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Goa: the lay of the land

Frederick Noronha

When something goes drastically wrong with the weather, when our towns and villages start to get flooded at unprecedented levels, and when our ecology comes under pressure, it’s clearly time to rethink our priorities and approaches. Statistics tell us Goa has improved by leaps and bounds over the past six or so decades. But there is another side of the story which gets often overlooked.

The simple lifestyles of the earlier era did not result in impressive statistics. Goa’s bounty then came by way of agricultural and natural produce, which didn’t reflect in GDP figures. So, is that all to be forgotten today?

A new book – actually the second-edition of a recently-released book – reminds us of the Goa that was, the traditional wealth squandered, and the opportunities lost. Visitação Boaventura Monteiro, a senior citizen and priest working out of Bodiem in Tivim, has recently released Goan Village Communities: The Ganvkaris or Comunidades of Goa.

From the quotes on the book’s back cover, the author’s point becomes clear. In the ‘Hindu Period’ of India, the land tenure system saw a king having no property rights in land, except to a share of the produce. Below the king, were cultivators who had actual ownership of land (Prof K Mukherjee).

These communities contained “in miniature” all the materials of State within themselves, and were almost sufficient to protect their members if all other governments were withdrawn (Mountstuart Elphinston, 1819). The land was collectively owned by the community of villagers and the concept of private ownership in the land came only later (Sir Henry Maine 1822-1888). In Goa’s case, it obviously came much later. Ramesh Dutt argues that “Hindu and Mohammedan” governments “wisely maintained through centuries” the earlier forms of successful self-government.

In Goa, because of the very early role of Portuguese rule, land has undergone a different form of control. Advocate André Antonio Pereira argues the Portuguese had undertaken a “testamentary obligation” through their early sixteenth century “pact…  with the people of Goa” to honour existing administration of land and properties, under the then current usages and customs (p vi).

So what really are the village communities, communes, ganvkaris, ganvponn or comunidades – the various terms used to describe this much-misunderstood institution?

Monteiro argues: “The ganvkaris, being the most ancient surviving historical heritage of Goa need to be protected and revitalised by all Goans, including the government. They are a unique model of village governance unheard-of in the whole of our country and constituting diverse elements in the unity of our motherland, India.”

Monteiro paints a picture of how Goa would have been millennia ago.”It must have been in its natural state with its own flora and fauna, infested with an environment unsuitable for human habitation, low-lying areas with swamps, plains, hills, plateaus and the rest, water. Covered under the waters on high tides, one would have seen vast swathes of soft mud (chikol) at low tides,” he writes (p 1).

He makes a case for why the early settlers organised themselves into communities for safety, to cope with natural calamities, and to help one another. In the rest of India, such village communities got wiped out. But the accidents of history and Portuguese rule, preserved the same here.

The gaunkaris (comunidades) had a system of inalienable community lands, co-operative agriculture, and community village governance (p 8). Villagers saw the land as given by the gods, and the land was reserved for the patron deity (gram devata or kull devata) and, later, the village church. Some was allocated to those maintaining the shrines, and to build centres of learning, for dwelling places, farm lands, and the like.

Various craftspersons were called into the villages to serve there. Public utility land planning was done by the ganvkaris, with land reserved for village roads, pathways, primary schools, playgrounds, paddy threshing and drying floors, graveyards, cremation grounds, and river transport.

This collective endeavour, Monteiro notes, held to prepare vast agricultural fields. These came in three types – morodd or hillside terraced plots, sandy and laterite-based land called kher, and low-lying khazan lands. Many of these lands have since been built upon.

He points to the three big ‘khazans’ of Goa – Carambolim in Tiswadi, which was once the rice bowl of Goa; Mahakhazan of Macazana in Salcete, and the similarly named one in Pernem (p 15).

The reclamation of low-lying khazan lands and their conversion into paddy fields is explained. Monteiro writes: “The course of our Goan rivers is not natural. It is artificial, in the sense that the river border-bank demarcation has been devised scientifically and agreed upon by the ganvkari people living on both sides…” (p 17).

Reclaiming “sedimentary alluvial lands”, which lie below the sea level in high-tide, helped to boost agriculture in Goa. Today, damaged sluice gates and riverside ‘bunds’, plus extremities of climate, are destroying all that.

Villagers planted mangroves on the outer banks of the ‘bunds’. They devised a system of rivulets that irrigated paddy fields and produced fish during some months.

Monteiro introduces us to concepts like sorod (monsoon) and the vaigan (summer) crops; the xidav or rent paid for hiring the fields. This money went to defray the cost of the village administration, maintenance and services (p 19).

Village comunidades had their own specialisation – Saligao went in for sugarcane at one stage, Parra for watermelons, Jua (Santo Estevam) for lady-fingers, Taleigao for brinjals, and so on. Land unsuitable for paddy cultivation was called bhorodd and kept aside for millets, legumes, cashew, coconut, mango, jackfruit, bamboo and the like.

This book gives a hint of local rice varieties, and Monteiro argues that the fame of Goans as agriculturists saw them being taken to what now is Karnataka and Kerala, as rice farmers. He believes that the Shivamogga (Shimoga) rice-bowl of Karnataka was “developed by Goan farmers” and the Korgut rice of Goa went to Kerala as Pokali rice.

If you see an unusual way of irrigating Goan fields through a see-saw kind of implement for drawing water from wells in fields, this book explains the concept of the laath (p 20). Later on, the book also contains a section on agriculture in Goa.

The book explains the comunidade system from its technical, economic and even political angles. There’s a lot of information here. It is a useful and easy read too.

The current-day situation of the comunidades
(p 37 onwards) makes for depressing reading. It is no justification to argue that the ganvkaris were open to limited sections, or managed through male-folk, and could be replaced by panchayats. All this does not justify the killing of an institution without even understanding it.

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