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Up In Arms Over The Defence Expo

It Seems Like A Nice Idea. So Why Are So Many Goans Opposed?

It will be arguably Goa’s largest event till date if not the most important. The State will play host to Defence Ministers of several countries and Chiefs of Staff of still others later this month. But the manner in which the government brought in the DefExpo has left a bad taste in the mouths of many Goans, viagra 100mg and opposition is intense.

Is this just another case of obstructionists opposing a project just because they can? Or are their grievances genuine, with the government running roughshod over the will of the people? Most likely, it’s a case of a stunning lack of communication, and of a government suffering from a severe lack of trust.

Back in 2012, a joint committee of the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Civil Aviation had recommended Goa as a reasonable exhibition site. Around July 2015, a decision was finally made public, that the biennial DefExpo would be held in Betul in Goa.

The 9th Land, Naval & Internal Homeland Security Systems Exhibition – 2016, the full name of the defence exposition, will be conducted from March 28-31 on nearly 150 acres of open land at Betul, about 30 kilometres south of Margao.

In response, the government has faced a number of protests from villagers. The situation was fast turning ugly when the government decided to engage the protesters rather than confront them.

Proponents wondered what could be wrong with hosting an exhibition on land that belongs to the government, where the State stands to gain through a massive influx of visitors.

The answer lies in how the opponents perceive the project.

Speaking to the media, Freddy Fernandes, a leader of the protest movement, said he and his peers oppose the project because they have been kept in the dark about it.

“The Chief Minister mentioned that before protesting we should study the project. The villagers of Naqueri-Betul and surrounding villages ask the CM to please let us know how to study the project when everything has been kept under wraps!” Fernandes said.

“None of the officials nor the politicians have clarified about the project, be it to the panchayat, the local MLA or the people at large,” he added.

The first time the government deigned to even discuss the DefExpo was on February 25, barely one month before the event and after the organisers began moving machinery and equipment onto the site.

Until that point most people in Goa, much less the village, hadn’t the slightest idea what the DefExpo was about, whether it would include the Aero India show usually held in Bangalore, and whether the land was handed over permanently or not.

“We called on the Chief Minister with a long list of questions regarding the kind of activities that will take place there, the amount of money the panchayat will earn and how, whether there is a possibility of weapons testing at the site, etc. We demanded that the entire public report be made public,” said Charles D’Silva, another villager from the area.

“In response the Chief Minister said that he didn’t know because he hasn’t gone into the project in detail. If the Chief Minister isn’t in the know of these things, who is going to familiarise themselves with it? If the CM isn’t sure, how can he be sure the state will benefit from the project and so openly support it,” D’Silva added.

A crucial point the locals raised was that of the fate of the two bridges, one at Balli and another at Quitol, which are known to be old and weak, given the heavy machinery that is to be moved to the site.

Underscoring the fact that local knowledge trumps that of those sitting in Panjim and Delhi, an age-old bridge — the Balli bridge that lies along the narrow road that leads to the DefExpo site – has begun collapsing under the weight of the heavy machinery being moved to the site, and the organisers are frantically trying to repair it before they can resume the work.

It’s as if to say: “If you guys had asked us before hosting the DefExpo in our village, we would have warned you about the bridge.”

The Confederation of Indian Industry and the Goa State Industries Association admitted that the government’s move to unilaterally declare a spot for an event as big as the DefExpo without briefing the villagers in advance was a mistake.

“If anything, the government should have held the presentation on the DefExpo six months in advance. That would have helped the villagers understand what is happening,” Parag Joshi of CII’s Goa unit said in views that were seconded by GSIA president Shekhar Prabhudesai.

At the presentation that was held at the Margao collectorate, the Ministry of Defence representative apologised to those gathered for failing to keep them in the loop over the developments.

“We found his attitude much better than the rest of the state government officials including the Chief Minister and Union Defence Minister. It was he who insisted that all the queries of the villagers should be answered,” Fernandes said.

It was the presentation held at Margao which helped soften the protestors who hitherto had threatened to ‘give their lives’ but not allow the DefExpo to come up at the site.

“It is our constitutional right to know the details as well as the pros and cons of the project, which neither our government nor the authorities have done. Protesting peacefully against unwanted projects is also our constitutional right. Naqueri-Betul along with Ambelim, Assolna, Velim, Morpilla, Loutolim and Khola Panchayats have taken resolutions against the DefExpo so how can the Government bulldoze this project through?” Fernandes asked.

But the protests are not the organisers’ only headache. Among the problems the organisers face is that they have to set up structures from scratch, the roads leading to the project are narrow and most of the equipment will have to be brought in from outside the State.

While the government has promised that the state will earn revenue indirectly through the expenditures here, the Chief Minister was ambiguous on how exactly this money will come into the state and how the locals will profit.

The CII has suggested money could be made through renting out houses to those who visit the Expo, and the Chief Minister has suggested that the locals could set up stalls outside the venue. Neither idea has caught on with the locals.

The government’s strategy of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’, has done little to allay the fears of the locals, and what might have otherwise been a world-class international event has now been compromised in the eyes of many ordinary Goans.