Goa elections: BJP faces farmers’ anger over land acquisition
In the Pernem constituency, where Goa’s second international airport is nearing completion, the party is facing a backlash
PANAJI: Ankush Arondekar, a farmer in his 70s, stared blankly at what was once his sugarcane field. A resident of Goa’s Dhadachiwada, Arondekar recalled watching helplessly as earthmovers moved in and mowed down his plantation days before he could harvest his crop to clear the land acquired for the Mopa International Airport. “Because I could not find the labourers, I delayed the harvest... I hoped [it] would be my final crop of sugarcane. But without any notice, they suddenly moved in one day and razed all the crops,” Arondekar said.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) advertises the upcoming airport as one of its achievements and it figures prominently in its development report card. But in the Pernem constituency, where the airport is nearing completion, the party is facing a backlash.
Farmers in the area have also lost land to a stadium and an AYUSH hospital. They resisted acquisition for a six-lane road linking the airport with a national highway. Over 300 villagers blocked roads to keep the surveyors out and even courted arrest but to no avail.
“We suggested to the chief minister [Pramod Sawant] that he should choose another alignment for the road. One, that is a shorter route, but more importantly, spares farmers who have already lost much to acquisition for the government’s infrastructure projects,” said Bharat Bagkar, a resident of Dhargal village, who brought the villagers together.
“We believe that they insisted on this alignment to benefit a casino... a casino company bought the land where the airport road is scheduled to meet the highway.”
Anger over land acquisition in the area for the airport and surrounding development was blamed for BJP lawmaker and minister Rajendra Arlekar’s loss in the 2017 elections. Arlekar, who has since been appointed as Himachal Pradesh governor, lost to Babu Ajgaonkar, who contested on a Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) ticket before defecting to the BJP in 2019.
The BJP has shifted Ajgaonkar and fielded him in Margao against Opposition leader Digambar Kamat amid anger against the ruling party. The BJP has given the ticket to Pravin Arlekar, an MGP leader who switched sides, from Pernem.
Pravin Arlekar, who earlier backed the protesting villagers, was unavailable for comments despite attempts to get in touch with him.
Three ministers are among four BJP lawmakers, who have been denied tickets, as part of efforts to overcome anti-incumbency the party faces in places such as Pernem, where Goa’s second international airport is being built in the state’s northern corner. The airport is coming up over nearly 100-lakh square metres of land spread across Mopa, Uguem, Dhadachivada, Poroscodem, and Dhargal villages.
Farmers including those involved in cashew farming fought a protracted legal battle against the airport saying the government was ignoring reliable scientific data that the plateau it is being built on is an ecologically sensitive zone. They argued the government classified it as wasteland going only by the low density of trees.
Agitations across Goa have forced the government to either withdraw or modify controversial projects in the state. The farmers of Pernem, which is a part of one of the poorest area of the state, unsuccessfully took up their matter also to the Supreme Court.
At a hearing for the environmental clearance for the project, a section of villagers demanded the project be allowed to continue as it will bring them jobs.
“The villagers have now realised that the promise of jobs was largely false and now they do not have the land nor the jobs and are coming together to fight for their rights,” Bagkar said.
With February 14 elections around the corner, the villagers said they will ensure the BJP’s defeat. “They sent bulldozers; they razed the cashew plantations, the sugarcane, and the millet. We were not even given a chance,” Arondekar said. “We are now completely against the BJP.”
The BJP has said the projects will have to go ahead, but will ensure the affected farmers are adequately compensated.
Jitendra Gaonkar, the Congress’s candidate from Pernem, said they have been fighting on behalf of the farmers for years and understand what they have undergone. “The BJP ignores the plight of the farmers and the common man. It is not just here in Pernem but across the state. The party is facing the heat for its anti-people policies,” said Gaonkar.