In the eco-sensitive forested village of Melauli in Goa, over 700 Adivasis have been fighting a battle to stall the upcoming process of construction of an Indian Institute of Technology since the last four months.
In the latest incident, on Tuesday morning (December 5) several tribals, led largely by women stopped the surveyors from entering their village. The protesters allege that the surveyors were sent to the area in the midst of heavy police presence to disperse the protesters.
Describing the incident, activist Diana Travers told NewsClick, “Over 500 police personnel were present on Tuesday, surrounding the tribal protesters. Even though they had come with jeeps, cars, etc. to take away the protesters we did not let that happen and neither did we allow the police to lathicharge or arrest us.”
“All of us stood firm on our ground and did not allow them to enter, despite several threats (from the police personnel). They even tried to send the surveyors through another way but we stopped that as well,” she added.
For the people of the Melauli village, this protest is also about reclaiming their land rights while protecting their livelihoods, which are entirely dependent on the forest.
The village falls in Satturi taluka in the Western Ghats. Lying in the midst of three major wildlife sanctuaries – Bondla to the west, Madei in the East, and Bhagwan Mahavir wildlife sanctuary in the south, the village was identified as an ecologically sensitive area (ESA), according to a government notification released in October 2018.
The notification states that in an ESA, any construction extending more than 20,000 sq metres is not allowed. “However, the proposed IIT will be constructed over an area extending 15 lakh square metres, violating the ESA norms,” said Abhijit Prabhu Desai, an activist who has been working for tribal rights.
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He further questioned, “Does it make sense to destroy such ecologically sensitive areas, and to massacre tribal rights to create an institute of education? There are a number of problems in the government's illegal attempt to construct the IIT here – one of the major things being the fact that this is tribal land, which is essential to the community and its livelihood, in addition to the environment.”
Desai also said that according to estimates of those protesting, the government will have to cut down approximately 2 lakh trees to construct the institute.
As per the villagers, the fully forested Melauli is an example of the co-existence of agriculture along with forest land. The land is fully owned and occupied by the indigenous tribal Gowda community, who have lived on this land for hundreds of years, cultivating cashews and other organic produce.
Meanwhile, as opposed to the community claims that they have been denied land rights and their pattas, the Goa government has claimed that they are determined to break the deadlock.
The protest against the construction of IIT has come in the midst of a series of other protests in the state, as there is increased corporate interest in the region, making it a centre of land conflict.