On a rainy day last fortnight, as Cyclone Vayu was pelting rain on Goa, 400 villagers braved the inclement weather to gather in a community hall. They were there for Goa’s first consultation on the potential declaration of a hilltop natural reservoir as a wetland.
The consultation, called on June 12 by the Goa State Wetland Authority, was a hard-fought victory by villagers of Santa Cruz, a suburban area adjoining Goa’s capital Panjim. For the past decade, the people of Santa Cruz had tried every avenue to save their villages’ crowning glory, Bondvol Lake, a 110-year-old natural reservoir that collects rain and spring water over a 9.365-hectare submergence basin.
Citizens have been actively pursuing their demand. They have held bike rallies, public meetings, mobilised special gram sabhas, taken awareness treks for school children, filed complaints, accompanied flying squads, photographed and videographed violations and dug into historical archive material to back their court petitions as well as lobbied with panchayat, politicians and state government offices.
Since 2009, construction firms and land grabbers had stealthily damaged the lake’s sluice valves in a bid to dry out the lake and usurp the land. The natural forests around the lake were surreptitiously felled and temporary roads leading to the lake were constructed at the hilltop site. Goons posted at the site scared off birders and others from approaching the lake area.
A community’s heritage
“Bondvol lake is officially owned by the local Calapor comunidade [an ancient village land-owning institution in charge of common village lands],” said Calapor comunidade attorney Peter Gonsalves. “My great grandfather was one of the original gaonkars [villagers] who helped construct the lake.”
The lake has unique natural hydrology that collects rainwater from the hills that surround it on three sides, Gonsalves. On the fourth side, the villagers fortified an earthen embankment. In 1910, the Portuguese colonial authorities put in a valve and a spillway was created to irrigate the fields in the surrounding area.
At the June 12 consultation, Gonsalves made an impassioned plea for the lake to be saved. “You can construct buildings,” he said. “But water is a precious resource, and where we have it, we have to preserve it.”
In 2017, the Calapor comunidade moved the Bombay High Court’s Goa bench to seek protection for Bondvol Lake. Another citizen, Arturo D’Souza, filed a public interest petition in the High Court at the same time. Other villagers moved the National Green Tribunal.
“We, the villagers have decided that we will do what it takes to save our community asset, the Bondvol Lake,” said architect and teacher Elsa Fernandes.
Villagers had became aware of the plans of the land mafia at Bondvol around six years ago, when they used Google imagery to chart how the lake had been depleted over the years. “Twenty-five years ago the lake was filled to the brim, with 15-metre-high water levels,” said Fernandes. “Bondvol is located on top of a difficult-to-access dense forested hill, in a pristine environment. We knew the level was dropping, but nobody knew why. It was later that we realised it was manmade sabotage.”
The spillway was damaged, she said, and stones and mud in the embankment were being removed. Fruit trees were being planted on the embankment so that the roots would further damage the dam.
In 2016, thee “Save Bondvol Lake” movement got traction in the 6,100-household village. Alert citizens noticed roads and construction firms gearing up to construct apartments on the lake’s periphery. As the bed was drying up, a single tenant was preparing to usurp a vast tract of the lake and convert community property to private ownership.
“We petitioned several government authorities, but had to finally approach the court for justice in 2017,” said petitioner Arturo D’Souza.
The high court ordered the Water Resources Department to repair and refit the lake’s sluice valve. This provoked a community celebration at the site, with young and old turning up in numbers to witness the event.
A year later, another celebration was held by villagers, when even in the hottest month of May, the restored valve saw the lake naturally rejuvenate itself. “Earlier, by November end, water would deplete,” said Fernandes. “But last year, there was two metres of water even upto May end.”
In November 2017, the high court set up a task force to enumerate forest trees and demarcate a 200-metre area around the lake for a no-development buffer zone from the water’s edge.
Claiming back their environment
Pressure from villagers saw construction projects for row houses slowly move away. The movement petitioned the collector’s office against felling of trees obtaining a “stop work” order against prominent builders.
The last hurdle, villagers say is the claim by a single tenant over large areas of the lake bed. “We think it is illegal”, said Fernandes. The claim though is a case study of how land mafias have grabbed village common lands and comunidade land, misusing tenancy laws and backed by politically-connected land lobbies, she said.
What was earlier a tenancy lease from the comunidade for just four months of the year, on a 550 sq m lot on the upper slopes of the dried out lake for a December-May third cropping season, got permanently formalised by lower courts through ex parte hearings. Finally, attempts were being made to usurp 21,000 sq m of the lake bed, misusing tenancy laws.
Land owning comunidades were financially and politically hollowed out by post-1961 governments. In 1979, comunidade members asked the water resource department to maintain the lake. But the departent’s attempt to conserve the lake in 2009, was thwarted by a court injunction from the sole tenancy claimant. In the controversial pro-realtor 2011 Regional Plan, the area was zoned as settlement, with the construction industry readying to move in. A push back from citizens saw the area now zoned as environment heritage in the 2021 Regional Plan.
With the sluice valve repaired, and villagers now vigilant, the Save Bondvol Lake movement is hopeful the waterbody will be declared as a wetland ecosystem, to gain additional environmental protection for their community asset. The June 12 consultation was the first step. But villagers are worried that tenant claimants could still block the wetland declaration, through written submissions before the Wetland Authority Board.
The conservation of Bondvol was backed by the February 2018 Task Force on Bondvol Lake report. This underscored its qualification not just as a wetland in itself, but as a wetland complex, along with its downstream waterbodies and conduits. The Task Force endorsed taking an ecosystem approach for Bondvol, mapping trees, shrubs and grasses and calling for the protection of the forested slopes outside the NDZ in the 2 sq km catchment area of the lake as well.
The community has been actively pursuing conservation of the lake for the past few years.
“We have our fingers crossed,” said Arturo D’Souza, as the Goa State Biodiversity Board conducts the seven days hearing of objections, before preparing and placing the Brief Document for its declaration as a wetland ecosystem before the state board for approval.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.