BATTLEGROUND SIOLIM!

GOVEIA RESORT: The sluice gate opening is seen in the foregrund above. Beyond it is the lagoon which was filled up illegally. The water in front is the Chapora river

Padmashri 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 third article in the ECO-WARRIORS series that recognises the efforts of Goans to save their homeland

ONE of the reasons I was delighted when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) was set up was because it gave citizens the opportunity to plead their own cases. Not that the regular courts don’t allow that. In fact, thankfully, the Indian judicial system is far more accommodating to laypersons venturing into the court rooms than courts in most other countries. Nonetheless, the paraphernalia and the legalese associated with arguing one’s case, especially in the High Courts and the Supreme Court — the black gowns flapping around, the intimidating seating position of the judges and the legal-speak (latin phrases et al) — is enough to deter any layperson, except the bravest, from venturing into the legal portals without a lawyer.

In comparison, the atmosphere in the Green Tribunals is far more welcoming. To begin with, a citizen can argue the case in one’s local language, if preferred. That is a huge relief to those who are not entirely comfortable with English. Secondly, the NGT Act promises an outer limit of six months for cases to be decided, which is quite adequate to ensure that the citizen has the endurance to follow up on the case.

EVERYDAY HEROES: Anthony D’Souza (left) and Joseph Noronha (right) have defied the “sussegad” tag and become heroes by their valient battle to save their village. They have had
to fight not just greedy develoopers, but lackadaisical government authorities, poorly briefed
lawyers, and the pitifully slow legal system

Always believing that citizens know the facts of their case much better than lawyers, who have

 several briefs to attend to at the same time, I have constantly encouraged people to take up their own matters at the NGT, if they think that they can find the courage to speak before a not-very-

large audience and if they are willing to attend the case regularly. I promise to assist them with their replies.    

Some have taken up my offers. Anthony D’Souza and Joseph Noronha are two such citizens, who agreed to argue in person their application before the NGT at Pune, to demolish two hotels illegally constructed in the CRZ of Siolim village. Neither had any personal interest in the matter. They decided to fight for love of their village. These two middle-aged, very ordinary village folk have defied the tag of “sussegad” that is often associated with Goans and, despite not being conversant with courtrooms and legalese, they argued the matter on their own, to victory.

Here is a brief account of their efforts:

BATTLE BEGINS

IN 2012, some residents of Siolim styled as ‘the Vaddy Siolim Nagrik Samittee’ complained to the GCZMA that M/s Goveia Resorts had reclaimed a lagoon/fishing pond along the Chapora river, thereby damaging the sluice gates and the hotel company had also built several illegal structures on its property, obviously to turn the place into a hotel. GCZMA promptly issued a Show Cause Notice but did nothing thereafter. A year later, in January 2013, the Samittee filed another complaint, this time against M/s Teso Waterfront’s night club and its 11 illegal structures built right on the Chapora river bank. The same thing happened – show cause notice but no further action.

The Samittee then lost interest. But not these two gentlemen. Early in 2015, Anthony and Joseph filed a fresh complaint against the two hotels. GCZMA promptly issued fresh show cause notices. This time however, when the period of the show cause expired and nothing further had happened, Anthony and Joseph decided to go to court. They soon discovered that CRZ matters had to be taken to the NGT sitting at Pune. So they approached me. I told them that at least eight trips may be required to resolve the matter. Naturally, they worried about costs. That is when I suggested that they file and argue the petition themselves and I promised to guide them along the way.

They were sceptical about their ability to do this, but not having other options, they decided to make a go for it. They filed the application in the NGT in mid 2015. Notice was issued by the Tribunal and a flurry of lawyers for the companies turned up. Affidavits were filed, documents brought on record. But there was nothing that the hotel companies could produce to show the existence of any buildings on their plots prior to 1991 (i.e the date on which the CRZ Notification came into force, restricting development along the coast). I helped them file their replies and also prepared them for each hearing.

TWO YEAR STRUGGLE

THE NGT Act is meant for speedy disposal of environment-related matters, but that rarely happens nowadays. Due to the pile up of cases at the Tribunal, adjournments are usually four to six weeks at a time. It took almost two years for the final hearing of the matter. In between the case came up not less than 15 times. Travelling by bus back and forth, Anthony and Joseph would faithfully present themselves at the Tribunal on each occasion, make out their case and then quietly accept fresh dates for next round.

ILLEGAL TESO: The photo above shows the front of the Teso Waterfront’s night club area and its 11 illegal structures built right on the Chapora river bank

The matter was finally decided in September 2016, with an order to GCZMA to hear the parties afresh and pass a final order within four weeks. If Anthony and Joseph were disappointed with the mild outcome of their petition in the NGT, they did not show it.

Bravely they prepared for the next round of arguments, this time before the GCZMA. More time elapsed with no hearing in sight. When the four weeks time for compliance expired, I suggested they file an Execution Application at the NGT. This would cost them another `1000 as application charges. They did so. The Tribunal took serious note of the fact that its orders had not been complied with, and fined the Member Secretary of GCZMA `10,000. (Later, after a decision was taken by the GCZMA and some explanation offered for the delay, the fine was cancelled).

IN SIGHT OF VICTORY

AT THE GCZMA hearings, apart from the documents produced before it by the petitioners and the respondent companies, the GCZMA also viewed Google images from 2003 to 2016 and noted that while there was not a trace of a building in the earlier period and only coconut trees filled the plots, buildings had clearly been erected around 2013. The lagoon had been reduced by almost half due to reclamation. Accordingly, the GCZMA passed demolition orders against the two hotel companies. M/s Goveia Resort was directed in April 2017 to remove a substantial portion of the resort and also the mud filled in the lagoon. As for Teso Waterfront, the entire hotel was directed to be demolished.

Two citizens, untrained in law, had achieved this success, by themselves, due to sheer perseverance and diligence.

But the battle is not yet over. M/s Goveia Resort filed a review petition in the NGT, which was dismissed. Some inspections have been carried out by GCZMA thereafter. But demolition is still awaited. M/s Teso Waterfront filed a petition in the High Court and challenged the GCZMA order on the grounds that it had relied on Google images to arrive at its findings. The High Court issued notice to the Siolim complainants and the two of them were back in my office to seek advice on how to handle the High Court hearing.

GCZMA BLUNDER

BOTH Anthony and Joseph were present in the High Court when the Teso petition was called out. The High Court enquired with them as to whether they needed legal assistance, which they politely declined, explaining to the court that thus far they had argued the matter themselves before the NGT. The court then proceeded to hear arguments from M/s Teso’s counsel, after which the GCZMA had to reply. To the shock of these two citizens, the counsel for GCZMA had not a clue as to the subject matter of the case. Helpless, the court adjourned the hearing to the afternoon session so that the counsel could be briefed properly.

Afternoon came and the matter was taken up again. Although the counsel was present along with an officer of the GCZMA, he had no answers to offer nor did he put up any resistance to Teso’s application. The High Court felt obliged then to direct GCZMA to re-hear the matter and suggested a time period of six months. GCZMA quickly agreed, but Anthony was aghast and protested that the period suggested was far too long as the matter had been heard on several occasions earlier. The High Court then reduced the time period to four months.

JUSTICE DELAYED AGAIN

LATER, Anthony wrote a scathing letter to the GCZMA on its poor performance in the High Court. The lawyer was obviously not briefed at all, or GCZMA was now quietly siding with the hotel company, he alleged. After all, the lawyer could easily have told the Court that M/s Teso’s claim that Google images were the sole basis for the GCZMA’s decision was incorrect. The fact of the matter was that M/s Teso was not able to produce any document to substantiate its claim that the structure existed before the CRZ Notification came into force. The Google images had only confirmed this fact. But, as the Court was not apprised of these details by the GCZMA’s counsel, the hotel has been given opportunity to carry on its business for some more time. Further delay of justice.  

“What was the need for the High Court, in the year 2017, to grant four months time to the GCZMA to re-hear this matter

CHAPORA RIVER BESIEGED: With Baga,Calangute, and Candolim quite saturated, developers are turning to locations along the Chapora river to mint money. Luckily the villagers of Siolim are alert and doing their best to fight this menace. The picture above shows the back of the Teso Waterfront development. The Chapora river can be seen in the foreground

regarding violation of the CRZ Notification, when the record shows that four years have already gone by since GCZMA first took cognizance of the violation and issued Show Cause Notice (in January 2013) to the hotel. Hasn’t the Supreme Court directed the authorities to dispose of environment matters quickly?” was the pertinent question that Anthony asked me. I smiled wryly. I had no answer.

 

(Editor’s Note: Unless the High Court rules against the shifting of the Goa to the Northern Zone, Goans like Anthony and Joseph, who want to fight to protect their homeland will have to travel all the way to Delhi on multiple occasions to appear before the Delhi bench of the NGT)

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