Monday, February 8, 2016
Choking the cultural, environmental heritage of Goa By Bosco de Sousa Eremita
The mysterious death of a firebrand former Blessed Sacrament priest, Bismarque Dias, whose body in November was found floating in a river of Goa state, is still fresh in the minds of local people.
Dias had been waging a relentless battle to save the environment of this former Portuguese colony. Dias, like most other Goans, loved the palm-filled inlands, sandy beaches and struggled to preserve them. But he died in what is suspected to be a murder, and his funeral is still to take place pending a full investigation into his death, as demanded by his family.
Dias was a thorn in the side of industrialists and tycoons who see Goa’s rich natural resources as a means to augment their fortune. Three months after his death, the larger picture is becoming clearer.
On Jan. 16, the state's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government amended a state law to remove the coconut tree from the list of protected trees, claiming that under the existing law the felling of this tree needed government permission and that the process was too tedious.
Goa's Environment Minister Rajendra Arlekar told media that classifying the coconut tree as a ‘tree’ was an error because botanically it is only a palm and not a tree.
More bizarre, anti-environment sentiments were echoed in the state legislature, where Arlekar mentioned that too much green cover is a bad thing, while Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar said monkeys need to be classified as vermin because they destroy crops and fruits.
Actually, the issues are larger than coconut trees, greenery or monkeys. Coconut trees stand everywhere in Goa and the law demanding permission to cut them down has become a bottleneck for industrialists waiting to buy land, clear it and start a business.
There are several major projects proposed which face public opposition — a golf course, an airport, defense facilities, as well as bridges and road widening schemes.
The state has over 25,000 hectares of land covered by coconut plantations, yielding about 1.3 million coconuts every year, though unofficially the figure is much higher. The tree is an integral part of local people’s life and culture. Its parts are used for building traditional homes and the coconut is used for cooking oil and medicines. But the government's interests are beyond local concerns.
As people objected to some state projects, Catholic priests joined the public outcry. Following opposition from parishes and villages, the government on Feb. 3 indefinitely suspended a project that used helicopters to bring tourists to Aguada, a heritage site rich in flora and fauna.
Elsewhere, village bodies have resolved to oppose projects that are approved by the Investment Promotion Board Act without their consent. The board purportedly aims at promoting investment and some 50,000 jobs, empowers the state to acquire any type of land, even forests. Worse, acquisition of land through this act cannot be challenged in any court of law.
The government also amended the Town and Country Planning Act permitting “eco-tourism projects” within no development zones, where earlier no development, including eco-tourism projects, was permitted.
There are cases where Goans were not able to build even residential houses on plots because of regulations and restrictions on constructions on slopes and in coastal zones. Affluent businessmen from outside the state, in cahoots with politicians and bureaucrats have managed to bypass laws to build gated palatial homes and hotels that leer at local people.
Over the years, governments have had a notoriously poor record regarding the environment, where sustainability is not a vital ingredient, while approving projects.
The projects underway in the state are bound to increase further an influx of outsiders, adversely affecting local culture. Goans are already feeling the heat of a burgeoning immigrant population, which is having a negative impact on the quality of life, with many Catholics preferring to move overseas.
This suits the BJP fine. The influx helps dilute Goan (read Indo-Portuguese) culture, predominantly seen as Catholic, because the ultimate BJP objective is to obliterate all colonial vestiges, for the greater goal of moving towards a mono Hindu culture.
The BJP has rejected the demand for special status for Goa in an effort to restrict the influx of people from other parts of India.
This year being election year in the state, the BJP has bent over backwards to sanction projects at the cost of the environment and the people. In the process it chokes local interests and culture, giving freedom, power and wealth to outsiders to exploit locals, in a sure move towards its greater goal of a Hindu India.
Bosco de Sousa Eremita is a journalist who researches the issues of immigration and changing demographics in Goa, his homeland.