Residents of Azossim village in Goa and the St. Mateus Tenants Association, a citizens' group that manages, protects and represents tenants and tenanted land in Azossim village, are opposing a proposed tourism project on 12,185 square metres of agricultural tenanted land in Sy No. 36/1A of the village (In Goa, plots of land for official purposes are identified by a unique survey number).
Construction of the project commenced around August 2018. This took the village residents by surprise as the Goa Land Use (Regulation) Act, 1991, prohibits the sale and use of tenanted land for any purpose other than agriculture and accords the highest legal protection to this type of land in the state. But it is now being subject to fraudulent proceedings and sale deeds by the tourism sector for development projects.
The Eco Tourism Project is a resort that will offer cottages built on raised platforms in the middle of a large pond. The plot proposed for this is classified as khazan land (agricultural land close to tidal water bodies).
Goa has a special system of agriculture where the khazan land, through an intricate system of traditional canals, get filled with water during high tide. The flow of water is controlled by a contraption called a sluice gate to let the water in and out. This mechanism makes it easier to cultivate paddy and has been used by farmers in Goa for many generations, which is why the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification of 2011 recognised khazan land as a special category, classifying it as a NoDevelopment Zone and offering it protection in the state.
In the case of Azossim village, RTIs filed by the Tenants Association reveal fraudulent sale deeds and mutation of land records of the tenanted land in the past, besides permission granted to the project under a new Agro Eco Tourism Policy initiated by the state government. Members of the Association allege that the project proponent, Rajesh Ashok Khaunte, being an influential businessman and the brother of the then revenue minister, has facilitated such illegalities.
The Association, along with the Goa Foundation, an environmental nonprofit, approached the High Court of Bombay at Goa in February 2019 to challenge the project on multiple grounds, namely, violation of the Goa Land Use (Regulation) Act, 1991, and the CRZ Notification, 2011. The PIL by the two groups seeks the quashing of the development permissions and rehabilitation of the fields upon which construction has commenced. A cemented pond, covering half the field, and some other structures have already been built. The PIL demands the removal of these so that the land is fit for cultivation.
The PIL also demands the restoration of the tenancy status of the land. During the sale of this land to Khaunte, fraudulent proceedings were initiated by him to remove the existence of tenancy. So the current official land records do not recognise the land as tenanted land. The PIL explains the fraud through which the mutation was done.
According to an order on March 6, 2019, the High Court of Bombay at Goa, while recording the statement of the project proponent that no construction would be carried out in khazan land, ordered a halt to all developmentrelated activity. The PIL is now at the final stage of hearing.