With Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar taking a determined stand on hosting the Defence Expo at Naqueri-Betul, the stage has been set for a confrontation between the government and the residents of Betul and the Congress and other political groups opposing the event at the site. Parsekar, who has threatened to put opponents in jail, sees no merit in the opposition to the four-day event to be held jointly by the defence ministry and the state government in which around 800 companies from 55 countries are likely to participate. Local residents are opposed to the Defence Expo, for they fear the ministry of defence might take over the land of the site permanently in the name of organizing Defence Expo. They are not ready to be calmed down by assurances from the state government that the land would not be acquired permanently but reverted to its original status after the end of expo. The strong statement made by the Chief Minister, who is known to adopt a conciliatory stand on contentious issues, has taken many people by surprise. By warning the opponents the government has sent a clear message to the opponents of the site that it would not tolerate any blockading of the “prestigious” event. Parsekar has repeatedly said that the Defence Expo is a major event that would generate income to a large number of Goans engaged in various types of trade.
Local residents, who are backed by the Congress party and other political groups, are insisting on reconsideration of the decision to hold the expo at the Naqueri-Betul site on the basis of their grave apprehensions that once the expo is allowed at the site it would not go away. They argue that the information collected under the Right to Information Act contradicts the government claim that the event was temporary and that the land would be reverted to Goa Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) that owns the land. Unfulfilled demands for vacation of certain lands occupied by defence ministry establishments in the state fuel their fears that once the defence ministry takes the land it is never going to give it back. With the opposition declaring that they would hold a state-wide strike and approach the court to stop the expo and the Bharatiya Janata Party threatening to combat their threat the battle is likely to escalate. Congress MLA from Quepem Chandrakant Kavlekar has termed the government’s move as “dictatorial” and questioned its decision of holding the event in his constituency without consulting the local panchayats, local MLA and residents of the villages. The group Orixtt Porjecho Avaz has warned of public demonstration on February 28 against the expo. The independent legislator from Fatorda Vijay Sardessai and the residents of Assolna and other nearby villages have also lent their support to the groups opposing the expo.
The confrontation is likely to grow in intensity as the date for holding the exposition approaches. It sounds very painful and odd that an event connected with the defence of the country and organized by the defence ministry should get into a controversy. Both the defence ministry and the state government, the joint organizers of the event, should handle the situation calmly and carefully so as to prevent any embitterment between the defence ministry and the people. The government should adopt a conciliatory approach and try to convince the locals by talking to them. The opponents should also try to obtain full information and hold talks with the government and understand the issue in totality before moving forward in opposing the event. The opposition to the event should not be just for the sake of opposition but on solid legal grounds. At the same time, the defence ministry and state government should convince them that they have no intention of taking over the land permanently.
The government has landed itself in peculiar situation in the election year by announcing various decisions without taking into confidence all the stakeholders, primarily local residents, farmers and other sections of society – be it helicopter service, entry of SUMUL, reclassification of coconut as palm or declaring peacocks as vermin. The consequences have been awkward: the issues have triggered opposition by local people, farmers and other groups, giving space for the opposition parties and other political groups to jump in to show the government in bad light. The government had to retreat in many of the issues to do some rethinking. It is time the government did stand back with respect to the Defence Expo. With the defence expo set to be hosted in a little over a month there is time for the government to make honest efforts to reach out to the local residents and find an amicable solution. Chief Minister must have a dialogue with the opponents.