BATTLE GROUND ANJUNA!

WARRIORS: Goans owe a debt of gratitude to Sagardeep Sirsaikar (top left) and Cipriano D’Souza (bottom left) whose happy days atop the Anjuna hill turned into a fight to preserve the coastline from greedy developers. The “W Goa” hotel (above) has still not complied with the NGT judgment. The restoration plan prepared by the Biodiversity Board is still to be executed

Padma Shri Awardee NORMA ALVARES is an Indian social worker, environmental activist, lawyer, and a founding member of Goa Foundation, an environmental action group. This is the second article in the ECO-WARRIORS series that recognises the efforts of Goans to save their homeland

SAGARDEEP Sirsaikar and Cipriano D’Souza are two young men, now in their thirties, born and brought up in Anjuna village in North Goa.  They were childhood friends and have remained so till today. Sagardeep is a small-time fisherman and owns a trawler, Cipriano runs a taxi ferrying service for school kids. From the time that they can remember, their evenings of relaxation have been spent on the Vagator beach sands along with other friends or they would sit atop the Anjuna hill amidst the ruins of the Chapora fort, from where one gets a spectacular and panoramic view of the rugged and rocky Anjuna coastline. Just like them, for most village folk of Anjuna and Assagao villages, the Vagator beach and the Chapora fort have been the main recreation place from time immemorial. In fact, the short cut to the beach, if one goes on foot, is by crossing the Anjuna hill.  

Which is why, Sagardeep and Cipriano were taken aback when, in the summer of 2015, they found a barbed wire fence thrown around the fort, blocking their access to the beach. They decided to investigate further.  To their utter shock they found that there was massive development work taking place on the other side of the hill, including deep cuttings into the hill and levelling of the low sand dune area that fronts the beach.

Sagardeep immediately dashed off a letter to the Goa Coastal Zone Management Authority (GCZMA) complaining of what he perceived to be illegal activity in the No Development Zone of the CRZ. In Goa’s Coastal Zone Management Plan, Anjuna village is marked as CRZ III, while Chapora Fort, being a heritage monument, is declared as CRZ I including 100 mts around the fort.

Two expert members of the GCZMA soon visited the site and noted the following serious violations of the CRZ Notification:

Construction of a helipad atop the Vagator hill.

Wooden cottages atop the hill.  

Extensive hill cutting and deep excavation of the land

Cement poles fixed in the ground close to the fort through which were strung barbed wire

Steps cut into the hill reaching almost up to the fort.

Immediately, on May 25, 2015, the GCZMA issued Directions under Section 5 of the Environment Protection Act to M/s Diana Buildwell Ltd to stop the development activity, remove the illegal works and restore the land to its original condition.

Other inspections followed — by the Goa State Biodiversity Board and the Archaeology Dept — and they also noted serious violations of law. This prompted a Stop-Work order from the Deputy Collector. However, as the work did not stop altogether, the two young men approached the NGT with a brief 10 pages application drafted by themselves, whose strong points were the notices issued by the authorities and the photographs they annexed to the application. The NGT issued notice to M/s Diana Buildwell Ltd and a host of government authorities including the Director of Archives & Archaeology, the Town Planning Department, Goa State Biodiversity Board, Village Panchyat of Anjuna the Collector and the GCZMA.

In the meanwhile M/s Diana Buildwell had replied to the GCZMA’s orders informing it that, in fact, the authority had approved the hotel construction vide an NOC. Taken aback, GCZMA promptly withdrew some of the more severe directions that it had issued to the company. That is when the two young men realised that they were up against a powerful company, well connected with those in power and they would need some assistance to help them to fight this matter. They approached me, and after perusing the documents and listening to the brief history they laid out before me, I agreed to be their legal counsel at the NGT.

The first thing I did was to amend their application and list out specifically all the violations of the CRZ notification that the two applicants had observed. It is always necessary when filing an application before the Tribunal to clearly spell out each violation that has been committed and to be very specific about the reliefs (directions) that the applicant wants from the Tribunal. Vague generalisations put the applicant at a disadvantage at the time of final hearing of the petition.

So we listed out around a dozen violations, including excavation up to 1 meter depth of a large plot next to the sands wherein the company had buried a 33 KV high tension cable, construction of a 6 mt wide internal road, a sewage treatment plant under construction in the 200 mts zone, construction of helipad, concrete steps, cement pillars, cottages, retaining wall, etc. Later, after we had perused the documents that came on record through the respondents’ replies, we realised that the hotel project did not have the mandatory CRZ clearance. It merely had an NOC from the GCZMA, which was no substitute. The massive 5-star hotel under construction at Vagator was being illegally built, barring the reconstruction of some cottages first approved in the 1970s, long before the CRZ Notification came into force.

Sagardeep and Cipriano were exceptional in the attention they paid to their petition. Sagardeep would visit the site every morning on his jogging rounds and constantly bring me up to date photographs of on-going construction activity. He was declared persona non grata by the hotel company and could only take pictures from a distance. Nonetheless, we would file these along with affidavits, reports and charts that we annexed, to make the case stronger. There was no stop work order from the NGT, but the Tribunal agreed to put the matter on fast track for final hearing, considering the issues involved.

On the day of the final hearing, one hour before the matter could be called out, Sagardeep showed me a set of 8 photographs that he had taken the previous day, of 8 bathing/mini-swimming pools that the company had constructed in front of the cottages, barely meters away from the HTL. These were brand new constructions — a serious violation taking place even as the matter was under consideration by the Tribunal — and so I sought liberty to adjourn the hearing to enable the applicant place the photographs on record in the proceedings. Amazingly, counsel for the company told the NGT that these were Rainwater Harvesting tanks. Long rectangular tanks, lined with baby blue ceramic tiles and long steel handles to climb into them – rainwater harvesting tanks? Believable?

The NGT delivered its judgment in Appl No 82/2015 on November 3, 2016, just over a year after the application had been filed. The verdict was an absolute vindication of the allegations made by Sagardeep and Cipriano against ‘W Goa’, the name of the starred multinational global chain hotel at Vagator.

  • The NGT upheld the challenge that there was no CRZ clearance for the massive hotel project and directed that decision in the matter be taken within four weeks.
  • It directed demolition of the 8 mini-swimming pools as well as other structures in the No development zone including the helipad and the steps leading to the Chapora fort.
  • By the time final hearing took place the hotel had already removed the wooden cottages, the cement poles and the barbed wire fencing.
  • The NGT directed the appointment of a Committee of Experts including a representative of the Biodiversity Board to assess the damage caused to the environment from the unauthorised and illegal constructions and to prepare a plan for its restoration, along with tentative costs for its implementation.
  • The Town Planning Dept was directed to examine the destruction caused to the plot alongside the beach which the hotel planned to use as a parking lot.
  • Finally, the NGT made the company pay quite dearly for its total disregard of the law and the destruction of the sensitive coastal zone. It directed the company to deposit `5 crore towards restoration costs and an additional `10 lakhs for setting up sanitation facilities for tourists in the coastal area.
  • The GCZMA was also made to pay `5 lakhs as a penalty or perhaps as a reminder that it needs to be more proactive in protecting the coastal zone.

The company paid the fines and ‘W Goa’ opened to the public in December 2016. The same month Sagardeep went back to the NGT with an Execution Application since all the directions in the judgment had not been complied with. True, the fines were paid, but the hotel had not yet obtained the CRZ clearance, which is still pending with the Central Govt’s environment ministry.

The NGT directed the GCZMA to inspect the hotel premises to ensure that the demolitions were carried out. Green grass was grown over the helipad and the stepped access. Town Planning directed that the hotel remove all the mud it had dumped on the plot close to the beach. Sagardeep told me that in order to bring down the level of the plot by one full meter to the level of the sandy shore, during the month of May over 200 truckloads of mud were removed from the site, late every night. Many villagers got free mud.

The Comprehensive Restoration Management Plan prepared by the Biodiversity Board and which is estimated to cost around `11.5 lakhs still remains to be executed by ‘W Goa’. The Plan calls for the removal of all concretised and impervious surfaces in the NDZ, the setting up of proper storm water drains, restoration of hill cut slopes and rainwater harvesting measures.

Sagardeep and Cipriano are vigilant Goans and I am sure that they will persist in the implementation of the Plan in toto. Already, they have achieved so much. If only all other citizens upset with the destruction of their village environments did likewise!

 

4 thoughts on “BATTLE GROUND ANJUNA!”

  1. Wow, that was very very brave and heroic act. I wish, everyone of us Goans can come together and fight the injustice that happens in our villages everyday. May it be done by some of our fellow Goans to satisfy their greed or by some outsiders, builders etc. We need to oppose all acts that destroy the natural beauty and culture of our lovely Goa. Let us unit and fight together for our future generations. Viva Goa

  2. Wonderful news! I’m so happy to hear it. I’ve been dreading going to Vagator because I’d seen pictures of the destruction, and I felt helpless in the face of such barefaced theft.

    Your story has made me realize that it’s possible for ordinary people to fight back: we don’t need to feel helpless before those who would destroy the land.

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