Saturday, January 9, 2010

Can all Goans be treated like DLF please?

This article was published in the Herald, Goa, in two parts, in the past week and circulated on Goanet mailing list on January 9, 2010.

By Claude Alvares

The latest offering of Goa's landscape for sale is
on billboards in Delhi. DLF is promising a piece of
paradise "with a view of the sea" for an
excruciatingly stiff price of Rs54 lakh (over the
table). Originally, the proposal was for 580 flats
on a plot of land in Dabolim village. Now, it has
grown to 700 flats, a clubhouse, guest rooms and a
sewage plant that hangs precariously between future
DLF residents and the Goan residents settled
peacefully below the site for decades.

The problem is that the project is to be located on the
graveyard of a dense forest on steep slopes, because that
kind of natural asset is all that Goa in fact has left for
such speculative housing. The project is not intended to meet
the needs of Goans for a house. They simply do not have that
kind of money.

The project has the careless sanction of the Ministry for
Environment and Forests (MoEF), the Chief Town Planner of the
Goa Government, the Mormugao Planning and Development
Authority (MPDA) and the Village Panchayat of Chicalim, in
whose jurisdiction it is located.

Surprisingly, all these permissions have come without hassle
in a state that forbids construction on slopes (due to the
inherent instability of laterite) and which is restrained by
the Supreme Court's orders from activity in forested areas.

The manner in which the approvals have been
obtained is a good lesson in how the rich and
powerful manage to take all authorities for a ride,
especially when the authorities want to be taken
for a ride. The story so far:

Anand Bose, Somnath Zuarkar's son-in-law, gets Vithal and
Indira Naik, a couple who own Survey No: 43/1 of Dabolim
village, to authorise him to develop the plot of 1,02,000 sq
metres and sell it on their behalf. Bose settles the four
'mundcars' on the plot, partitioning off their plots --
totally around 8,400 sq metres -- from the main plot.

Meanwhile, the government under the sweet influence of
developers, has issued an order exempting certain classes of
land from a conversion sanad if they can prove that there was
a structure on the plot when the last survey was conducted in
1971. Though the mundcars' houses and plots have been
partitioned off, Bose files for an exemption from conversion
on their account on January 29, 2007.

The following day, with impressive speed, Levinson Martins
grants the exemption based on a certificate (spurious) issued
by the MPDA, that the entire survey is settlement zone. The
exemption saves the Naiks, Bose and the next developers,
Saravati, approximately Rs 25 lakh or Rs 2.5 million (the
government eventually loses more than a crore or ten million
rupees in conversion charges like this).

Barely a month later, Bose resells 77,300 sq metres
of the plot to Saravati Developers and
Constructions for Rs 29 crore (Rs 290 million).

In view of these astronomical sums, the saving of Rs 25 lakh
on conversion charges is small change for the developers. The
actual saving is in the circumvention of several orders of
the High Court and the Supreme Court that (a) do not allow
construction on slopes above 25 per cent gradient and (b) do
not permit activity in forested plots. Since the High Court
has ordered that no conversion sanad will be issued without
the file going to the Forest Department first, the solution
is to bypass the need to go for a sanad in the first place.

Mission accomplished!

In the meanwhile, Anand Bose is able to procure permissions
from the MPDA and from the Village Panchayat of Chicalim
without any problem, even though the area is forested and
proposed on slopes above 25 per cent gradient.

If MPDA could do the same for ordinary Goans, we would find
it the most efficient of planning authorities. But it never
does. Take a look at the dates and marvel at the speed at
which MPDA can work for its chosen ones:

* Anand Bose applies for a provisional NOC for subdivision of
the plot of 94,370 metres to the MPDA on January 23, 2007.
The MPDA issues the NOC on February 9, 2007.

* He files an application for the same to the Village
Panchayat on January 24, 2007. The Panchayat passes a
resolution on January 25, 2007 and issues the NOC on January
30, 2007.

* The Panchayat receives the application for final NOC on
March 8, 2007, passes a resolution on the same day and issues
the order on March 12, 2007.

* Anand Bose applies for construction licenses on September
27, 2007, the panchayat passes the resolution on October 1,
2007 and issues the licenses on October 3, 2007.

So why is everyone complaining that applications to
planning authorities and village panchayats
sometimes take two years, together with a lot of
visiting of offices and harassment? The case of
Anand Bose indicates the complete contrary.

After his sale of 77,300 sq metres to Saravati for Rs 29
crore (Rs 290 million), Anand Bose transfers all the
permissions and NOCs he has obtained to Saravati Developers.

Saravati now has 77,300 sq metres, whereas the earlier
permissions are for the plot of 94,000 sq metres. So Saravati
asks the MPDA to amalgamate the plots and grant a fresh
subdivision. MPDA receives their application on August 28,
2008 and grants the provisional NOC for the new subdivision
on the same day. Wow!

On September 1, 2008, Saravati applies for final NOC for
subdivision and simultaneously submits development plans for
580 residential units, with a 35-room club house and other
facilities. The Panchayat forwards the new proposal to the
MPDA on September 15, 2008.

The proposal comes up before the MPDA in November 2008, even
though it is not on the agenda, under 'Any Other Business',
after the Deputy Speaker (who posed recently for the media
with a free garbage compactor given by DLF to Chicalim
village) asks to know why the file has not been put up for
approval of the Authority. Victoria Fernandes is chairperson.

She says the project is categorised as a mega housing
project. The MPDA cannot, therefore, discuss the matter
without a site inspection to verify its infrastructure and
other requirements. The matter is deferred for a site
inspection. This decision is not communicated by MPDA Member
Secretary R K Pandita to Saravati, knowing full well that the
latter can file an appeal for deemed approval on expiry of
three months. On January 13, 2009, Saravati takes the matter
out of the MPDA and files an appeal before the Town and
Country Planning Board (TCP).

The Board takes up the matter on Februrary 11,
2009, but Pandita does not attend on grounds that
he is not feeling well. The Board defers the matter
and then conveniently meets several months later.
Saravati claims it now has deemed approval, since
the Board too has not taken a decision in three

First, Saravati did not pay conversion charges. Now, it gets
by without paying development charges. When an RTI request is
posed in respect of whether development charges have been
paid, MPDA says in writing it has no knowledge. This is a
fine example of a welfare state, where the poor pay taxes and
the rich are waived land conversion and development charges.

Saravati now demands that the Panchayat grant it construction
licenses. The Panchayat decides that the Gram Sabha must look
into the project. A few days later, on August 17, 2009, the
Panchayat reverses its stand and issues the licenses.

Let me quote the reason set out in the Panchayat's
construction license and you will hope that this
happens to you as well one day: "As regards to the
approval to be obtained from MPDA, Vasco, which is
further deemed to be approved under Section 44 of
the Town and Country Planning Act which further
deemed to be approved by the Planning Board
constituted further it is deemed to be approved
under Section 45 of the Town and Country Planning
Act by the Planning Board constituted under the Law
& on the basis of legal opinion obtained & given by
Adv. Zeller C de Souza is considered by the
Panchayat vide resolution dated 9.7.2009."

So, a Rs 130-crore (Rs 1300 million) project for the rich of
Delhi gets by with two deeming approvals.

You may say this is predictable behaviour from authorities
towards a well-heeled developer who knows how to smoothen the
flow of his applications and get his permissions. But what of
the Government of India? Doesn't the project require
environment clearance?

It does. But as we shall see, there's no problem here as

In April 2008, Saravati files an application for
environment clearance (EC) with the Ministry of
Environment & Forests (MoEF). As per procedure, the
proposal goes in June to the Expert Appraisal
Committee (EAC). Among the issues raised by the EAC
is a demand for a contour map that would indicate
slopes. There is also a query raised about how a
residential project can have 36 guest rooms. The
project proponent is asked to get a clearance from
the Central Ground Water Board. The EAC minutes of
the meeting record a conclusion that environment
clearance is not recommended for the present.

The file comes back to the EAC three months later in October
2008. This time, the EAC simply abandons its earlier queries
and instead lists a new set of queries that are far more
innocuous. Gone is the need to produce data on slope contours
or an NOC from the Central Ground Water Board. Instead,
considerations like "dead-ends of roads within the plot
having proper roundabouts" and "treated water being used to
flush toilets" are the points upon which the EAC decides the
project will now be cleared.

In a short while, the project proponent submits the
relevant details and, in December 2008 the EAC, now
assured that "all queries are answered", recommends
environment clearance with a "silver" grading to
boot. The environment clearance is issued by the
Ministry of Environment on February 2, 2009. The
two most important environmental impact issues of
the Saravati/DLF project -- construction on steep
slopes and forest -- are both immaculately kept out
of the committee's deliberations.

It needs to be noted here that the effective functioning of
the EAC depends to a great extent on the integrity of its
member secretary. The EAC meets every two months. Each time
the committee meets, dozens of projects are placed before it
for approval. The minutes run into several pages. All members
never attend all meetings. In the circumstances, earlier
minutes are not closely re-examined, nor are salient features
of earlier recommendations recalled. The member-secretary who
prepares the agenda notes and writes the minutes -- and who
is eminently approachable for Delhi developers -- can, with
little difficulty, take the "expert" committee into whichever
hole it wants.

But can the EAC itself be absolved of blame even in such

Hardly. The location of every plot in the country is
available on Survey of India topo sheets. If an EAC is not
able to access such easily available data, this must reflect
on the competence of its experts. Faced with the fact that
the plot had slopes above 25 per cent gradient, there was no
chance of approval. For, in 2000, the Ministry had accepted
in toto the report of the Committee on "Identifying
Parameters for Designating Ecologically Sensitive Areas in
India" headed by Adviser to the Planning Commission of India
Pronab Sen, which recommended no clearance for development in
such terrain. There are also now High Court orders to the
same effect.

Similarly with forested areas; even school kids
know how to get Google Earth pictures for any plot
in the country. The resolution is so good that
foresters claim they can distinguish even
individual species of trees on the ground. The
Google Earth picture of the site under discussion
shows it having dense vegetation. A single site
visit would also have confirmed that the area is
thickly forested. But the EAC never visits a site;
nor does it show any inclination to have facts
independently verified. It seems like nothing can
be done when we are dealing with people who want to
shut their eyes or, worse, are simply willing to
have the wool pulled over their eyes.

In October 2008, the state government's Task Force on
planning for Goa for the year 2021 demarcated the
Saravati/DLF site as a 'no-development' zone on the grounds
of its impermissible gradient (more than 25 per cent). The
Task Force is headed by the Chief Minister. Its de facto
chairman is the internationally famous architect Charles
Correa, and assisting him is former Chief Town Planner of the
Government of India Edgar Ribeiro. They relied on Survey of
India topo sheets. On this count alone, the Goa government
could not have recommended the project for environment clearance.

However, under the EIA Notification of 2006, anyone can apply
directly to the MoEF for environment clearance, bypassing the
state government. Ever since the Ministry disembowelled the
entire procedure and turned it into a set of empty
formalities to be speedily gone through -- data or no data --
environment clearance has become easier to get than a
driver's learning license. In fact, you don't even have to
submit a photograph of yourself!

Once you have it in your pocket, all other clearances come
automatically. The environment clearance is granted within a
maximum period of six months. For housing projects, there is
not even the courtesy of a public hearing. There is,
therefore, no scope for any inputs from the state government
or from the public. The applicant can fib and get away with
whatever it wants an extremely gullible EAC to believe.

The environment clearance becomes a label trademarked by the
Ministry for officially sponsored forest and hill
destruction. That the issue of environment clearances has
ruined the reputation of the Ministry is already common
knowledge. The Prime Minister himself -- as Cabinet Minister
of Environment -- acknowledged before the States' Environment
Ministers' conference in August 2009 that ECs had become a
source of corruption.

It is most unfortunate that the new Minister of State for
Environment -- who is trying hard to dispel the notion that
the Ministry is a red light area -- has not succeeded in
introducing any changes in this most important section of the
department, which has actually pioneered the ecological
destruction of the country through its atrocious clearances.

In the short space of two years, the MoEF has
issued environment clearances for over 150 mines in
Goa, cumulatively involving the excavation, dumping
and extraction of some 120 million tonnes of mud
and ore annually, sanctioning unparalleled
destruction of Goa's interior, forested areas.
Environment clearances are being granted now to
airports, more mines, four lane highways, bridges,
sea bridges, mega housing -- all in a tiny state
that is not more than 3,200 sq km in area.

In an unprecedented move, Goa Environment Minister Aleixo
Sequeira wrote to Union Minister of State for Environment and
Forests Jairam Ramesh, officially protesting the policy of
granting such clearances without even the knowledge or
consent of the state authorities and mostly on the basis of
false or deficient environment impact assessments (EIAs).

Can Goa's environment survive this onslaught?
Hardly. The coastal parts of Goa already look as if
they have been battered by a typhoon of concrete
and garbage. Thanks to unrelenting mining, the
interior areas look like the surface of the moon.
The MoEF, in the meanwhile, is considering
environment clearances for eight more five star
hotels in Goa (all owned by Delhi businessmen) and
even more group housing projects for sale to
speculators. It appears it will cease its efforts
only when the last tree and the last blade of grass
in Goa is overrun, climate change and sea-level
rise notwithstanding.

[Dr Claude Alvares is a prominent environmentalist, founder
of the Goa Foundation, and the author of 'Homo Faber:
Technology and Culture in India, China and the West: 1500 to
the Present Day, Allied, Bombay 1979. More of his writings
here ]

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