Beyond the sun and sand, conflict brewing in Goa

Beyond the sun and sand, conflict brewing in Goa

Many will also advertise large residential developments. As visitors cross bridges over the Zuari and Mandovi rivers, they will see ore barges. At night, many of them will admire the lights of ships waiting to transport iron and manganese ore to ports in China and Japan.

Most visitors will miss these latter cues signifying conflict, well known in local construction, mining, political—and activism—circles. This tiny, hilly state that is a 3-hour drive north to south, and 2 hours east from the coast, is emerging as a template for the success or failure of communities that seek to reclaim themselves from anomalies created by aggressive business and accommodating politics.

The root lies in Goa’s triumvirate of tourism, iron ore reserves and a stratospheric real estate business—driven by a need to relocate, park money or purchase second homes. Robust global iron ore prices in the past five years ensured a rash of concessions and ramped up mining of iron ore, similar to trends disturbingly evident in Karnataka, Orissa and Jharkhand.

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Reaction and counter-reaction is now a daily battle. A proposed major residential project of DLF Ltd and Goa’s department of town and country planning faced resident and activist flak this past month over alleged illegalities in securing permission to build in an area in Dabolim village, marked as a no-development zone in the state’s regional plan.

Goa Bachao Abhiyan—a group comprising businessmen, lawyers, architects and leaders of indigenous tribal communities—that has played the leading role to expose fraud in land deals and land conversion parameters, has vowed to keep up pressure till the project is either relocated or conforms to law in letter and spirit.

In late November, villagers of Quedem and Assolde in the south-eastern taluka of Quepem—Goa has 11 talukas, or revenue districts—formally petitioned local bureaucrats against a proposed mining lease to cover high grade iron ore and bauxite over an area of nearly 230 ha.

Quedem village, the location, is of a little over 300 ha. Assolde villagers, concerned they would be next, wanted to show solidarity with their neighbours who stand to lose 70% of land through expropriation. The remaining 30% would anyway be affected—as they have been elsewhere in the region—through poisoning of water bodies and destruction of crops through leakage of slurry and ore-dust. Failure to sensibly resolve the issue will lead to protest.

In a single day, 22 November, residents of two prosperous and politically pivotal villages, Benaulim in the coastal south, and Agassaim in the north, slammed panchayat leaders at meetings of the gram sabha—a conclave of residents that has powers to overturn decisions of the panchayat by majority vote—accusing them of flouting laws to permit real estate projects in the area. They demanded investigation, and closure of projects.

Concern and outrage have been fuelled by official and business reaction that has ranged from the resentful to the ridiculous. Sociedade de Fomento, a major local iron ore-mining concessionaire, in early 2009 filed a suit in the Calcutta high court against an activist, Sebastian Fernandes, for a stunning Rs500 crore (about $125 million), using the ruse of a letter of complaint from a vendor in the east that mentioned Fernandes’ blog severely criticizing their business practice led to loss of prestige and revenue. There was immediate and widespread public condemnation. The court hasn’t since set a date for hearing. The blog is alive.

Across Goa, villagers have over the past year had their legs broken, attacked with choppers, arrested or illegally detained by police, and ejected from gram sabha meetings for asking questions about housing and mining projects.

I witnessed a protest near Colomba village of Quepem taluka, when nearly 100 villagers, desperate with their water sources drying up, fields choked with ore effluent during paddy season, marched to the mines operated by Fomento, and stalled work.

Immediately after a visiting crew from NDTV news channel left, the protestors, who showed authorities a map in which the mine was marked as being part of a forest that could not be disturbed, were arrested by the police. The legality—and illegality—of it all is being pursued in court.

And into this flux has marched Vedanta Resources Plc, through its purchase of Mitsui and Co. Ltd’s stake in Sesa Goa Ltd, a major mining company, and its subsequent purchasing of the mining business of the Dempo group, itself the prior focus of several protests. Ahem.

Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.

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