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Farmers continue protests against proposed IIT campus in Goa

The site earmarked for the campus, is a thickly forested hill that stands in the middle of surrounding farmland and orchard plains, crisscrossed by irrigation canals and lift irrigation schemes.


-Farmers in Goa’s interior Sanguem and Quepem sub districts have been protesting against the proposed Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus since July 2022.

-The state government claims that the site would not displace farmers and crop production.

By Pamela D'Mello

Tribal tenant farmers from Goa’s interior Sanguem and Quepem sub districts have been protesting against the proposed Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus in the state since July 2022. These farmers – belonging to the Cotarli ward, Uguem village panchayat of Sanguem and of Nagvem ward, Molcornem village in the adjoining Quepem – will lose their land owing to this project.

After the elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government restarted attempts to situate a permanent campus for the centrally-funded IIT in these villages. The IIT was allotted to Goa in 2015, and has been operational since 2016, with 600 students at the Farmagudi campus of the Goa Engineering College, 27 km from the capital, Panjim.

The farmers want the project to be shifted out or retained at the Farmagudi campus. They argue that the 1.2 square kilometre (300 acre) Farmagudi campus has enough land to expand the existing infrastructure, apart from being centrally located, while the Sanguem site is 61 km from Panjim.

Ancestral tribal farmlands

A winding mud-track leads to 54-year-old Philomena Costa’s 3,000 square metres multi-fruit orchard of bananas, coconuts, kokum and incense. “Though our ancestors cultivated these lands for hundreds of years, we were recorded only as tenants,” Costa tells Mongabay-India. “Fifteen years ago, we purchased our 9,000 square metre farm and each of our family’s three brothers now cultivate 3,000 square metres each. We survive in this remote area, on the produce of our plantation.”

Costa’s farm and home, on a plot earmarked 32/7, stands at the base of the thickly forested hill, which is the latest proposed site for the IIT campus. She claims that she was unofficially approached for a settlement, but refused. “Any compensation the government can give us will last just two days, while the lush green fertile land is a forever legacy,” she says. Rupabai Vithal Chari, 62, of Nagvem in the bordering Quepem sub district, wants to protect her land, too.  Chari has four sons, all of whom work in the fields and want to retain their land.  Like Chari and Costa, other villagers from the area, are also protesting against the proposed campus. For the past few months, the villagers have been on a dharna and formed the Sanguem Bachav Samiti.

Ulhas Mapari, 70, who grows arecanut, coconut and bananas on his 5,000 square metre farm in Cotarli tells Mongabay, “We are not against the IIT campus. They can take it anywhere else. We just want to retain our fields for our children.”

Declining agriculture, fallow fields, potential land displacement?

The site earmarked for the campus is a thickly forested hill that stands surrounded by farmland and orchard plains, crisscrossed by irrigation canals and lift irrigation schemes, some still incomplete, of Goa’s biggest dam project. Selaulim dam, four kilometres away, was marketed in the 1970s as an irrigation project that would transform agriculture. However, today, most of the water is diverted to feed the manufacturing and tourism industries and urban water supply to South Goa. The mining boom years from 2007-2011 saw the agrarian economy in this sub district shift to iron ore truck transportation, to the detriment of crop production, especially paddy.

Meanwhile, local MLA and Social Welfare minister, Subhash Phal Dessai, in a conversation with local media, said that the site would not displace farmers and crop production.

Farmers, meanwhile, say massive herds of wild cows have deterred extensive cultivation of rice, but they had only just harvested a vegetable crop in April. Closure of a government-run sugarcane factory has also reduced sugarcane cropping in the area, but Manuel Vaz, 48, a farmer, says he harvests 60 tonnes annually from his 13,000 square metre farm, and sells the produce in Belgaum.

Constancio Mascarenhas, 53, is the chairperson of the four kilometre-long Kiragal Canal Pani Vantap Saunsta (Canal Water Distribution Organisation) in this Selaulim dam command area. He says all 115 farmers that share the water from his section of the canal, would be affected in some way or the other by the IIT campus. Mascarenhas shares a 78,000 square metre farm area among 12 tenants, giving him a 9,000 square metre farm which now falls in the earmarked campus area.

Tribal communities lose in recorded land rights

The Goa government is aiming to garner approximately 1.328 square kilometres (328 acres) in these villages to be handed over free to IIT Goa. It is dependent on the fact that the record of rights for 0.92 square kilometres (228 acres), a major portion, is registered in the name of the Goa government. Tenant farmers and some encroachers are in possession of approximately 0.19 square kilometres (1.90 lakh square metres), according to government documents procured by the Sanguem Bachav Samiti under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The Goa administration plans to immediately transfer a total of 0.73 square kilometres (7.35 lakh square metres) of unencumbered government land to IIT Goa. The site also includes a 0.3 square kilometres (3.15 lakh square metres) of densely forested hill.

The villagers, however, contest the government’s ownership, even as the tenant farmers are unwilling to sell their patrimony. They say, the ownership of their indigenous community lands and commons have been erroneously entered as government land in the record of rights, during an ad-hoc, unscientific land survey conducted by the government in 1971. Across Goa, the 1971 survey saw scores of officials visit areas and enter land ownership, merely based on the hearsay of the person present on the site. It spawned an outcry and a plethora of litigation across Goa. People of the Gawda tribe of the Cotarli, Nagvem, Cacoda, Deulamoll and Vorcotto wards in the area, say that as with other tribal lands, illiteracy, poor representation, and lack of political and socio-economic clout, saw them once again lose out at that time.

Researchers, sociologists and tribal intellectuals have long pointed out that while tribal farming and ownership was community-based – due to illiteracy, the community was unable to register their written ownership claims – either during erstwhile local kingly regimes (the sub districts of Ponda, Sanguem, Quepem and Canacona came under the Portuguese crown in 1763, when then rulers, the Sonda Raja sought its protection), Portuguese colonial-era surveys or those conducted post liberation in 1961, even though they were in cultivators and users of the lands. Consequently, upper-caste district accountant officials were able to register themselves as owners in the land records during the Portuguese era, especially in the sparsely populated, sprawling, forested sub districts of Sanguem and Quepem, while the tribal people – though original inhabitants, cultivators and inhabitants of the lands – were relegated on official documents as tenants, a legacy that got carried forward into liberated Goa as well.

Historic injustices

In a letter addressed to the President of India, central, state and local governments in September 2022, the Sanguem farmers have sought “correction of the historical injustices to the indigenous communities by failing to rectify land records that deprived local communities of their common lands” before new economic ventures imposed on them, further displace them altogether.

Goa recognises four indigenous tribal communities – Gawda, Kunbi, Dhangar and Velips. The letter was signed by 562 residents, hundreds of whom attached their caste certificates and said they used the land for grazing, foraging for medicinal plants, farming, agriculture, collecting forest produce, including wood and cashew. The area is the abode of their local deities and culturally important for their Hindu and Christian tribal rituals.

“Our tribal ancestors have protected these lands for 12,000 years, Mascarenhas says. “The hill may seem like just any hill, but hills in Goa are laterite and store water. Seven springs originate from the hill and feed the Cotarli Zor (spring) that draws tourists.”

Scarce land resources

The Goa government has run into repeated protests from farmers and villagers, over the large land requirement sought for a permanent IIT campus. New IITs are seeking 1.5-2 square kilometres (400-500 acres) of campuses from state governments, which was negotiated down to 1.2 square kilometres (300 acres) for Goa, given it is a small state of just 3,702 square kilometres and is hard pressed to find large parcels of land.

Protests from farmers, villagers and citizens saw the Goa government drop two earlier sites, before returning back to Sanguem, Goa’s largest sub district of 836 square kilometres, with a sparse population of 65,147 (2011 census figures) and density of 78 people per square kilometre.

The government went through a similar convoluted process before it finally handed over 0.45 square kilometres (4.56 lakh square metres) for a National Institute of Technology campus (NIT) in 2017.  It was able to convince people, only after the land requirement was brought down from 1.2 square kilometres (12 lakh square metres) and the central government agreed to 40% reservation for local students.

Currently, according to media reports, there is surplus of engineering seats in the state and half the intake of private colleges were vacant in 2021.

Contest of wills

Earlier, on October 5, while laying the foundation stone for a temple close to the site, Chief Minister Pramod Sawant backed the IIT Sanguem location and underscored the economic advantages the campus would bring. “Industries are not easily willing to come to this remote area,” he said in a public speech. “The campus with 5,000 students will have a multiplier effect on the local economy, spawning boarding houses, restaurants and employment.” He indicated the government was fixed on this site, since it is government land, and urged people to take the compensatory package. “Everybody will be adequately compensated,” the chief minister said.

Within a week of it being green-flagged, Phal Dessai held a meeting in support of the project in early July 2022. When farmers called their own meeting days later, they were violently disrupted, leading to police complaints on both sides. Police were again brought in, when officials surveyed the site on September 12 amidst a blockade. A bus taking members of the Sanguem Bachav Samiti to address the media in Panjim was stopped by the police, while prohibitory sections have been applied within 200 metres of the site.

“Now we cannot even have our meetings there, and farmers cannot go to their farms, so people have been holding meetings and are on continuous dharna at another site,” says Uguem resident Santan Rodrigues. “Some of us have police complaints lodged against us and are repeatedly summoned to the police station. A lot of intimidation is going on”.

Abhijit Prabhudesai, an activist from Rainbow Warriors Group, is backing the Sanguem farmers. He says that nobody is against the IIT.

“We are saying that it can reasonably be accommodated on the Farmagudi campus, in Ponda sub district, where the current Goa Engineering College occupies just a small portion of the sprawling 25 lakh square metre campus. With additional land acquisition nearby, the same area can be utilised, while farmland should be left to farmers to cultivate for our food security,” he says. Prabhudesai claims that local politicians are aggressively skewing administrative decision-making, for location of central and other projects in their areas, since these overnight drive up land values and land demand. “Seeing what has happened in so many other development projects in Goa, people have now intuitively understood that ultimately government acquisitions are a hand-over to corporates and such,” he adds. “People ultimately lose land and get displaced from their land, livelihood, villages and state. So despite the promises of jobs, they no longer trust or believe that their long-term interests will be served. They prefer economic growth to be organic, where they can still be in some control of their environment.”

 

This article first appeared in Mongabay.