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Land wars threaten Goa's pristine beauty

Last updated on: February 7, 2012 17:16 IST

Land wars threaten Goa's pristine beauty

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Sunil Sethi

Wherever you go in India's top tourist destination and playground of the well-heeled, you hear of nasty property disputes.

Change is creeping upon the quiet and wooded traditional village in north Goa where I have been coming for several years.

Mercifully, it is still gradual. The kiosk across the street that stocks everyday provisions is often left unattended.

But further up the road a new two-storey structure - all swanky plate-glass and glowing neon - houses a clothing boutique, a fancy tea room and an art gallery. This was mainly a residential area of old homes, fading in the sun and weathered by rain - but for how long?

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Image: Land wars have escalated in Goa.
Photographs: dol.goa.gov.in
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Owners began putting up "Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted" signs a while ago; now they add "This Property is Not for Sale".

Wherever you go in India's top tourist destination and playground of the well-heeled, you hear of nasty property disputes: politicians and officials in the pay of developers, foreigners ripped off by Indian partners with whom they bought property to legalise acquisitions, landowners demanding extortionate prices for access to a recently purchased village house.

A friend who bought a small plot to build her retirement home some years ago can't move in.

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Image: Property disputes are now common in top destinations.
Photographs: travelmarg.com

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Reason: the panchayat has decided it is orchard land, long after proper clearances and building permissions were obtained. Refusing to pay bribes or be browbeaten, she is living in a grim hole in the wall and gearing up for battle.

In Goa's escalating land wars, many are on the take. And the stakes are steadily rising. Elections in the state are due in early March and the latest land scandal is an old one with a new twist. Pre-election income tax raids have apparently uncovered a murky trail of large sums of money changing hands over the promised conversion of agricultural and orchard land to commercial use.

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Image: In Goa's escalating land wars, many are on the take.
Photographs: tripadvisor.in

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N Suryanarayana, a former civil servant-turned-realtor with a fondness for frequenting casinos, appears to have been the conduit between Atanasio Monserrate, ex-town and country minister (who holds the education portfolio in the present Congress government) and a consortium of outstation builders who paid Rs 24.75 crore (Rs 247.5 million) in 2006 to convert 11 prime properties spread across the state.

The buyers, it is reported, routed Rs 4.99 crore (Rs 49.9 million) in payoffs through Surayanarayana's wife's account and also paid into companies in which Monserrate's wife and son are directors.

As it happened, the land-use conversions didn't come through, which is why the can of worms, with opportune timing, is now open.

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Image: The tourist destination is seeing several land disputes.
Photographs: goabest.com

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Monserrate, popularly known as "Babush" but dubbed "Monster Rat" by his opponents, is a controversial power-broker: last year he was detained at Mumbai airport for carrying quantities of Indian and foreign currency en route to Dubai.

At the moment, he is jetting back and forth to Delhi to promote candidate selection and push for tickets for his wife and himself.

But the Congress has a hard fight ahead with the Bharatiya Janata Party attempting an alliance with the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party.

Goa's land scams, however, extend to the wider terrain of illegal mining to which several political figures are directly or indirectly linked.

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Image: Goa's land scams extend to the wider terrain of illegal mining.
Photographs: indiatravelblog.net
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Two day trips this week to the villages of Loutolim and Cavelossim in the south confirmed how rapidly Goa's rural landscape in changing with the advent of housing developments, expensive resorts and time-share holiday homes.

A strong environmental movement led by activists is making a brave attempt, but preserving Goa's natural glories may be easier said than done.

Remo Fernandes, the popular singer, has been chosen as an "electoral icon" and appears beaming on front pages this week, flanked by Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi, and promising to root out corruption.

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Image: A strong environmental movement led by activists is making a brave attempt.
Photographs: about-goa-blog.net

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Goa's hedonism and commercial prosperity is an unstoppable tidal wave.

Anjuna's famous Saturday night market is a sight that sums it up: hundreds of shopping and food stalls, rock bands, milling crowds and mile-long traffic jams. I kept running into acquaintances from elsewhere in India, though it was a place more international, featuring Peruvian tattoo artists to Filipino jewellers.

"We haven't anything like it in Mumbai," quipped a friend from the city, "and it's definitely more fun than Gutter Kailash Part II."

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Image: Goa's hedonism and commercial prosperity is an unstoppable tidal wave.
Photographs: goatoursplanner.com
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