A Rs500 crore golf course resort in Goa has sparked a storm of protests. Serious charges of fraud, malafides and illegal transfer of tenanted agricultural land have plagued the project
By Pamela D’Mello in Panjim
It’s been a summer of discontent in Goa as three investment projects have run into rough weather. While two are for Marinas, the third is for Tiracol’s Rs.500-cr golf course resort, sought to be developed by Shiv Kumar Jatia Group’s Leading Hotels.
As a minister, some local BJP legislators and village panchayats joined dissenting voices of fishermen and clam harvesters in the bay areas of the two proposed Marinas (a specially designed harbour with moorings for pleasure yachts and small boats) in Sancoale and Nauxim villages, both on the banks of the Zuari river, Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar was forced to speedily pull back the sails on the projects in June. Both were in the preliminary stages of investment and had received an okay from the newly set-up State Investment Promotion Board. Both would have required a long list of permits, including the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), environment clearances from coastal management authorities, biodiversity boards and Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and Climate Change.
However, Leading Hotel’s golf course resort project is another matter altogether. The company had been pursuing land purchase from 2006-2011, and had received as many as 18 permits from various government bodies, including the CRZ clearance in December 2014, when a series of major legal challenges filed by villagers and tenants hit the project.
Two cases are before the Bombay High Court’s Goa Bench and one is being argued before the National Green Tribunal. Two of the cases make serious charges of fraud and malafides in the manner in which the government and administrative bodies issued permissions to the company.
More seriously, the petition before the Bombay High Court wants the sale deed quashed as it resulted in the transfer and conversion of allegedly tenanted agricultural land. This is against the provisions of the Goa Daman and Diu Agricultural Tenancy Act, 1964; the Goa Land Use Act, 1991, and the Fifth Amendment Act (Land to the Tiller Act), 1976. The legislations prevent the alienation of agricultural land if it is tenanted. Where tenants do not wish to cultivate, the lands are supposed to be reverted back to the government, but in reality it is never so, mainly because of the large vote share these communities command. The High Court matter is being argued currently for admission before the court. The court has asked Goa Foundation to implead the village panchayat and the original landlords in the case.
Matters came to a head in May 2015, when Leading Hotels commenced work on the land and brought in 50 bouncers, triggering a face-off that inflamed passions. Goa is uber sensitive to the speedy loss of agricultural, forest and other land to moneyed people from major metros.
Under media focus, Tiracol’s golf course project has now become a metaphor for everything that has gone wrong with Goa’s failed statehood. Like: loss of land, eviction of local inhabitants, mega projects, including an international luxury hotel chain and corralling of village residences into down-market and gated spaces.
These protests have spiraled out of control. On June 2, hundreds of people drove to Goa’s northernmost border village in solidarity with the 50 tenant families residing there. It put Parsekar on the back foot. But he told media that his hands were tied as the government had already accepted money to have the land converted.
Incidentally, this project is located in Parsekar’s Mandrem constituency. He had openly supported the project and welcomed the employment it would bring to the region. He went on to say that five other major hotel projects would come up in his northern Pernem taluk, site for a contentious `3,000 crore greenfield second airport at Mopa. As land values escalate in the area, landowners, in particular feudal families that were given thousands of acres in perpetual lease by erstwhile Portuguese colonialists, have reason to celebrate. They see in it an opportunity to monetize lands locked in tenancy claims.
Tiracol is one such instance. Almost the entire village was granted in perpetual lease in 1869 to Naguesh Shet Khalap after the Portuguese got the scenic promontory from the Raja of Sawantwadi. On one strategic outcrop sits the historic Tiracol Fort (converted to a hotel by Goa Tourism). The remainder supports cashew and paddy cultivation, both somewhat diminished, as the 50 Christian families there set up restaurants, bars and rooms for tourists.
Trouble began when the landowner (successors of Naguesh Shet Khalap) sold a large portion of land to Magus Estates and Hotels in 2006, followed by more sales in 2007, 2008 and 2010. A green NGO, Goa Foundation, and the Tiracol St Anthony’s Mundkar and Tenants Association swung into action. In their petition, they elaborated on the modus operandi used to alienate tenanted land. This involved tenants declaring their claims as erroneous (negative declarations), facilitating a sale from the original landowner to the third party buyer.
Arguing that since further permits were based on this alleged fraud, Goa Foundation sought quashing of the permissions which the company had acquired, including okays to convert the land from agricultural use to eco tourism. It also sought a CBI inquiry into the transfer of all Tiracol land after 2006 and into all transactions involving alienation/sale of tenanted, agricultural land in the state in the past five years.
Leading Hotels has denied malafides and accused tenant organizations of instigating the legal battle. The company says it is in possession of all its lands, that they are non-tenanted, that agricultural activity had long ceased in the area and that tenancy claims are a matter of dispute before lower courts. “We believe that the Tenancy/Other rights claims are not substantiated with appropriate evidence and the same is being disputed at the respective courts/tribunals,” company spokesman Gerson Rebelo told India Legal.
One tenant had personally claimed tenancy in the “other rights” category for an area close to 1,00,000 sq mts, “all or most of which is barren lateritic rock abutting the sea”, he said. The company argues that tenancy claims are personal claims and a public litigation is unfounded, “filed to influence the adjudication of their private claims”.
Goa Foundation asserts that public interest lies in the “large-scale diversion of agricultural tenanted land in the state. If this process is not arrested, then all tenanted agricultural land in Goa will meet a similar fate. That is why we have asked for a CBI inquiry into all such transactions,” says foundation secretary Claude Alvares.
As the agitation gathered steam, with support from the church-backed Centre for Responsible Tourism, Parsekar blamed the tenants for selling their rights in the first place. He suggested that differences in the settlement payouts had soured the deal, leading to opposition from some tenants.
Tenants like Elvis Pereira of the Tiracol Rakhon Manch (Save Tiracol Forum) admit the villagers were divided. Some, who had migrated to cities, signed the affidavit, memorandum of understanding and an irrevocable power of attorney and took the money proffered without understanding the consequences of their action, he says. A dozen families still living in the village refused to sign away their rights. “I will never give up. My mother did not sign away her rights and neither will I,” says Pereira, who is fighting a case to have his name included as having tenancy rights through succession. Though some of his relatives signed the papers, under succession laws, deals cannot go through unless all heirs are signatories to the same.
“Our ancestors have lived here for 200 years. I have grown up here. Some of us have purchase certificates, buying the land in the mid 90s. The landlord has challenged these after 17 years,” (on grounds they were ex-parte orders) says local panchayat representative Francis Rodrigues. He says the company’s first plan was a development plan over 35 years, which pushed the residential area to one side. The second amended master plan gives around one lakh sq m for the village to reside in—a move the company says was offered to maintain goodwill.
With documents obtained through RTI, Tiracol residents and Goa Foundation challenged the golf course’s various permissions, and raised several environmental issues. These included harm to the biodiversity of the ocean-facing plateau, leading to loss of habitat in the river. Other contested issues included applications to fell 1,966 trees, no hearing prior to granting permits, manipulation of consents and disputes over private forests areas within the project area.
A third petition by the Foundation questions the environmental soundness of a ` 77-crore long span bridge being built by a government agency in the “no-development” zone of a highly protected CRZ beach. The National Green Tribunal has stayed pier work on both sides of the river until an expert committee examines the ecological issues raised.
The Congress and the BJP are locked in a war of words over the project. Accused by the BJP of taking money to facilitate clearances while it was in power before the 2012 assembly elections—the Congress is now demanding the BJP scrap all permissions.
Independent legislator Vijai Sardessai accuses the BJP government of passing amendments in 2014 to the Goa Agricultural Tenancy Act to help golf course proponents skirt around thorny tenancy issues. The BJP government had passed amendments introducing a clause to file tenancy applications before civil court jurisdiction from the more tenant-friendly mamlatdar’s (officer in executive charge of a taluka) courts.
Meanwhile, the company says it is continuing work in areas its permits allow, since it has all permissions and “no contrary order to the same” as yet. Its plans include a standard golf course and luxury villas, besides CSR plans to beautify village residences as a “typical” Goan village. Pernem’s opposition politician and former union minister Ramakant Khalap describes locating of the village “within a gated complex” similar to displaying a live village as “in a zoo”. “This is the sad state we are reducing Goa to,” he laments.
Still, the company successfully bid for central government grants to set up the golf course after the Goa Tourism department floated expressions of interest in 2011 for the eco-tourism project. The tourism industry has always been keen on a world class golf course to attract tourists and keep up with its South East Asian competitors. Tourism stakeholders, though, refused to comment on the legal issues surrounding the project.
Though the government is facilitating the project, ultimately, these issues will determine if the project tees off.