Goa elections: BJP faces farmers’ anger over land acquisition
PANAJI: Ankush Arondekar, a 70-year-old farmer, stared at what was once his sugar cane field. A resident of Dhadachiwada in Goa, Arondekar recalled watching helplessly as the earthmoving machinery moved in and mowed his plantation days before he could harvest his crop to clear the land acquired for Mopa International Airport. “Because I couldn’t find workers, I delayed the harvest…I was hoping [it] would be my last harvest of sugarcane. But without warning they suddenly came in one day and razed all the crops,” Arondekar said.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announces the future airport as one of its achievements and it features prominently in its development newsletter. But in Pernem constituency, where the airport is nearing completion, the party is facing a backlash.
Farmers in the area also lost land to a stadium and an AYUSH hospital. They resisted acquiring a six-lane road linking the airport to a national highway. More than 300 villagers blocked the roads to prevent the investigators from entering and even tried to stop them, but to no avail.
“We suggested to the Chief Minister [Pramod Sawant] that he had to choose another alignment for the road. First, it is a shorter route, but more importantly, it saves farmers who have already lost a lot from procurement for government infrastructure projects,” said Bharat Bagkar, a resident of Dhargal village, which brought the villagers together.
“We believe they insisted that this alignment benefit a casino…a casino company purchased the land where the airport road is to join the highway.”
Anger over land acquisition in the area of the airport and surrounding development has been blamed on the defeat of lawmaker and BJP minister Rajendra Arlekar in the 2017 election. Arlekar, who has since been appointed governor of the ‘Himachal Pradesh, lost to Babu Ajgaonkar, who contested a Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) ticket before defecting to the BJP in 2019.
The BJP moved Ajgaonkar and lined him up in Margao against opposition leader Digambar Kamat amid anger at the ruling party. The BJP gave the ticket to Pravin Arlekar, a leader of the MGP who switched sides, from Pernem.
Pravin Arlekar, who had previously supported the protesting villagers, was unavailable for comment despite attempts to contact him.
Three ministers are among four BJP lawmakers who have been denied tickets, as part of efforts to overcome opposition to power the party faces in places such as Pernem, where Goa’s second international airport is being built in the northern corner of the state. The airport covers nearly 100,000 square meters of land spread over the villages of Mopa, Uguem, Dhadachivada, Poroscodem and Dhargal.
Farmers, including those involved in cashew farming, have fought a long legal battle against the airport, claiming the government is ignoring reliable scientific data that the plateau it is built on is an environmentally sensitive area. . They argued that the government classified it as wasteland only because of the low density of trees.
Unrest across Goa has forced the government to withdraw or modify controversial projects in the state. Farmers in Pernem, which is part of one of the poorest regions in the state, also took their case to the Supreme Court, without success.
During a hearing for the environmental authorization of the project, some of the villagers demanded that the project be allowed to continue because it will bring them jobs.
“The villagers have now realized that the promise of jobs was largely false and now they have neither the land nor the jobs and are coming together to fight for their rights,” Bagkar said.
As the February 14 elections approach, villagers say they will ensure the defeat of the BJP. “They sent bulldozers; they razed the plantations of cashew nuts, sugar cane and millet. We weren’t even given a chance,” Arondekar said. “We are now completely against the BJP.”
The BJP said the projects will have to go ahead but will ensure that affected farmers are properly compensated.
Jitendra Gaonkar, the Congress candidate from Pernem, said they had been fighting on behalf of the farmers for years and understood what they had been through. “The BJP ignores the plight of the farmers and the common man. It’s not just here in Pernem, but across the state. The party is facing heat for its anti-people policies,” Gaonkar said.