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In Goa, villagers debate IIT campus under the shadow of guns

Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale | First published: 12 December 2016, 22:50 IST
IIT Goa gram sabha under the shadow of guns
Photo: Nihar Gokhale/Catch News

On Sunday, 27 November, nearly 120 policemen and women stood guard with lathis at a school in a village at the southern end of Goa. Twelve others carried automatic guns.

In command were a posse of three sub-inspectors, one police inspector, the deputy superintendent of police, and the district's deputy collector.

It was a bright, windless day, when even the thick forests on the western ghats at a distance appeared to stand still. This could have been the scene of a police raid on an underworld gang, or a stash of black money.

But the armed bandobast was the unlikely setting for a gram sabha - a public meeting called by the village panchayat at Loliem, a forested village of 5,000 residents in South Goa's Canacona taluka.

"Over 1,700 people were present at the gram sabha - more than three times the village's usual turnout"

The villagers of Loliem, a proverbial sleepy village at the edge of the Western Ghats overlooking the Arabian Sea, had seen nothing like it in their lives - neither the armed policemen, nor the attendance at the sabha. Over 1,700 people were present - more than three times the village's usual turnout.

Yet, the villagers were not surprised.

For the last six months, far from the attention of most of the media outside the state, Loliem has been on the boil, after it was announced that the Indian Institute of Technology's Goa campus would come up on a 300-acre plot in the village.

The village is split between a large number of people who oppose the IIT, and a smaller, more powerful group, led by the village sarpanch, which supports it.

Over time, the disagreements have deepened as the state government has largely ignored the opposition. With an increasing desperation to hand over land to the IIT before the state polls in 2017, the standoff is likely to continue and possibly worsen.

Will Goa witness the first ever protracted land struggle for an IIT?

A village divided

IIT Goa gram sabha
Photo: Nihar Gokhale/Catch News
The gram sabha saw a large turnout, with a lot of people opposed to the proposed campus.

After the IIT campus was first announced in May, several villagers, organised as the Citizens' Committee of Loliem, led by 39-year old resident Denis Fernandes, began writing to IIT and the state government (whose job is to acquire and hand over the land), outlining their objections to the campus' location, a 1000-acre plateau known as Bhagwati Moll.

Although uninhabited, the plateau consists of village common land meant for grazing, monsoon cultivation, and cashew plantations.

Moreover, as the committee contended, the porous laterite rock of the plateau - endemic to India's Western coast - recharges wells in the villagers' homes and fields, which are situated on the forested slopes of the plateau before they level out near the Arabian Sea.

Bhagwati Moll is also a sacred place for the villagers, with a Bhagwati temple and the path of an annual religious procession right where the IIT is to come up.

Emphasising that it isn't against the IIT itself but its venue, the committee's chief contention is that the IIT will choke the supply of water to the village, which is already facing a shortage, as well as disturb the wildlife, such as leopards and bisons, on the plateau, which was listed as an eco-sensitive part of the Western Ghats landscape by both well-known expert committees led by Madhav Gadgil and K Kasturirangan.

"Bhagwati Moll - the site for the proposed IIT campus - is also a sacred place for the villagers"

Those in support of the IIT are led by the village sarpanch, Bhushan Prabhu Gaonkar. The group, known as MIND - Movement for IIT and National Development - also consists of Prashant Naik, who runs private schools in the region, and former sarpanch Mohandas Loliemkar.

The group claims that the IIT campus will boost the local economy, which has few job opportunities outside agriculture. It claims that the IIT will encourage Goans to seek admission there, and also give several direct and indirect opportunities to locals, many of whom have left the village in search of work. Most of the state media has also been vocally in support of the IIT.

However, neither the state government and nor the IIT administration responded to the villagers - they continued with survey work. This is why villagers began demanding a gram sabha to discuss the issue and put it to vote.

On 26 October, in another sabha, around 500 persons supported a resolution - with just four against - that sought to ban all construction activities on all the plateaus in the village, including Bhagwati Moll. Those in favour of the resolution included all eight members of the Panchayat, except the sarpanch.

IIT Goa gram sabha
Photo: Nihar Gokhale/Catch News
Loliem sarpanch Bhushan Prabhu Gaonkar with top officials at the gram sabha.

"Church-backed opposition"

In the week leading up to the special gram sabha, sarpanch Prabhu Gaonkar, along with a few others, conducted several corner meetings in the village, ostensibly to canvass favourable votes at the gram sabha.

At one of the corner meetings at a Hindu-dominant hamlet of the village, the sarpanch told villagers that they should not fall for "Church-backed" propaganda, in a supposed reference to Denis Fernandes. The sarpanch said Fernandes had "not spent a single pie" for the village's welfare, and in fact, had cashew plantations near the IIT site that he wanted to save.

"People are inculcating negative thoughts in your mind. You should support development," he said.

There, he was confronted by residents, who were incensed at the comments. "They are creating divisions within the people here, like in an election," said Balkrishna Chari.

The gram sabha

The standoff became apparent at the special gram sabha.

To the surprise of most villagers, the sabha was attended by the same officials who had earlier not responded to the villagers: state education secretary Nila Mohanan, state director for education Vivek Kamat, besides IIT faculty - Prof. Shiva Prasad, who is in-charge of IIT Goa, and Prof. Rodney Fernandes, who belongs to the same region.

However, despite the state government sending its seniormost staff (just short of ministers themselves), the villagers remain unconvinced.

Over two hours, villagers asked several questions about the availability of jobs, water and about whether the religious processions would still be allowed. Queries about water were the most common, especially after the education secretary revealed that the campus would consume around one million litres of water each day.

"Where will this water come from? For the last 35 years I am receiving just one hour of water supply everyday," hollered Santan D'Casta, one of the nine elected members of the Loliem panchayat.

Although the officials said they would build a water tank for the village, most villagers remained unconvinced about where the water would come from, since the region is surrounded by the hills on one side and the sea on another, and so cannot rely on water from elsewhere.

Finally, Mohanan said that a committee had been formed under the state government's Science and Technology Innovation Council to assess new sources of water.

"The education secy says the campus will consume around one million litres of water every day"

Responding to queries about the path of the religious procession, Prof. Shiva Prasad only said that IITs could not exist without cooperating with the local communities, and that IIT Bombay had renovated and maintained the Padmavati Temple in its premises.

At the end of two hours, amid calls to finally take the vote, faculty and officials were escorted out of the premises.

But much to the surprise of the villagers, the sarpanch announced that the sabha had been adjourned, since attendance signatures of only 500 persons had been secured, and everyone would not be covered before 5 pm. Under police cover, the sarpanch left the venue, taking along the panchayat secretary.

The unexpected adjournment sparked an outrage in the audience, as several men and women rushed to block his car, which was pulling out. The commotion led to a small lathicharge by the police, which formed a chain to allow the sarpanch's car to leave.

The adjournment has incensed the villagers, many of whom had hired buses to come to the venue. They were not convinced by the reason for adjournment and found it suspicious.

"This is harassment. So many people came here to vote. If it was going to take so long to take attendance signatures then why did he call the gram sabha at 10 am and not at 8 am?" Denis Fernandes asked.

"This is gross misuse of power. A lot of people who were here were clearly against the IIT, which is why he has adjourned it," said Siddharth Aiya, a young villager who works as a Laboratory Assistant in a nearby school.

Even though most villagers had left, around 500 persons assembled back at the venue, along with four elected members of the panchayat. Together, they passed a resolution rejecting the IIT campus.

When Catch asked the deputy collector Kedar Naik if this resolution was legal, he refused to comment. "I am here only for the security arrangements," he said.

Aftermath

On 30 November, the Goa government's director of panchayats, Gurudas Pilarnekar, issued a memorandum to the panchayat, stating that the resolution taken by the four panchayat members was valid. To the press, he said that the sarpanch's reason for adjournment was not as per law.

On 2 December, Pilarnekar reversed his position, calling the resolution invalid. While the media had reported him as saying that the adjournment was not as per rules, his new statement, based on an inquiry by the department, indicated that the adjournment was as per rules, while the resolution was not.

On the same day, the sarpanch, accompanied by three other panchayat members, submitted a letter to Goa chief minister Parsekar, calling for a study of the impacts of the IIT on, among other concerns, water security.

But on the same day, the sarpanch filed a police complaint against eight villagers including two women on charges of rioting, wrongful restraint, and assault. In his FIR he said that the villagers were "armed with stones" which they pelted at his car before he left.

To Catch, Prabhu Gaonkar said that the panchayat will hold a meeting to decide the date on which the gram sabha would be resumed. He added that in any case the resolution wouldn't matter since IIT is a national project and it is not yet clear whether the gram sabha has any legal mandate to have a say on it.

The village continues to remain tense.

Shubham Lolayekar, a school student, whose parents oppose the project, has recently revealed that he was "pressurised" by his teacher who "raised his voice and told me to tell my parents not to support the IIT," he wrote on a social media post. "I was pressurised ... I can prove it."

A desperate government

When the IIT Goa was inaugurated from its temporary campus in July 2016, Union Defence Minister and former Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar had told the press that "there is a trend in Goa of protesting. We want to acquire the land before these protests arise".

Indeed, government files accessed by activists through RTI show that the villagers were largely kept in the dark from the time it began the process of acquiring the land in January 2016.

Even after objections were raised, the state government kept insisting that only a small group of villagers were opposing the project. Sports minister Ramesh Tawadkar, who is the MLA from the Canacona constituency that Loliem falls under - recently said that the opposition was misguided and their claims were due to some 'misunderstanding'.

Government records also show that it has tried since 2014 to get land for IIT Goa, and Loliem is the state government's last and only option. The initial plan was to set up the IIT at Pernem in North Goa. But it was ruled out by the state because it required the acquisition of around 200 acres of private property. Pernem is Goa Chief Minister Parsekar's constituency.

***

A week before the gram sabha, this correspondent visited the Bhagwati plateau.

Waist-high grass grows on the rocky parts, which is used for grazing by not just by cattle, but also wild animals such as bison that come from the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary just across the plateau. At the plot where the IIT is to come up, we recorded droppings of a leopard, and of pangolin, besides wild hares. Locals report the presence of pythons too.

Three locals, who have been making the climb up to the plateau since their childhood and who guided me, pointed out a cave hidden behind a clump of trees. The two-foot high cave, they said, is where the leopard lives, and where they have also seen pythons less than a year ago.

As we walked on the grassland, we were kept company by a crested serpent eagle, which kept swooping down into the grasses, as if looking for something. Sure enough, a little later, we chanced upon the carcass of a small bird. All that remained were its green coloured head and feathers and some bones.

Although the IIT site selection committee reports it to be a barren rocky land, the plateau is full of life, and not just the natural.

We paused at a cluster of rocks from where a dried up tree arose.

Frank Rebello, a senior citizen who has been coming to the plateau since he was a child, paused to pray to the largest of the rocks. A closer look revealed a few coins were also kept on the rock. "This is our ancestral god. It falls on the path of the yearly procession," Rebello said.

Later, as we made our descent back to the village, he said: "I am willing to die for this land."

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 12 December 2016, 22:50 IST
 
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics...

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