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Beach shacks run into rough water

Streets learns Goa Foundation has asked the National Green Tribunal to clamp down on eco-unfriendly shacks

One step forward, health two steps sideways, and three steps backwards, doctor and then back to square one? The Goa government’s beach shack policy has courted controversy every year at the beginning of the tourist season, for one reason or the other. Sometimes it’s the timing of the shack allotments. Last season, besides the timing, the government’s decision to reduce the number of beach shacks and beach beds led to loud protests and demonstrations.

This year, too, the beach shacks will be embroiled in a fresh controversy before the season even starts. Streets has learned that the Goa Foundation has filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal in New Delhi,which may lead to a temporary ban on beach shacks until all outstanding environmental issues are resolved.This is the first time there is a real prospect that shacks could be banned on Goa’s beaches. The respondent is the Goa Coastal Zone Management Authority.

Shack operators have become a nervous lot, because it was after the Goa Foundation, an environmental NGO, filed a plea in the Supreme Court that the court ordered a temporary ban on mining in Goa last September. Does the same fate await Goa’s beach shacks?

Shack operators fear that the National Green Tribunal, the apex body dealing with environmental issues, might pass a similar order. The reason is the Goa government’s failure to regulate the shacks as ordered by federal bodies last season. That provoked the ire of the Goa Foundation. Shack owners privately acknowledge that while they don’t foresee a state-wide ban on shacks next season, they’re definitely expecting sharp limits, including a total ban on shacks in turtle nesting sites such as Morjim, Mandrem, Agonda and Galgibag. With some of these beaches now becoming major tourist spots, an absence of shacks there would be particularly noteworthy.

Both the Goa Foundation and shack owners confirmed to Streets that a new petition had been filed with the National Green Tribunal, and that the matter will come up for a hearing on July 10.

Norma Alvares of the Goa Foundation had earlier asked the Bombay High Court at Goa to require the state’s Tourism Department to regulate shacks since beaches come under the no-development zone of the Coastal Regulation Zone. The Goa Foundation argued that the number of beach shacks should be reduced as the beaches are eco-sensitive zones. The foundation’s petition called for a complete ban on beaches that serve as turtle nesting sites.

Following this, the High Court directed the Tourism Department to reduce the number of beach shacks and beds last season.The department issued an affidavit stating that a new beach shack policy had been formulated and the number of shacks was being reduced. For example, in the Calangute-Candolim beach stretch, which has more than half of all the beach shacks in Goa (196), the shacks were reduced by 20, while they were also reduced in Morjim, while no shacks were allowed at all in Galgibag in the south.

This immediately attracted protests from the large number of Goans who earn their living from shacks. Shack operators in Baga, led by John Lobo, secretary of the Shack Owners Welfare Society, confronted the Calangute BJP MLA Michael Lobo, and asked him to resign if he couldn’t protect the interests of the shack operators. With his back to the wall, Lobo pleaded with Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, who then visited Baga to see the ground reality for himself. Eventually the number of beach shacks was maintained at the previous season’s level, and the beach beds, which had been reduced to five pairs per shack, were also increased to 10 pairs per shack.

According to sources at the Goa Foundation, this was a clear violation of the undertaking given by the Tourism Department to the High Court, and also a violation of the Goa Coastal Zone Management Authority’s guidelines to the Tourism Department. And it’s why the Goa Foundation has filed another petition.

Tourism Department officials, when contacted, expressed helplessness in the matter. “If the Green Tribunal directs the (coastal authority) not to issue clearances for beach shacks, then there is nothing we can do,” a top official said, requesting anonymity because his department is not named in the suit.

He suggested shack owners associations make their position known at the proceedings in the National Green Tribunal. “They have to present their side,” he said. Coastal authority officials were tight-lipped about the strategy they will adopt before the Green Tribunal at the July 10 hearing, or about their response.

Only recently, Tourism Minister Dilip Parulekar had said that the government was hoping to this year to allot shack licenses by July-August. With the
latest controversy, that now seems unlikely.