Cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Cartoon by Khalil Bendib

The naturally well-endowed state of Goa occupies less than 1% of India’s landmass. Yet, the charm of the place and the hospitable nature of its local inhabitants now draw some 3-4 million people to enjoy its sheer beauty. Nothing of that awesome handsomeness has been constructed by any government. Almost all of it has come from the labours of a community expert in the maintenance of rice fields, paddies, khazan systems, and a low intensive life-style that is underscored by the spirit of soscegad  (taking it easy) – the key component of a tourist industry. The result of these efforts over decades is that the Goa region looks like a painting and the local artists who created it have really never bothered about how many people came to see it and enjoy it.

The government of Goa, however, has remained unimpressed. Over the years, it has tried zealously not to build on those assets, but to grind them to dust. Not surprising, every single project conceived by government or by companies or compradors have chewed up some part of Goa or another. The forests have been assaulted by mining, led by Vedanta, headquartered in England. But almost every 5-star hotel on the beach has been put up by operators and chains from outside the state. Each has taken down parts of the pristine beach system and crammed it with their imported fantasias in concrete, disdainful of local architectural designs.

Not unnaturally, the Goans have protested and continued to protest. Those promoting wholesale industrialisation of the state cavil and complain that environmental agitations are the greatest disincentive to a better economy for the state. They forget that even with the closure of mining, Goa’s GDP, over the past three years, averaged 9%, higher than the rest of India’s. Not wanting to get their image tarred by being associated with those bulldozing the environment for inappropriate development, the best names in industry have remained aloof from Goa. Alas, that has brought in those with undoubted capacity to do harm.

The state’s land-use is controlled by the statutory Regional Plan, notified under the Town and Country Planning Act. Village level planning and land use is kept with Panchayats under the 73rd Constitutional Amendment. Both have significant inputs from the same villagers whose ancestors created the natural wealth and endowments of the state. Few of them want that to be dismembered. The oppositions have never ceased, since the government has no other wish but to impose. One former Chief Minister told the media that his word was law because he had been elected by a formal election, and therefore, he would do what he wanted, whatever the opposition.

It has been obvious to the Goa government that its hukum (authority) nonetheless is circumscribed with all the notifications and regulations all sourced to itself, and unless these are changed, done away with or bypassed, nothing will move. For example, it had to cancel more than one dozen SEZs in one single day. It had to scrap the statutory Regional Plan of 2011 in toto and go for a redesign from scratch because the public demanded so. It had to cancel DuPont. It is unable to allow promoters to put up yet more hotels. One hotel resort proposed by one more Delhi company has been unable to lay a brick on its properties on a south Goan beach because the local villagers refuse to have it there.

Instead of dealing with this issue with care and compassion, the almighty government, quite clearly riled beyond tolerance, has decided instead to take back all those rights and powers it had granted to the local communities and local statutory bodies by simply bypassing them altogether.

So first, the government amended the Industrial Development Act and removed all industrial estates from the jurisdiction of the Panchayats. Next, it announced a Goa Investment Policy (August 2014) and followed this up with the Goa Investment Promotion Act. This Act is designed to provide a “single-window” clearance in lieu of clearances under the Regional Plan, the Land Revenue Code, any notified development plans, and even the Panchayat Raj Act. In fact, the Act ominously states: “All provisions in Government of Goa Acts and Statutes cease to apply” in all those areas declared “Investment Promotion Areas.” The Act is to be implemented through the Goa Investment Promotion and Facilitation Board (GIPFB). Interesting, the composition of the Board comprises the same bunch of officials and individuals who have been singular failures in the past: the CM is chairperson; there are three VPs (the Ministers of Industry, Tourism and IT), two Secretaries of Industry and Tourism, six persons associated with industry associations and industry.

The Board’s task is to give an omnibus clearance, notwithstanding all local laws, to any project proponent who “promises” investment of Rs. 5 crores and above, and local employment. How such an unconstitutional policy can become the basis of any development in the state is difficult to fathom. It is bound to get knocked down by the courts one day or another.

The Goa Investment Promotion Act has been followed by changes in the Town and Country Planning Act. The amendments to the Act now allow those owning lands in excess of 20,000 sq.mts in eco-sensitive zones notified by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to put up ecotourism projects in 5% of the area. Obviously, no aam aadmi in Goa owns that much land, only khaas aadmis do. Neither has the MoEF&CC finally notified the zones. But the Goa government is already rushing in anticipation to ensure that the people who have acquired large tracts of lands will not be inconvenienced in any way by the declarations. The purpose of declaring an area as an eco-sensitive zone is to protect it. However, here we have a situation where law is being amended even before the notification is issued, so that powerful actors can gird themselves to do the necessary damage.

These changes in the Town Planning Act have been put as well outside the scope of the Regional Plan and the Land Revenue Code.

This process of exclusion of the rights of people to a planned environment and as members of local bodies is being extended to trees as well. The coconut tree has been recently defined out of existence to enable industries and real estate developers to engage in mass slaughter of palms.

If you wish to understand how these profoundly undemocratic laws are interlinked and enmeshed with each other, take the case of Vani Agro in South Goa. The plot on which this new alcohol plant is proposed has a thousand coconut trees and 500 cashew trees. The proposal has been approved by the GIPFB, which means the restrictions governing the statutory land use in the Regional Plan do not apply, and there is no need of getting any approval from the local authority either for the construction licence. The final nail on the coffin: the coconut and cashew trees can be felled with impunity, almost with a vengeance. That’s pretty much how Goa is being governed nowadays.

Most of this population is literate. One prominent Goan, Keith Vaz, occupies high posts in the UK government. Another Goan origin resident of Portugal has recently become its Prime Minister. Writers like Sudhir Kakkar and Amitav Ghosh reside here, together with Patricia Sethi, Maria Aurora Couto and Wendell Rodricks.

The government of Goa, however, remains unimpressed.

In the last year and week, it has moved rapidly to introduce draconian super laws that allow decision-making contrary to the requirements of basic democratic canons of consultation and transparency.  Either it does not trust the voters who pitched it to power, or it does not think they are worthy of any consultation. It considers Goan citizens as simply irrelevant to the entire business of governance.

In just one day in the Goa Assembly, the government got a bill passed that amended the Goa Preservation of Trees Act, 1984. The amendment moves the coconut tree outside the zone of protection and permits anyone to fell it freely, as often as one wishes.

It has determined that the hoary coconut tree and the cashew as well, both intimately linked with every Goan soul, are obstacles to development. Both have been offloaded from the botanical train in order to make way for development.

If that were not bad enough, it brought in an amendment the same day to the Town and Country Planning Act. The amended Act will entertain applications from persons or developers in possession of 20,000 sq.mts and above for ecotourism resorts in the ecologically fragile areas. The areas are yet to be declared ESAs by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. However, advance preparations for introducing eco-resorts in such areas are already underway.

In 2014, the same government came up with another draconian Act, called the Public Investment Act. This Act enabled anyone ready to make an investment of Rs. 5,000 crores and above to get any area he wished as “industrial area”. After that was done, no State laws including the Planning Act, the Panchayat Act or the Land Revenue Code would apply.

(Claude Alvares is an environmentalist based in Goa.)