Monday, May 9, 2011

Eco-vandalism at Santo Estevam island: a tale from today's Goa

Eco-vandalism at Santo Estevam island: a tale from today's Goa

Dr Nandkumar Kamat
nkamat at

JUA, Zuvem, Santo estevam (Saint Stephan) is a breathtakingly beautiful and scenic estuarine island at the confluence of Mandovi with Narve, Valvota tributaries and Cumbarjua canal.

Spread over 827 hectares, the only high ground in the island is the strategically located hillock. During the reign of Dom Afonso VI, when the count of St Vincente was in charge of the eastern empire, a fort was built in September 1668 on the hillock. It was named as fort of St Francis Xavier.

The fort commanded a great view of the surrounding region, stretching from Bicholim to Old Goa. On November 24, 1683, the Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Sambhaji attacked the fort at night and captured it. It was the closest the Maratha army could come to threaten the city of old Goa.

The Portuguese had understood the strategic military importance of the island and the hillock. In 1560 they had massacred the Adilshahi army on the island. With heaps of the slaughtered bodies strewn around, the Portuguese had named the island "illha de mortos" (island of the dead).

          This island is surrounded by fertile Khazan  (low-lying, reclaimed) land and creeks. The
          ecological security of the island depends on the hillock. It is the only watershed on the island
          which captures the rainfall and replenishes the island's groundwater. Any damage to the historic
          hillock means an interference in the centuries old ecological balance and threat to the very existence
          of the island. But for the past two months, heavy earth moving machinery undid what the nature had
          created for centuries.

More than two hectares of land in a private plot on the slope and near the foot of the hillock was excavated. It had lush green, thick, dense, tree cover. More than 500 trees were cut down.

As one looks down from the ruins of the fort, the ugly transformation numbs the mind. In the history of the island, this is the first major ecological shock.

St. Estevam village has a population of more than 5000, with a predominance of females. The village panchayat (elected council) has seven members; but it was shocking that they could plead absolute ignorance about the excavation. By road, there is only a single narrow entrance and exit to the island. So how could these elected members be unaware about the traffic of earth moving machinery and the trucks?

The village panchayat failed to issue a notice to the developer under Section 109 of the Goa Panchayat Raj Act. The ruins of the fort have been declared as protected monument under the Goa Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites Remains Act, 1978 and the Rules 1980.

Under Section 28 no mining or construction can be done near such a monument without a permission. But the understaffed and resource-starved Archives and Archaeology Ddepartment had no information of this illegal activity till the agitated villagers alerted it.

It appears that several truckloads of laterite stones and earth had been lifted from the site of excavation but the directorate of mines was unaware of the violation of Section 3 of the Goa Minor Minerals Concession Rrules, 1985. The directorate promised action only after the quarrying was completed.

Cutting of the hillocks without permission from the Chief Town Planner is banned under the amended Section 17 of the Goa Town and Country Planning Act, 1974. But Santo Estevam hillock bore testimony to the failure of the Town and Country Planning Department which did not smell anything for two months when the hill cutting and bulldozing activity was in full swing.

          The talathis (village official) and the panchayat
          secretaries are supposed to be the eyes and the
          ears of the government regarding land related
          matters. The rules made under the Land Revenue Code
          prescribe elaborate duties of the revenue inspectors.

But the revenue administration is a failure in Goa and the Santo Estevam case was a clear pointer to the total erosion of governance in Tiswadi taluka (sub-district). For two months, hundreds of trees were being cut and the timber was being stacked and transported but the Forest Department took notice only after the press reports.

Almost every law was broken by the developer on the rampage. The anger of the god-fearing villagers of St. Estevam can be understood. Their local panchayat had failed them. The hillock has a picturesque, 83 years old neo-gothic chapel with an exquisitely carved statue of Christ the King in Italian marble.

          The courtyard in front of the chapel offers a
          panoramic view of the estuarine landscape. There
          are very few such spots on earth. On a clear,
          cloudless evening one can get profound aesthetic
          and spiritual experience from this location -- such
          is the quality of the peace and tranquility on the
          island. But after the excavation of the hillock,
          the foundation of the chapel is under threat.

The ill-maintained ruins of the fort have a bleak future because the loose boulders overhanging the cliff may come tumbling down. The hillock would face landslides owing to slope instabilities during heavy rains. The eroded soil would cause massive mud flows which may enter the village and clog the old drainage system. The low lying parts of the island are prone to flooding. The removal of tree cover and the laterite cap means a drastic reduction of the aquifer. The wells would go dry during the coming summer.

The government is insensitive to this environmental crime. The wheels are grinding agonizingly slow. Not a single FIR (first information report) has been booked by the Directorate of Archives, Archaeology, Forest, Mines, Revenue, Town and Country Planning Department. The most shocking role has been played by the village panchayat which has lost the moral right to rule. It has buried the spirit of 73rd constitutional amendment and the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi on the island by being blind to the lawlessness.

The government needs to come down heavily against the offenders. As a long term measure, the private land around the hillock needs to be acquired. The unstable hill slope would have to be stabilized. Terraced plantations of local tree species would have to be created. Landscaping to blend with the original ambience of the hillock would have to be done. A heritage park could be designed. The beautification of the hillock, the chapel precincts and the 17th century fort ruins would make this island an attractive global place for cultural and ecotourism.

The Save St. Estevam front has already given a representation to the Chief Secretary of Goa. The local  MLA, Transport Minister Pandurang Madkaikar, is supportive and sympathetic to their concerns. The government should spare no efforts to give social, cultural, ecological and environmental justice to the neglected villagers of historic St. Estevam island.

Dr Nandkumar Kamat is a prominent former student activist, microbiologist, environmentalist and man of many roles. He is known for taking up a number of contemporary issues in today's Goa. This article was earlier published in The Navhind Times, Monday, October 23, 2006 and is being circulated with the permission of the author.

GOANET-READER WELCOMES contributions from its readers, by way of essays, reviews, features and think-pieces. We share quality Goa-related writing among the 8000-strong readership of the Goanet/Goanet-news network of mailing lists. If you appreciated the thoughts expressed above, please send in your
feedback to the writer. Our writers write -- or share what they have written -- pro bono, and deserve hearing back from those who appreciate their work. GoanetReader welcomes your feedback at goanet at Goanet Reader is edited by Frederick Noronha fredericknoronha at Please visit
Goanet's website at

No comments:

Post a Comment