Long established as an iconic holiday destination for foreign and domestic tourists alike, Goa is now being forced by its powerful politico-builders' lobby into becoming the opposite of what its tourists seek: a concrete jungle. Its USP is its beautiful beaches - 23 in all, hugging the 105 km coastline - verdant forests and lush orchards. All these are in danger of being seriously damaged if the Regional Plan 2011, released in August 2006 by the Goa government, is used as a blueprint for construction activity in the tiny state.
Goan real estate is booming like never before, especially over the past few years, as Indians, non-resident Indians and foreigners have gone on a buying spree for holiday homes in the area. Eyeing this lucrative market are major real estate developers, many from Mumbai and New Delhi, with billions to spare and a yen to build, build and build. "The Regional Plan 2011 sanctions illegality, will fuel land speculation and shut out community needs," warns concerned architect Dean D'Cruz. "It does not strike a balance between resource use and sustainable development," adds Reboni Saha, Head Industrial Designer at Mozaic Design Combine.
D'Cruz, Patricia Pinto (from the People's Movement for Civic Action) and Heta Pandit (from the Goa Heritage Action Group, GHAG) are among those who have come together to demand the withdrawal of Regional Plan 2011 on the grounds that it is "anti-people, anti-Goa and anti-environment". These NGOs plan to petition the Panaji bench of the Bombay High Court soon in this regard.
In response to a writ petition filed by a local NGO, Goa Foundation, the High Court recently forced the Government of Goa to give an assurance that no work would be carried out at an IT park proposed to be set up in Socorro, outside Panjim. The Goa Foundation claimed that land acquisition for the park had been undertaken in defiance of villagers' opposition and without any environmental impact studies being conducted.
The Regional Plan 2011 incorporates major departures from a draft plan released three years ago. The over 1,000 objections and suggestions made by citizens should have been discussed extensively before the Plan was officially notified. Now NGOs fear the Plan will be rushed through the approval process.
An analysis of the Regional Plan reveals that nearly 1,500 hectares earlier demarcated as forest/agriculture/orchard land are to be converted into settlement areas. These include the famous Reis Magos, which has a panoramic view of the River Mandovi and its islands Chorao, Divar and St Estevam. Reis Magos is a favorite haunt of the rich and famous and thus a natural attraction for real estate developers.
Further examination of the Regional Plan 2011 reveals that proposed land use by the Town and Country Planning (TCP) department (an agency of the Goan government) violates the government's own laws in several instances. The following residential and industrial developments each represent a major change in land use of forested and orchard areas, where no construction is legally allowed:
* 150 ha settlement area in south Canacona, Loliem-Poliem;
* 52 ha settlement area in Arpora, on the Baga hill;
* 60 ha settlement area in Pednem, Mandrem;
* 90 ha industrial area on the Serula plateau in Bardez;
* 90 ha industrial area in Canacona, Poinguinim.
The Plan also incorporates settlement zones that violate coastal zone regulations. The vast swathes of affected coastline include mangroves in the Zuari, off the Cortalim river bank; north Goa coastline in Calangute and Candolim; south Goa coastline from Utorda to Cavelossim; Siridao coast on the Bambolim plateau; and Calapur coast near Panaji.
"Such 'development' plans have not emerged from a consultative process that involves local bodies of governance," says A. Goswami, an analyst with GHAG. He adds, "The forest department was not even consulted when the Plan was prepared and yet much of the land that comes under this department stands to be converted."
A key recommendation of Regional Plan 2011 is the development of six new urban centers. "For a state that is infrastructure-poor, to consider a policy actually encouraging urbanization is astonishing," says Goswami.
The Plan is rife with additional problems. It was prepared by New Delhi-based Consulting Engineering Services, which was also hired by the TCP department in 1998 to produce the Regional Plan 2001 and by the Union Ministry of Tourism to prepare a Tourism Development Plan for Goa between 1998-2001. NGOs claim the consultant recycled old plans. "Instead of filling in data garnered scientifically, it used information provided by the TCP," says Goswami. Adds D'Cruz, "Nowhere in the Plan is there a provision for the proposed Mopa International airport," which is already the subject of wrangling between Congress politicians in north and south Goa.
Responding to widespread criticism, ex-IAS officer Alban Couto, an advisor to the government, says, "We are still open to suggestions. But give us specifics. You can't stop someone from wanting to convert land not earmarked for building (agricultural land, etc) if he wants to build on it. We have marked settlement zones only in areas where there is development potential." According to NGOs, this is precisely the problem, because "development potential" in Goa only means providing housing for the very rich. It does not include establishing social infrastructure or providing medical care to the needy.
For instance, Pinto points out that the Plan makes no provisions for garbage management. Last year, citizens all over Goa protested garbage piling up outside cities, villages and along highways that were being treated as dumping grounds for tons of accumulated garbage.