distance of 1.5 meters. So how am I supposed to build the house by following the rule of 3 meters here?
Mani said that when he was building his house, he had to go to the panchayat office just four times.
“But I had to make 54 trips to the various government departments for various permissions. Now you make whatever you want to make of it,” Mani said.
Why shouldn’t we have a system where the panchayat itself takes the responsibility of obtaining all the required permits once the applicant files his application? The panchayat could be given the time period of 90 days to complete all the formalities.
On this question Kalanand Mani said, “The Goa Land Development and Building Construction Regulations, 2010 should also be discussed in retrospective. There are various matters such as exploitation by professionals. It's not that only officials trouble the
Yatish Naik said that there is a sea of difference between the Act which was there earlier and the amended version.
While the government says that the amendment will make the panchayats more accountable, the members of the civil society feel that panchayats should decide what should be allowed in the village. Previously, only a PWD engineer's approval was enough, unlike today where the applicant has to run from pillar to post.
It is evident that there are many grey areas in the amendment that need to be cleared by the government and should assuage the fears of the people that the amendment will not become an instrument to push concretisation in the villages.