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  Siege of Goa… defeated!

Amidst a real estate boom all around, urban folk command market prices for their land. But with rural and public lands, state governments have become high-handed land brokers. A price is fixed for vast tracts of land covering several villages, the state gets it acquisition machinery going, archaic laws are cited to support state action, promise of jobs in manufacturing or tourism are dangled and acquired property is handed over to business houses that wait in the wings with unctuous dignity, and they say, fat bags of bribes.

There is a collusion at work between commercial interests and politicians across the political spectrum to deny rights to native and accustomed habitats. Whether it is the right-wing in Gujarat that is callous about the Narmada-displaced or the left-wing in Bengal that hands over 1,000 acres of farmlands to a car factory in Singhur, the issue is the same. Who determines the price and decides to sell or not? - particularly, when public works like roads and bridges are not involved?

The foregoing is an emerging problem in India. The problem is slowly creeping into people’s awareness but knowing the problem is not enough. It won’t go away unless we seek a solution. The good news is, there is one. We have Goa to thank, for demonstrating it. It is worth studying in some detail.

India’s nouveau-riche has settled on Goa as a make-believe riviera that will do for it. The natural exuberance of Goans is packaged by resorts, hotels and spas as an ambience and lifestyle to bask in. Every surplusing coffer in the country therefore, wants to buy a toe-hold in Goa. Non Resident Indians and foreigners too are buying in. According to a detailed media report [-and a happy fallout]Russian mafia is brazenly buying property, breaking every law. It is widely agreed that politicians of all colours are in cahoots with commercial interests.

Therefore the Regional Plan 2011 [RP] unveiled in August,2006 by the state government should have come as no surprise to the people. It didn’t. But what surprised everyone was the collective, public anger that led to massive street action.

RP was the production of a Delhi based consultancy with dubious inputs from Goa’s Town and Country Planning [TCP]. There had been a draft RP in circulation for three years which elicited 1,000 objections. The final plan barely acknowledged them. It seeks to convert 1,500 hectares of forests, agricultural land and orchards as open to developers. Goa’s 105 km long coastline would be thrown open to construction. Builders, mafia, politicians and the wealthy had laid siege on Goa. Goans were trapped and their spirit was nearly emasculated. But they fought back.

The siege of Goa lasted five months. During this period common citizens and celebrity marched in the streets, explained the threat, wrote in blogs, signed petitions, unnerved their politicians and made the government uneasy. Media stepped in. 

Most commendably, NDTV aligned itself with the besieged. In a series of exposes. It revealed the nexus between policy makers and developers, covered rallies and gave ordinary citizens a powerful platform. As the campaign continued, the church condemned the plan and slowly politicians ignored party loyalty and joined the struggle. Artists, cartoonists, poets and commentators spoke out. On New Year’s eve 2006, swinging parties as well as orhanised protests made news.

On January 3, 2007 the controversial minister Babush Monserrate resigned. He had personified the plan but everyone knew more than one man was responsible. An NDTV expose showed the Chief Minister Rane’s son was deep in deals that would be benefited by the RP. This was virtually confirmed when Rane rejected Monserrate’s resignation.

Then, after a disquieting lull, suddenly on January 26, the siege lifted. The Regional Plan 2011 was scrapped and all clearances were cancelled retrospectively. People had won. They had asserted that it was their right to price land and decide on selling it. In this case, they determined their environment was priceless and therefore decided:’no sale’. Not since success of the movement to save the Silent Valley in Kerala has there been such a people’s victory in India. The siege of Goa had been broken.
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As we leave the scene of celebrations, let us ponder the contrast with a cause that was lost. In october 2005, GoodNewsIndia had celebrated a landmark judgment by the Bombay High Court in the case of Mumbai’s lands belonging to obsolescent textile mills. The Court ruled that one third of the 600 acres involved had to be set aside for low cost housing and public use such as parks. Suffocating Mumbai had gained valuable lung space. But mill owners went to the Supreme Court which took a literal view of the law and reversed the High Court ruling.

The point to ponder is, had the public sentiment been anything like the one in Goa, could the Supreme Court have ignored it? Kalpana Sharma points out the difference people can make. The bottom line is this: in this sorry land, good news doesn’t happen spontaneously- it has to be wrought by people. While Indians may be full of good intentions, most of the time we are loathe to spare our time and money for causes and instead, wax indignant in our homes and among friends.