Shrutika Gaonkar is only a teenager but she understands the importance of the river Uguem which flows through her village. She comes to the river every day–to wash clothes and to bring her family’s herd of cattle for a drink. “The water here is very important for us,” she says. But this may soon become a rare commodity in the life of the villagers of Amdai in South Goa’s Sanguem sub-district. In an erstwhile orchard bordering the river, the government has granted permission to construct a brewery and distillery with a daily requirement of 506 cubic metres (over 500,000 litres) of water.
The residents of the village, indigenous people, use the water to cultivate crops like coconut, kokum, areca nut and cashew. Uguem is fed by the monsoon and is not a perennial river. In summer months, there is often not enough water to be distributed through the lift irrigation system for the orchards and farms. How then, does the government expect there to be enough water to meet the requirements of a brewery, the villagers ask. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. In December 2015, the villagers of Amdai woke up to bulldozers clearing over 100,000 square metres of orchard land with at least 1000 coconut trees in their backyard. It is only then that they became aware of the fact that the Investment Promotion and Facilitation Board of Goa (IPB) had granted an in-principle approval to Vani Agro Farms Limited to construct a brewery and distillery there.
The IPB is a single window approval mechanism for investment schemes of over Rs 5 crore formed under the Goa Investment Promotion Act of 2014. Activists in Goa have long alleged that IPB exists only to bypass checks and balances in other laws that would prevent environmental degradation. Between its inception in December 2014 and November 2016, when its term expired, the IPB gave the green signal to at least ten projects that violated the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) legislation of the Ministry of Environments and Forests.
But the case of Amdai gets even more interesting on closer inspection. Just before Vani Agro Farms Limited started clearing the land, the government in Goa had passed an amendment to the Goa Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act, 1984 in December 2015. Because of this amendment the coconut was no longer considered a tree and therefore, no permission was required to fell it! The Director of Vani Agro Farms Limited, Vivek Jain issued a statement on this:
The Goa government in its new notification has declassified the coconut tree as a tree which means Vani Agro Farms Limited does not need forest clearance to fell or cut the 470 odd coconut trees on that land at Amdai, Sanguem.
This only hints at a nexus between the government and the company. But this goes deeper as the Writ Petition filed by the villagers of Amdai state: Vani Agro Farms Limited had approached the Chief Minister of Goa in April 2013 and completed the purchase of the 1.2 lakh square metres of land at Amdai by May 2013. In this, they were assisted by Kunal and Ulhas Faldesai. Kunal and Ulhas are in turn related to Subhash Faldessai, the MLA of Sanguem as well as a member of the IPB. The project was only approved in 2015 when it appeared before the IPB and the already purchased orchard land was approved for conversion into an industrial zone. Apart from the nexus between elected members of the state Legislative Assembly and owners of industries, this conversion of orchard land itself is in violation of the Goa Town and Country Planning Act 1974 and the Goa Land Revenue Code 1978.
Breweries and distilleries are among the most polluting of industries, identified under the ‘red category’ by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Under the IPB Act, the board does not have jurisdiction to approve a red category project. Red category industries need an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on the basis of which the State Pollution Control Board can grant a No Objection Certificate (NOC). In the case of the proposed factories by Vani Agro Farms Limited, the Goa Pollution Control Board granted permission without requiring any EIA and allowing the release of 315 litres of treated effluents from the factory per day. 6 litres of water is required to produce a litre of beer. Brewery wastewater released into any water body can cause massive algae bloom thereby affecting the quality and potability of water. Without any stated plans of where the effluents will be released, there is a legitimate fear of widespread environmental degradation and water pollution in the area.
The Writ Petition filed by villagers in Amdai and the environmental rights group Goa Foundation is still ongoing. There is another case before the High Court involving the legitimacy of the IPB, filed by a concerned citizens’ group from Pilerne. In what might prove to be a breakthrough for the people of Amdai, in this second case the government has admitted that in-principle approval by the IPB is not intended to bypass permissions from other agencies.
The people of Amdai have struggled for over a year and kept corporate exploitation of their land and water at bay. But they cannot win this if the government does not recognise the havoc it is wreaking on the fragile ecoscape of the state in the name of ‘development’. The question is, for how long can the government blatantly ignore the mandate of the people in favour of corporate greed? It is a long, difficult and unjust summer for Shrutika and her neighbours in Amdai.
Article by Madhura Chakrobarty. Visit the Video Volunteers website here