By Sujay Gupta
Goa: Concerns over Goa’s spiraling environmental and ecological degradations have now been expressed by the Parliamentary Standing committee on Environment and Forests, Science and Technology, which visited Goa over the week end.
Headed by MP Ashwini Kumar, it made scathing observations and remarks over two controversial legislations made by the Goa government, which are unique and have drawn adverse reactions from beyond the borders of this tiny western state.
The first is the Investment Promotion Act 2014, which allows the newly created Investment Promotion Board to identify an area and recommend to the Government, to declare the area as an investment promotion area (with some restrictions) and then allow projects to come up by overruling the Regional Plan, the Outline Development Plan, all other acts of local bodies, the TCP acts and the land revenue code.
These local acts act as watch dogs against unregulated construction and development. Environmentalists and activists have been catalysts in the growing public opinion that this act was introduced to remove, impediments in the way of hotels, resorts and factories, in Goa’s race against time to get investments pouring into the state.
Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar has defended the decision publicly, to constitute the IPB “Investors have often complained that there are delays in clearing files for their projects. To improve the chances of getting investments, we wanted a one window system of clearances”
Clearly the Parliamentary Standing Committee, much like the rest of Goa, aren’t quite willing to buy this. Broad basing its agenda of discussing the “Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2015 and Impact of mining on environment in particular and environmental issues of Goa in general”, the committee called the IPB Act as a “destructive law.” “The law is against environment. We understand it is a single window clearance for investments but the IPB has to take permission from all authorities,” Ashwini Kumar said.
In December 2015, the government cleared a ‘green field grain based alcohol and brewery plant’ of Vani Agro Farms, in the village of Amdai Uguem, Sanguem by declaring more than 1.20 lakh square meters as an investment promotion area. This is in an orchard area marked as settlement in the Regional Plan. It is in the midst of fields and coconut trees.
In a crucial observation made to the state Chief Secretary and other officials, Kumar added, “From the complaints (made by NGOs), “it seems like it is out to destroy the Article 14. You need to take permission from the local bodies like panchayats on such issues of big projects”.
This is true. Article 14 has been importantly undermined. The equality before the law principle mandates equal treatment for all. An act which supersedes so many acts concerning ownership of land and its planning under the Regional Plan, Outline Development Plans and other land acts contravenes Article 14 in letter and spirit. A powerful industrial lobby has assumed special legal privileges for themselves, simply by virtue of a State Investment Promotion Board earmarking a certain area for investment promotion.
The Parliamentary Committee has declared that they will recommend a central government intervention on the both the legislations, that of the IPB and the move to declassify the coconut from the list of trees.
Toning down the tenor of his attack at the press conference later in front of the media, Kumar said that the government officials were co-operative and seemed like they are taking steps to protect the environment, but did add,
“But I must say for this they have to change the laws of IPB and the coconut tree”
De-classification of the coconut tree
During the interactions with the government officers, led by Chief Secretary RK Srivastava, committee chairman criticised the government for the declassification of coconut tree through ‘The Goa Preservation of Trees (Amendment) Bill’.
The coconut was included in Section 1 (a) which has the list of trees, in an amendment made in 2008 and removed now. It finds mention though in Section 12 (a) of ‘The Goa, Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act’, which outlines steps to be taken if coconut and other trees include damage to property and land.
The interpretation of this change is that project proponents will no longer have to seek the permission for the forest department to cut trees for projects. This could pave the way for rampant construction in eco sensitive zones, for which a one window clearance will be easily given by the IPB. Therefore the two acts are seen to have been introduced in conjunction to make it easy for the hotel and industry lobby at the cost of Goa’s environment.
In a belated reaction though, unnamed forest officials were quoted in a local English daily stating that permissions to cut coconut trees were not needed even before the amendment came into force. However there is no specific confirmation or evidence of this. Nor did the Chief Minister make any mention of this when the issue led to acrimonious exchanges between the government and opposition in the recently concluded Assembly session.
Commenting on the decision Ashwini Kumar asked, “When coconut tree has given so much for Goa, including its image, how can the government take such decision?” he asked.
It clear that the alarm over the pace and manner in which Goa’s environment is being compromised will now echo beyond the state’s borders. The rampant violation of CRZ rules, the impact of construction on the coastline on sand dunes and the hill cutting and deforestation has led to irreversible adverse environmental impacts on Goa’s fragile and eco-sensitive environment.