In a unique symbolic protest, villagers in Goa’s Melaulim opposed the setting up of an IIT campus in a thickly forested stretch of land and tied rakhis to the trees that are earmarked to make way for the project.
The protest against the IIT campus has been gaining momentum since February after it became clear that the government was planning to finalise 10-lakh square metres of land in Melaulim village for the IIT campus.
Located in Goa’s eastern corner at the foothills of the Western Ghats, the land chosen is thickly forested, interspersed with cashew trees that the villagers claim to have sustained them for generations. The locals have been demanding a new proposed site for the IIT campus, one which will come at less of an environmental cost.
“Around 300 villagers in batches tied rakhis to the trees that have been marked or enumerated by the government for felling for the proposed IIT Goa project. It’s not that we don’t want the IIT in Goa, we want it but just not at this location,” Shubham Shivolkar, one among many who have been opposing the move, said.
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The IIT Goa, which was allocated to the state in 2014, has been functioning from a temporary campus at the Goa Engineering College. Two sites previously identified by the state government, in Canacona and Sanguem sub-districts, for the setting up of a permanent campus but were scrapped on account of protests from local residents and pressure from the Opposition. The Opposition had alleged a land scam in shortlisting of sites for the top technology institute.
“The local communities of Melaulim village are totally dependent on the economic and environmental resources provided by the lands. The lives and livelihoods of the 2,500 local people is directly dependent on their agricultural, grazing and forest lands as well as local water resources,” the villagers stated in their letter marked to various representatives. A copy was also sent to the President of India.
Goa’s Melaulim village falls in an eco-sensitive zone but hasn’t been formally declared so. The land on which the IIT campus is scheduled to come up is a revenue land belonging to the government but the villagers have said that the situation has persisted only because they did not have the required documentation to prove that they have rights over it.
“The indigenous local communities of Sattari taluka are the most oppressed in Goa. Most of the people of the villages surrounding Melaulim don’t have any documentation of their rights over the lands on which they live and cultivate. Most of the lands in this region are wrongly recorded in government records as occupied by the ruling class families or by the Government of Goa, though the indigenous communities have lived on these lands, cultivated them and occupied them continuously and without any interruption for thousands of years,” Shashikant Sawardekar who leads the opposition said in a letter addressed to MLAs in Goa.
The villagers further added that besides helping them sustain their families, the area is rich in biodiversity with populations of bison, leopards, pangolins, slender loris, species of deer civets, giant squirrel, flying squirrel all kinds of rare birds and other fauna endemic to the Western Ghats.
Villagers have been drumming up support for their cause with the vruksha bandhan protest being the latest in a series of protests. Previously, the villagers had organised a ‘mandd’, or a traditional gathering of villages, in an open space to denounce the project.