Town and Country Planning Minister Vijay Sardessai says land dealers, mostly from other states, are buying agricultural land in lakhs of square metres in Goa’s villages and getting them illegally converted in collusion with officials of his department. He claims that he got to know of such illegal land mass conversions from a sting operation by one of his officials. As the illegal conversions have been done by TCP officials, the minister should share the information with the anti-corruption bureau or the vigilance department so that they are probed and punished in accordance with the law. Why does the government always wake up late to such massive illegalities? The TCP Minister has promised to amend the Town and Country Planning Act to provide for one year imprisonment to those converting land illegally, besides taking strict action against the officials of his department found to have colluded with them. If the promised amendment does not come, the land dealers who got conversions done might approach the TCP Minister for a piecemeal solution, which would not be ethical.
It is unlikely that land sharks and TCP officials could flout the rules without patronage from the high and mighty. Such conversions have always had the collusion of politicians. The TCP Minister needs to show courage and order a departmental probe into large conversions and work for their revocation, regardless of the political pressures that might be brought upon him, including from his own political quarters. It will not be difficult to know where conversions of large areas of agricultural land have taken place in recent years. If need be, a judicial probe can be ordered to unearth the murky deals and fix the responsibility. As the TCP Minister wants to add teeth to the existing laws to act against those involved in illegal land conversions, the amendment, including provision for action under the Indian Penal Code, should be done through an ordinance as the Assembly is not in session. An early action from the government to amend the law would help prevent more illegal conversions and increase scope for the prosecution of the land dealers and officials guilty of illegal land conversions so far.
Illegal conversions of agricultural land have been going on for decades and no one has been punished for that. In smaller and individual cases, illegal land conversions take place owing to the lethargic attitude of the department officials and cumbersome rules. The experience of average Goan is that those seeking legal conversion for construction of houses for themselves are forced to run from pillar to post, with most failing to get their land legally converted. Failure to get approval forces them to adopt illegal means. The list of illegal conversions in individual cases could be huge and most of the conversions have been carried out under the patronage of the political masters. It is amazing that despite directions from the TCP Minister the officials of the department have failed to prepare a list of all the lands that have been illegally converted. The deadline for the preparation of the list was October 1, 2017 but there is no sign of the list coming out any time soon. The reason could be that the officials are aware that the illegal conversions were blessed by powerful politicians and as such any attempt to point them out could lead to action or harassment from them. Will the TCP Minister still go ahead and compel the officials to lay out the facts bare without fear?
The state has been without a Regional Plan for over a decade and half now and there are no signs of a new plan being prepared any time soon. The unscrupulous elements and officials have taken advantage of the absence of roadmap for development and been converting land on a large scale exploiting the loopholes in the law. It is time that the government comes out with a new RP as soon as possible as also laws to prevent misuse of the existing provisions. Till the government comes out with the new development plan for the state, it should lay stringent guidelines for conversion of land especially for those seeking to convert large tracts of land, which should be approved only by a state-level team of experts followed by cabinet nod. Once the strings are held by the cabinet, it would be easier to spike a proposal if a large area conversion has got the collusive blessing of a minister or an MLA. The cabinet can take an objective view and approve or reject the conversion judging it on grounds of public interest – ecological implications and protection of Goan identity.