A day after some villagers from Melauli in North Goa were detained by police while briefing the media against land allocated for a proposed IIT project – they were subsequently released – a group of residents on Thursday said that their right over the land they had “cultivated and lived in” for years should be heard.
The press meet was organised by the Goa Union of Journalists in the state capital.
Ram Melekar, a senior citizen who was detained, said the land has sustained thousands of villagers over the years. He said villagers want the state government to understand their reasoning and their rights over this land.
Shubham Shivolkar, another villager, said: “We are asking for a discussion. We are looking to present our stand. We are agriculturists and have used the land for cultivation for decades. The government should encourage us. Instead, it is showing the campus as an ’employment opportunity’ for villagers.”
In several interactions, state government officials have maintained that the land in question belongs to the government and is being given to IIT to build a campus, as planned by the Union HRD Ministry.
But a note circulated by villagers earlier last week says Melauli comes under the Western Ghats Ecologically Sensitive Areas Notification, published in the official gazette on February 2017. This bars all new and expansion projects with built-up area of 20,000 sq m, it states.
The villagers said they wanted to put some legal points in front of the media and had ensured all social distancing norms were followed, “with only four representatives to make statements and vacate the hall”.
Raj Tilak, president of Goa Union of Journalists, said, “This is a democracy…we may agree or disagree but one cannot walk into a press meet where social distancing norms were followed and stop it.”
He said the decision to invite those detained to come to the state capital and express their appeal was taken with much deliberation. “The press conference yesterday was left incomplete…it needed to be told,” Tilak, who organised the press meet, said.
On Wednesday. a video shared widely online showed a police inspector from Valpoi, S Ekoskar, entering the hall and asking the two men in the podium to stop the meet and walk with them to the police station. By evening, the video had been shared a thousand times, inviting criticism from the people, members of civil society and opposition parties.
Opposition leader and former chief minister Digambar Kamat asked, “What warranted the police to arrest the citizens of Sattari who were holding a peaceful press conference?” He tweeted, “Duty of Police is to protect the people & not to come under pressure from various power centres. Will Goa Chief Minister speak on this high handedness?”
In a statement on Wednesday Goa Police said, “No arrests have been made. The persons (villagers) had been warned. We are looking into the matter.”
On Thursday, Congress and AAP members visited Melauli to show solidarity and asked the BJP government in the state to act against “police excesses”.
A press note signed by several environmentalists stated that the current orders of the district magistrate do not prohibit holding of a press conference.
Goa-based environmentalist Abhijeet Prabhudesai said that numerous press conferences are being held across the state, with attendance of many more people. “Commercial activities, including tourism, markets, coal handling, mining transportation, industries are being allowed, while poor, law-abiding farmers following all social distancing norms exercising their constitutional rights are being arrested and threatened by the police.”
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