Denying all allegations of misusing power, Abhijat Parrikar, son of Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar Tuesday told the Panaji bench of the Bombay High Court that a Public Interest litigation (PIL) filed against him is “politically motivated” by the Congress party and filed “on the eve of the elections to get political mileage in the ensuing Lok Sabha elections”. He has further alleged that it was done at the “behest of certain politicians to settle political scores before the election”.
Abhijat was referring to a petition, which alleged that his eco-tourism project Hideaway Hospitality being constructed on a buffer zone identified as “eco-sensitive zone” around Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary, was responsible for “massive deforestation” and “cutting open forested land”. There are also allegations that suggest a clearance was given to a project for the construction of a cow-shed.
Responding to the notice sent by the high court, Abhijat said, “I say that the property bearing survey number 78/1 consists of cashew and other plantation. I say that I have carried out agricultural activities from the year 2014. I have been running a dairy farm and growing greens.”
Along with Abhijat, eight others, including state Chief Secretary, Secretary Environment and Forests, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests have to respond to the allegations. The others have asked for more time, with the two-judge bench of Justice R D Dhanuka and Justice Prithviraj K Chavan keeping the next date of hearing on April 22. In a written reply to the notice, Abhijat has confirmed that permissions were sought for 20 eco-friendly tourism huts/villas of which 10 are completed and the rest 10 are in stages of completion with “85 to 90 per cent of the work complete”.
Denying all allegations, Abhijat added, “I say that the Forest department of the government of Goa way back on 13/3/2015, has specifically stated that the said property is neither a government forest, nor it is a private forest. Further, the forest department has said that it does not fall within the limits of the Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary.”
In his response, he said the counsel for the petitioners, advocate Carlos Alvares Ferreira, “along with certain MLAs, ex-chief minister and the office bearers of the Indian National Congress held a press conference with the petition being argued in front of the press”, with “allegations made against my father (Manohar Parrikar).”
He has also informed the court that the advocate for the petitioners happens to be a member of the Indian National Congress and also the member of the Legal cell of the Goa unit of the Indian National Congress.
“My project was conceived in the year 2005, and has had permissions from the year 2014, in respect of the said properties from the various departments. The present petition is filed almost after a period of four years. The timing of the present petition speaks volumes of the conduct of the petitioners,” he replied. Abhijat also has put on record a message the petitioner Abhijit Dessai, the deputy sarpanch of village panchayat of Netravali, Sanguem, sent to a third party desperately seeking an appointment with Manohar Parrikar.
The petitioners, Abhijit Dessai, deputy sarpanch of village panchayat of Netravali, Sanguem and a sarpanch from the panchayat Prakash Bhagat, have also alleged misuse of government machinery, with the state government rushing to “promulgate a tailor-made ordinance” to the Goa Town and Country Planning Act, 1974. The ordinance, the petitioners have told the court, allow the promoters of such project to escape procedure required for conversion of land and it was first introduced specially to “facilitate the chief minister’s son’s project”, the petition reads. The court was also informed that both the petitioners were present in the gram panchayat meeting where they too have signed in the resolution which granted permission to start the project.
Among the annexures, Abhijat, who is the promoter of Hideaway Hospitality for the eco-resort, has spoken of the Goa Investment and Facilitation Board giving an in-principle approval for the project on October 2015, along with the Town and Country Planning Department also giving technical clearance order dated February 29, 2016 after payment of an infrastructure tax for Rs 2,36,124.
Abhijat has denied this, adding that having “an overreaching of the Central Law or making of any mockery of TCP laws. I deny that the said Act is enacted with the motive to assist me. I say that the petitioners does not have the basic knowledge of law that no legislation can be challenged on the grounds of the Mala fides or motives. The Legislature cannot be attributed with any motives or malafides..No motive can be attributed to the Ordinance which is Legislation.”
During the delineation of eco-sensitive zones, with Goa having six wildlife sanctuaries, the eco boundaries of two —Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary and Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park, was being done in a phased out manner with the state appealing that mines were in proximity.
The petition filed earlier adds that the Ministry of Environment and Forests finally notified the Eco-Sensitive Zone for the Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary on February 17, 2015, with the Central Government identifying it as part of Western Ghats, and home to endangered species like bison, and black panthers. The notification also specifically protects the area and the boundaries of the wildlife eco-sensitive zone prohibiting any new construction inside the one kilometre land from the natural borders.
Ferreira, counsel for the petitioner, told the court that Parrikar’s projects, both the eco-resort and the cowshed, are inside the prohibited limit.
He had further told the court, “that the material used for construction of the projects according to norms have to be of ex-friendly products like wood, or wooden houses etc. Parrikar’s project is of RCC structure,” the court was informed, with huge excavation in progress. The petition has also pointed out that the Zonal Master Plan for eco-tourism related activities had to be prepared and presented by the state government to MoEF, which is pending till date. A zonal master plan allows all projects to be put under public scrutiny with suggestions pouring from all stakeholders ensuring all the laws of the land are followed.
The deed documents, which were presented to court, state that a total of 83,625 square meters were purchased from villagers for Rs 95,21,387 in 2013. A year later, in 2014, the Goa Government under Parrikar passed the Goa Investment Promotion Act, 2014 with Investment Promotion Board seen as the executing agency for facilitation of investment in to the state. “Even before the rules of IPB were being Framed, Abhijat Manohar Parrikar made an application for Hideaway Hospitality with no documents submitted giving details of the future project,” reads the petition.
The IPB later forwards the proposal to the state’s forest department asking to identify if the land is forest land or notified. The Deputy Conservator of Forests, the petition’s Annexure shows, only responds to the minimum, adding that the property “is neither Government forest” nor “is it identified as private land”, but “shares common boundary with the Netravali Forest Sanctuary”.
While IPB will have to respond their stand on how the project got technical clearance, the high court has also sent notice to State Eco-Sensitive Zone Monitoring Committee (SESZMC), after the petitioners asked if a state body “has the power or jurisdiction to grant any approval for any eco-tourism or otherwise, any permission in notified ESZ area without even the preparation of the Zonal Master Plan?”
In their plea, the petitioners have asked the high court to pass an order to revert the land to its original condition, and carry out afforestation again.