Lesson From Melaulim

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Government must fix titles to illegally occupied public lands

Bowing to the strong opposition by the local people, the state government has decided to move the IIT-Goa project from its present site at the Shel-Melaulim village in Sattari taluka to another place. This is the third IIT-Goa site the state government has been forced to abandon. Two other sites, one at Canacona and the other at Sanguem, were given up following opposition from the locals or complications in acquiring land. The residents of Shel-Melaulim had opposed the project since the site was chosen. They intensified their protests in the past six months. At first the government dismissed their protests, saying the opponents had no locus standi as the land belonged to the government and that they did not have ownership, though it set aside some land where a temple exists keeping sentiments of the people in mind.

IIT-Goa was announced in 2014 and has been functioning from makeshift premises at the Goa Engineering College complex at Farmagudi. Its proposed campus in a 10-lakh sq metre area at Shel-Melaulim made fitful progress from the very beginning, with protests mounting and the government ignoring them. Some local politicians played shrewdly on both sides, that of the government as well of the villagers. Probably neither the government nor local politicians had calculated that opposition to the project would draw masses of people from several villages. The government continued to ignore the protests till violence erupted as official teams went to the area to demarcate the site. Alarm bells started ringing in the government and the ruling camp when the protests expanded to cover a wider area. Health Minister Vishwajit Rane, who had maintained a mysterious silence while the protests were going on, at last decided the people’s anger might turn against him and spoke out against the project. It was a question of his political survival. Voters are known to support or oppose MLAs according to how much they care for the local public sentiments. Rane had to make a public statement for shifting of the IIT project in order to retain his voters with him.

While announcing shifting of the project, the Chief Minister claimed that it was not the fear of losing the future election that drove Rane to seek relocation of the campus elsewhere. The villagers had given a 10-day ultimatum to the government to shift the project and the government had decided to go with their sentiments. This was surprising as until last Friday, Sawant had reiterated his vow to build IIT-Goa at the site. Subsequently he climbed down to buy peace by promising to provide the to-be-evicted persons, who were cultivating lands within the site area and would have to be evicted, pieces of land elsewhere, but the agitators rejected it. Sawant’s promise was a little surprising as the government had earlier claimed the site area hardly contained any land under cultivation.

The Shel-Melaulim case has brought to the fore the stark reality that vast tracts of public land  have been encroached and their ownership continues to remain disputed even after six decades of Goa’s liberation. Though the government claims to be the owner of the lands, it has not taken any concrete steps to prove its ownership. Every government was expected to tell their revenue officials including the district magistrates to identify and measure the government lands, determine their type and status and make a list of persons occupying it illegally and complete the process of either allotting the lands to them or to seize them back from them and fence them off as government land for public use. However, political parties do not want to lose votes by starting a process of eviction. It is not only in Shel-Melaulim but across Goa that lands of the government are under illegal occupation. Illegal occupation means loss to the government, but the occupants too cannot do much, such as taking bank loans, as they do not have the titles to the lands they cultivate or use in other ways. Several big projects have been abandoned owing to undetermined status of ownership of government lands. The Sawant government should learn from the Shel-Melaulim experience and start fixing the titles of government lands so that projects are not stalled in the future.