The Indian Institutes of Technology may be at the top of India’s educational hierarchy. But about 5,000 villagers in Goa are not happy at being forced to part with common lands for the construction of an IIT campus. The villagers of Loliem-Polem, in Goa’s southernmost taluk of Canacona, say that generations of men and animals have hunted, grazed, foraged and frolicked here.
As a result, they are preparing to accelerate protests against what they see as a clandestine move to usurp the ecologically critical Bhagwati Moll plateau to construct the campus.
The Centre first approved an IIT for Goa in 2014, and it started operations from a temporary campus belonging to the Goa Engineering College in Ponda in July. The National Institute of Technology, established in 2010, also runs out of the same campus on a temporary basis.
Plans to locate the new IIT campus atop a plateau in an area deemed ecologically sensitive even by the K Kasturirangan committee on the Western Ghats has divided opinion in the village. The Kasturirangan panel was set up to review the stringent recommendations of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil, and considerably diluted the Gadgil panel recommendations.
Protests have erupted in the scenic village since June 2016 when villagers first got wind of plans to locate the Goa IIT campus on their common lands.
A series of representations and memoranda signed by over 1,000 villagers have since been dispatched to every authority – from the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the Goa chief minister, the state chief secretary, down to the village sarpanch.
On September 25, a large section of the project’s opponents marched to the village panchayat but were livid to find that a special gram sabha called to discuss the project was cancelled by higher authorities at the last moment. The agitated crowd then took out a rally in the area in protest.
Last month, the Citizen’s Committee of Loliem, a group formed to protect the interest of villagers, marched to the Collector’s office in the district headquarters of Margao, 57 km away. They were demanding that land acquisition processes be suspended by the Directorate of Technical Education, the state government body co-ordinating the acquisition procedures.
What the village committee finds most unacceptable is the absolute silence of every authority involved. “We have sent memoranda to every concerned authority, but are being met with complete silence,” said Denis Fernandes, president of the citizens’ committee. “Not one has replied. It is as though the people of this village do not matter, even though we will be the most affected and it is our common lands and water resources and lives that are going to be forever affected.”
Dattaprasad Prabhugaonkar, member of the citizens’ committee and maker of Ganesh idols for the village, is also incensed. “The hilly plateaus overlooking the sea on the coastal side of the village have all been sold and purchased by buyers from New Delhi and even from Qatar,” he told Scroll.in. “Now this last bit of common land that the village has is being usurped.”
“Don’t get us wrong,” added Fernandes. “We are not against the setting up of an IIT in Goa. But we are questioning the location of it on this hill in Loliem.”
The villagers have raised a series of objections, and a look at the map and a visit to the site establishes that their concerns are not without cause.
The Bhagwati Moll plateau lies an elevation near the coast adjoining government reserve forests on one side, which, in turn, adjoin the Cotigao wildlife sanctuary. On three sides of the plateau lie 14 populated wards of the village, whose primary sources of water – wells – are fed from natural springs and ground water. The plateau, made up of porous laterite, is a natural aquifer, feeding four streams that flow to the nearby Loliem river, spawning a lush ecology of arecanut and coconut plantations.
“If this is disturbed, where will our water come from?” asked villager Janu Gosavi.
Water supply is a technological problem that a pipeline could solve, but the villagers have cultural, social and spatial issues as well. The plateau has a temple that is in use and every alternate year 3,000 people go on a procession along an ancient route to appease the local Betal god, said villagers.
Most villagers are reluctant to let go of the village common lands. “This plateau is all the common land we have left that belongs to the village,” said former panch Keshav Pagui, a long-term cultivator on the plateau. “Why do they want to take from us even what little we have left?”
But opinion is divided. Prashant Naik, chairman of the Nirakar Education Society that runs a school in Loliem, supports the project. “IIT is entirely an education project,” he told local daily, The Navhind Times. “It is non polluting and will help in the development of the village as it would begin the process of turning Loliem village into an educational hub.”
In state capital Panaji, 91 km away, a one-sided debate in the mainstream media ignores the concerns of the villagers and ridicules their protest. Driving this campaign are media savvy and politically influential non-resident landowners from the village, who village residents say have an interest in seeing land prices rise and are also eyeing contracts for cement, steel and sundry items from any project in the vicinity of the village.
Though with five engineering colleges, the state has overcapacity, and seats go a begging, on the face of it, the government appears to have its compulsions too as some sections of society lobbied for the IIT in Goa.
Earlier, the Goa government ran into trouble with villagers when it started identifying land to acquire for the National Institute of Technology campus. Though land for this project has been identified at Cuncolim in South Goa, protests have delayed the project, and the NIT still does not have a campus of its own six years after it started operations.
The transit campus for IIT-Goa was inaugurated only after the state government identified 318 acres of land on the Bhagwati plateau and began clearances for the permanent campus. The state had considered and dropped three alternative sites over the past two years.
Fearing protests in a highly aware state, the administration seems to have favoured stealth and speed in proceeding with the acquisition of land at Loliem. Villagers say they found themselves completely in the dark about the plans.
The government introduced special amendments to permit the village comunidade to transfer the land for the campus without the mandatory auction. The comunidade bodies own and hold common lands in trust for the village but governments in Goa have traditionally bypassed villagers and appropriated common lands by interfering in appointments and influencing the managing committees of these bodies. Village sarpanchas and panchas, who often double up as construction contractors, have vested interests different from the common villager.
There is also undemocratic means at play. At the end of September, authorities cancelled a special gram sabha demanded by villagers and their panch members to discuss the project amidst arguments that the gram sabha had no jurisdiction to discuss a central project.
“The villagers will contest the order in the district court and demand to meet to discuss livelihood and agricultural issues that the project endangers,” said Abhijeet Prabhudesai of the NGO Rainbow Warriors, who is aiding the village cause. “We need the hills just for our sanity as human beings”.
Added villager Nishant Prabhudesai: “They are even trying to split us on communal grounds, but in Loliem, Hindus and Catholics are one.”
Clearly, despite the odds, the government has a fight on its hands.