Updated: January 28, 2016 8:21:05 am
Barely three weeks before the Goa assembly cleared a change in law to allow felling of coconut trees without permission, it notified a coconut orchard for industrial use in Amdai village in Sanguem. A distillery and brewery project is to come up on this 12-hectare plot which currently has at least 500 coconut trees.
The project, involving construction of a Rs 78-crore distillery and a Rs 60-crore brewery, is promoted by Delhi-based Vani Agro Farms Pvt Ltd (VAFPL).
Sanguem councillor Prakash Gaonkar said VAFPL bought 12 hectares in Amdai from the Furtado family of Salcette in 2013. The next year, the Investment Promotion Board (IPB) of Goa, with the Chief Minister as chairman, was constituted. One of the early decisions of the board was to give in-principle clearance to VAFPL’s distillery project in January 2015.
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In August 2014, the state government had enacted the Goa Investment Promotion Act, giving itself sweeping powers to notify agricultural land for industrial use. Under this Act, the IPB notified the orchard in Amdai for the distillery on December 21, 2015.
Coconut trees on the 12-hectare plot couldn’t have been felled without permission. Because the Goa, Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act, 1984, had been amended in 2008 with the insertion that “the term ‘tree’ used in this Act, shall, besides other trees, include coconut trees”.
On January 15 this year, the coconut tree was moved from Section 1 (a) to Section 12 (a) of the Act. Once notified, government permission for felling coconut trees will not be required. This change in law kicked off a storm in Goa with voices for and against it.
Claude Alvares, Director of Goa Foundation, said: “Before the amendment, they (VAFPL) would have required permission for felling the trees. And permission could have been given for only one hectare at a time. This would have meant a total of 12 years to clear the 12-hectare plot. Now they can cut all 1,000 trees at one go for the distillery.”
J S Tyagi, CEO of VAFPL, dismissed the claim. “It is ridiculous to suggest that we have such powers to influence the government. Anyway, we have only 800-odd trees including other species on our land and we need to cut just 100-odd coconut trees for the project,” he said.
Sanguem MLA Subhash Phal Dessai, MLA also described the “development” as a coincidence. “These are unrelated issues,” he maintained.
Balbir Singh Malhotra of Brew Force, the company entrusted to set up and run the distillery for VAFPL in Goa, said the project was conceived in consultation with “the state establishment” well before the inception of the IPB.
“I was requested by the local MLA to bring the distillery to Amdai to create jobs in his constituency that suffered a lot of unemployment since mining was banned. So I convinced the promoters and let go of a better option we had on the highway,” Malhotra said.
MLA Dessai acknowledged bringing the project to his constituency. “When this opportunity came up, the same villagers who are opposing the project now had told me that they wanted employment at any cost. Even now, only one of ten Sanguem councillors is against it, that too because the company refused to meet his unreasonable demands,” he said.
According to Tyagi, the company started applying for clearances in 2013. “Our project was cleared by the High Powered Coordination Committee (HPCC) and we also got pollution clearance after due diligence. But the HPCC was dissolved. We had to apply afresh once the IPB was set up in 2014 and then wait for land conversion,” he said.
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