Wednesday, 13 September 2017

“PUBLIC PURPOSE” AND AGGRESSIVE LAND ACQUISITION LAWS

The 2017 Monsoon session of the Goa Legislative Assembly ended about a month ago. In what could be construed as a remarkable show of governmental efficiency, six bills were passed and one referred back to the select committee for further deliberations and clarifications. Of these bills, The Goa Compensation to the Project Affected Persons and Vesting of Land in the Government Bill, 2017 and The Goa Requisition and Acquisition of Property Bill, 2017 have come under the scanner of activists due to the consequences such laws might have on the ownership of property, and especially of  marginalized communities. It is believed that a combination of these two laws would allow the government unfettered power in acquiring land from the people of Goa, to be disposed of as the government deems fit. In many ways, activists argue, such laws would secure the rights of investors over and above those of the common people of Goa. Goa is no stranger to such laws with the Investment Promotion Act, 2014 being at the centre of the Tiracol controversy.

What is cause for concern in The Goa Requisition Bill, 2017 is an absence of a proper definition of what constitutes “public purpose”. One should in fact ask: who constitutes this public? Goan society consists of multiple strata of communities who are unequal in terms of wealth, social status, and access to land. Mundkars do not have similar access to wealth and social status as, a bhatkar. The “public purpose” also claims to serve the landless. Around the beginning of 2017, the case of a small tribe, the Vanarmares, who were literally and figuratively living at the margins of Goan society came to light. They were landless and disenfranchised in multiple ways, and denied even the right to vote. Will such a bill or law enable the government to acquire land in favor of such communities? At the end of the day, the government needs to produce a meticulous report so that the Goan public is made aware of the consequences and ramifications of land acquisition legislations.

The aforementioned bills are not solely a creation of our times; they have a precedent in the past. The Land Acquisition Act, 1894, is said to be the forerunner of successive land acquisition or requisition acts in British and post-British India. What is crucial in these laws is the notion of “public purpose”, a claim made to justify such legislations. Interestingly, both the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, and The Goa Requisition Act, 2017, contain statements of “public purpose” in them. One can think of these laws as introduced in separate political and historical contexts: one by the British colonial state and the other by a democratically-elected government within sovereign India. Ideally, one would prefer the independent nation-state to completely move away from the practices of the colonial state; at least this is the assumption by which we try to function in a democracy.

Laws or bills like The Goa Requisition Act, 2017, are similarly structured as the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. For instance, the notion of what the law-makers understood by the acquisition of land for “public purpose” is same. The idea of “public purpose” in both these laws is rather a British colonial construct. Both the laws have provisions in them to acquire land to rehabilitate the landless [vide 1894 Act, sec. (3) (f) (v); 2017 Bill, sec. (2) (m) (v)]. Ironically, the same laws empower the government to clear slum areas [vide 1894 Act, sec. (3) (f) (vi); 2017 Bill, sec. (2) (m) (d) (iv)]. Thus, the law that could be used to acquire the land of slum-dwellers and therefore potentially evict them also claims to rehabilitate the landless. The law-makers in the 1894 and 2017 legislations act as if eviction and rehabilitation are not two sides of the same coin; what if a developmental project requires the land of those who dwell in slums?

Thus, one can suggest that the definition of “public purpose” has remained the same in the 1894 and 2017 laws. Indeed, it is common practice for states to follow laws and rules formulated by a previous political formation. For example, kingdoms and states in medieval Europe based many of their laws on older Roman laws. Similarly, one can understand that most of the laws formulated or amended in independent India were derived from the laws of the British colonial state. But 70 years after the departure of the colonial state, if practices pertaining to the colonial state still persist then there is an urgent need to change the way governance functions.

The abovementioned legislations can be juxtaposed alongside the notion of “public purpose” in the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. While this law was a step forward, it was subsequently diluted to circumvent many of its progressive provisions. The 2013 Act not only has an elaborate list of what constitutes “public purpose” [vide sec. (2)], but it also  further states that prior consent of at least 80 percent of the affected people is necessary in the land acquisition for private companies and 70 percent in the case of public-private partnership. Such checks and balances are not visible in the draft of the Goa Land Requisition Bill, 2017.

In a situation where it is estimated that around 300 million are landless in India, land acquisition by the government per se should have led to an equitable distribution of resources. However, that is not the case, with private companies benefiting the most from such laws. The larger question, therefore, would be if such laws do indeed promote the interest of the public.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 13 September, 2017)

Friday, 1 September 2017

THE HOUSEHOLD-OFFICE AND THE APPROACHABLE POLITICIAN



If Goemkarponn unites all Goans one would wonder why a Goan is an outsider in a village/town other than his own. Perhaps, Goemkarponn and other Goan identities contain mild xenophobia towards those it calls its own. Girish Chodankar, the Congress candidate in the just concluded Panjim by-elections, was termed an “outsider” by his opposition. One would be forgiven for assuming that Chodankar hailed from a place beyond the borders of Goa; it turns out that he is a bhailo in Panjim only – he resides in Margao!

Obviously, it was impossible for Chodankar to carry on with what we now know was his unsuccessful campaign without addressing the issue of him being a resident of Margao and not Panjim. Therefore, he issued a statement, which circulated on social media, assuring the voters of his full-time presence in their constituency. Chodankar’s full statement deserves scrutiny: “The people of Panjim are ready for a change. They have one doubt, however. I reside in Margao, and being from Margao they (the people of Panjim) are concerned that they will have to come all the way to Margao to meet me. They have asked me…if I will shift to Panjim. When I told them that I will shift to Panjim, they told me to publicly declare that after winning the election I will shift to Panjim. I would like to inform all my voters from Panjim that I have humbly accepted your request and I will immediately shift to Panjim after being elected…Moreover, the people of Ribandar because they have to travel to Panjim, have requested me to be present in Ribandar once a week. So there will be an office in Ribandar, in addition to the one in Panjim”.

Listening to Chodankar’s statement, it struck me that the people of Ribandar could also make similar demands of wanting their MLA to be resident in their area. After all, they too are equally entitled to meet their MLA as per their convenience, as are the people of Panjim. If indeed Chodankar would have his offices in Panjim and Ribandar, the question still remains of the need to move house to Panjim. Couldn’t he travel daily to Panjim or Ribandar? Wouldn’t it be the same as residing in Panjim – traffic snarls and commute hassles notwithstanding? The answer to this is obviously, no. It isn’t the same and convenience is not the only factor in this equation.

In India, as in Goa, power is brokered and negotiated at multiple levels of governance (the Panchayat, Zilla Parishad, Municipality, etc) and through caste and class relations. Those who occupy power at each of these levels are figures of authority that not only display their power and discharge their duties through their public offices, but extend their sphere of influence to the physical location of their households as well. Such a mode of functioning is reminiscent of the manner in which kings and feudal lords would rule over their territories from their household – their courts were contained within it. They did not have a separate office as such to conduct the affairs of the state. The residence of the emperor/king/feudal lord doubled as the court; there was no separation as such between these two spheres. The commoners as well as the other officials who had to approach the ruler, for any matter, had to essentially come to the abode of the ruler. In such a system, one is personally indebted to the ruler-lord, for it is through the personal attention of the ruler-lord that one is provided with relief and bestowed with justice.

The non-separation between the private and public spheres within the political culture of Goa also indicates the manner in which common people are forced to relate to those who rule over them. Even if Goa is operating within a system of democracy that stresses individual liberty and freedom of choice, there is a good reason to believe that the age-old feudal order is still thriving as political reforms haven’t brought about a change in the social relations amongst Goa. For instance, in modern and liberal forms of governance people don’t need to constantly knock on (literally) the doors of public servants and elected representatives for personal favors – even for trivial purposes. The people would, ideally, approach the concerned department or office in the bureaucratic system. In Goa, one observes that the bureaucracy is the least approachable and mostly requires a nod from the authority figure to swing into action.

A couple of months ago the current government issued a circular barring government officials from visiting the homes of MLAs for official business. As well-intentioned as this circular seems, it was issued with the intention of stopping government officials visiting the opposition MLAs. The uproar that was created in the Assembly and the government’s easy capitulation only indicates how crucial the household-office is in politics. Even if the opposition MLAs today argue that they need to meet officials in their homes due to a lack of proper, officially-designated meeting places, the same opposition MLAs never stopped receiving people in their household-offices when they were in power. When the ‘cult of the personality’ takes over the governance, the bureaucratic system becomes an extension of a durbar. The modern politician, therefore, assumes the role of a traditional lord, and the voters become the traditional clients.

A shift away from this patron-client relation in the political culture would necessitate that we recognize that the individual needs to exist without depending much on figures of authority. Rather the promise of every election – of one person, one vote, and one value – needs to be realized to its full potential.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 1 September 2017)

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

COMMUNAL HARMONY AND THE DESECRATION OF CROSSES



While reading Living Together Separately: Cultural India in History and Politics (2005) edited by Mushirul Hasan and Asim Roy, which aimed to problematize concepts like syncretism and communal harmony, I first encountered the metaphor, living together separately. Perhaps, it is an apt metaphor to think about Goa’s encounter with communalism.

The vandalism of Christian religious structures – especially crosses in cemeteries – in the last few weeks have shaken Goan society. Even before this began, Goans had become fearful that communal tensions would rip the fabric of its society – especially since the desecrations took place after the virulent hate-speech by Sadhavi Saraswati, who called for beef-eaters to be publicly executed. It did not help matters much that the law and order establishment in Goa, in the name of a fair investigation, staged a farce for public consumption. The response, by and large, from many Goan public figures was to assert Goa’s ‘age-old’ communal harmony; indicating how Hindus and Catholics have lived in perfect harmony despite all odds. In other words, they stressed Goemkarponn as a bulwark against the RSS/BJP-type of Hindutva.

Goa’s Hindu-Catholic model of communal harmony is similarly structured as the Hindu-Muslim unity propounded by Nehruvian Indian nationalism. In this sense, Goa’s model of communal harmony tends to reproduce many problems associated with Indian nationalism and secular liberalism. To assert Goa’s age-old communal harmony is to assume that there was a pre-existing religious harmony – in the sense of ‘unity in diversity’ rhetoric so common in India. This religious harmony is assumed to be centuries old and under growing threat due to the recent rise of Hindu fascism. In other words, the problem of communal disharmony appears to be recent one.

However, this assumption of Goa’s eternal communal harmony ignores many of the events in the past that have led (or are leading) to the present situation of uncertainty and fear. For instance, almost all would scoff at the suggestion that the rise of Hindutva in Goa predated the rise of the BJP. But if one looks at how Hindu nationalism was actively promoted by many Goans in the past, even under the Portuguese rule and ostensibly against the same Portuguese rule, one can see a longer process of communalization at work. The erstwhile weekly, O Bharat, published in Portuguese, Romi Konkani, and Marathi editions, contained many articles in its Marathi edition that encouraged cow-protection. Many of the articles published in O Bharat in the 1930s suggested that Goans should stop the consumption of beef, as Hindus considered cow to be sacred; additionally, the cow provided with food items like milk and hence it was too valuable to be simply consumed for its meat only. These facts should essentially make us question our beliefs about our own communal harmony.

Connected with the idea of Goa’s ancient communal harmony is the idea of religious syncretism. We have the very well-known instances of the zatra of the Goddess Shantadurga at Fatorpa and the feast of Milagres Saibinn at Mapusa where both Hindus and Catholics throng. However, this cross-religious devotionalism or syncretism is not something that affects the course of communal politics. It doesn’t affect politics in Goa precisely because, barring a few exceptions, communities divided by caste and religion tend to keep to themselves. If observed closely, one can see that this cross-religious devotion is largely led by bahujan communities within Roman Catholicism and Hinduism from which the elites within these two religions keep their distance.These are the groups that are, by and large, marginalized in politics as well; another reason why a bahujan-led cross-religious tolerance has very little effect to stop the increasing communalization in Goa.

Underlying this so-called religious syncretism are fractures of caste and class that manifest in various ways. For instance, the first election held in Goa after the end of Portuguese sovereignty is a good measure of how deep these caste and class fractures ran in Goan society. While the MGP’s stunning victory was due to the consolidation of various Hindu bahujan groups against Hindu upper-castes (and also against their bhatkarshahi), it did not mean that a political system was created which protected the interests of various marginalized groups. What followed this initial victory were not just internal schisms in the bahujan movement, but also the marginalization of the Catholic and Muslim voices as well as the many Hindu bahujan communities that had once propelled the Dayanand Bandodkar-led MGP to victory. Where was Goa’s communal harmony when the divisions between various communities were systematically being further encouraged?

Another problem with the idea of communal harmony is the visible exclusion of Muslims, leaving only a false Hindu-Catholic binary and subsuming several communities within the rubric of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Catholic’. Goa’s ‘age-old’ communal harmony can be said to foundationally exclude members ostensibly of the same political and cultural community. Why should we settle for an ideology that often misguides and offers very little in return? Why should we settle for less? The possible way out would be to reject these false equations that straightjacket Goan identity and culture.

There is no doubt that Goan history contains evidence of many progressive values, however, it is equally true that oppressive cultural practices and divisiveness also reside within Goa. This hasn’t been tackled adequately and a superficial reiteration of Goa’s communal harmony whenever dastardly acts like the desecration of crosses occur wouldn’t make the problems go away. It would profit us much to start from the fact that we live together, but separately.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 16 August, 2017)

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

GROUNDED SHIPS IN GOA: A BRIEF HISTORY



While global warming is a threat to coastal areas across the world, Goa’s coastline also seems to be threatened by ships being stranded due to negligence on the part of the owners, and especially that of the Goa government. By focusing on the various ways through which the rules are flouted, not just by the private enterprises, but by the authorities who are supposed to be protecting the public good, one comes face-to-face with a clear break down of the rule of law as well as the administrative setup in Goa. Additionally, the inability to check and control the whims and fancies of private business and private individuals suggests that Goa’s ecology is seen as having no value, to be disposed off on the whims of the rich and powerful.

On 5 June, 2000, the MV River Princess ran aground on the Candolim-Sinquerim beach stretch. Due to bad weather the anchor snapped and the loaded oil tanker drifted to the beach. It took the Goa government 12 years, and a whopping 120 crores of taxpayer money, to finally move the ship. The environmental degradation due to this accident has been immense. An estimated 30,000 sq. mts. of public beach area is eroded, along with the livelihood opportunities of those Goans who live in this area. While the beach was slowly being eroded with each crashing wave, the government and the ship-owners dilly-dallied over how it was to be removed. The inability of the government to hold the owners of the ship, the Anil Salgaocar group, eventually meant that the people of Goa paid to clear the mess, and that too only after the beach was seriously degraded.


In 2016, four years after the River Princess was dismantled, another vessel – though not as large – washed ashore the Arossim-Cansaulim beach stretch. It turned out that a rich family from India had hired out a pontoon and a tug boat to host a wedding party. What followed this fiasco was a blame game on the part of the authorities. As the Cansaulim-Arossim-Cuelim panchayat and the Tourism Department had issued permissions to host the party, in the event of an accident how was no one held responsible, many asked. This time, thankfully, it did not take 12 years to remove the vessels, and in 71 days Arihant Ship Breakers (ASB), which has previously salvaged the MV River Princess, completed the job. However, no one was held responsible for the accident and the state, once again, displayed its inability to take strict action. Incidentally, the pontoon at Arossim was hired by the owner of ASB. The same company is also hired to salvage the MV Lucky Seven by its owners.

Now ‘another River Princess’ in the form of a floating casino hotel ran aground on the Miramar coast. The MV Lucky Seven is said to be owned by ex-Haryana home minister, Gopal Kanda, and the Golden Globe Hotels, and would have been the sixth off-shore casino to congest the already crowded Mandovi. The latest fiasco happened under the rule of the BJP which promised to remove all casinos more than a decade ago. There was also a clear indication that the MV Lucky Seven ignored all sorts of warnings pertaining to the danger of storms from the Captain of Ports and the Coast Guard.  Even worse, the MV Lucky Seven was not properly registered according to the laws of the land, and did not even have the necessary permissions to sail up the Mandovi. According to the Captain of Ports, the ship was allowed as a “refuge vessel” to drop anchor at sea. Around the same time, Golden Globe Hotels petitioned the High Court, which apparently ruled in their favor, to allow it entry into the Mandovi as the ship was said to be at risk while anchored. The High Court’s order therefore, needs to be viewed as not a ‘go-ahead’ for another casino – or all casinos in Goa – but as a permission to move to safety.

Armed with a High Court order, but ignoring all sorts of environmental warnings and procedures of the law of the land, the MV Lucky Seven tried to enter the Mandovi despite protests by the Goan people. While this incident once again underscores how the Goa government is unable to uphold the law against the whims of the rich and the mighty, it also brings to light how Goa is exploited as India’s ‘pleasure periphery’. Both the pontoon in Arossim-Cansaulim then and the casino in Miramar now are playthings for the enjoyment of the middle and rich classes from India’s metros. Goa’s coastline and natural beauty are at the service of these Indians, to be abused as they deem fit. If at all there are some problems, such as huge ships running aground and posing an environmental disaster, the people of Goa are expected to foot the bill and clean the mess. Clearly, such a mismanagement of the taxpayers’ money is a big reason why the state requires earnings from such problematic industries like the casinos in the first place.

This puts the people of Goa, especially its marginalized people, in an unequal and exploitative relationship with big business interests. The Goa government equally contributes to this unfortunate situation. Eventually, one needs a political establishment that changes policy decisions to be more people- and environment-friendly and enforces these new policy decisions through the rule of law.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 2 August, 2017)