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Over the last one month, the Defence Ministry has been fighting a battle -- but about thousand kilometres away from the nearest border.
The battlefield is a 150-acre piece of land in South Goa, where the ministry plans to hold its biennial weapons exhibition, DefExpo, this March.
Its 'enemies' are villagers from nearby areas, and environmentalists, who have been objecting to the exhibition ever since they learnt of the ministry's decision to host it in Goa. The exhibition is usually held in Pragati Maidan, Delhi.
Throughout February, the villagers blocked all routes to the location, stalling construction of exhibition-related infrastructure. For this they also earned the wrath of Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar, who said he would file police cases against anyone objecting to the DefExpo.
It all began with Defence minister Manohar Parrikar, who used to be Goa's chief minister until 2014, when he was inducted into the Modi Cabinet. His confidant Parsekar succeeded him as the state's CM.
It was Parrikar's idea to hold the event in Goa and Parsekar who helped arrange the land.
The protesters say that the government kept them in the dark about the land being allocated for the the DefExpo. They learnt of it only after filing RTI requests, and found to their disdain that Parrikar had in fact asked for a permanent venue for the DefExpo as well as Aero India, the ministry's biennial air show.
Objections raised by the locals include claims that the area is eco-sensitive, with endangered wildlife as well as water sources, sure to be threatened by the exhibition. They are also worried that parts of the area, used by tribal communities as grazing lands, will be permanently handed over to the defence ministry.
Now, Parrikar's ministry and Parsekar's government have together steamrolled local opposition to the DefExpo. Protected by four busloads of paramilitary personnel, work began on 29 February.
Every two years, the defence ministry organises the DefExpo, an international weapons and defence hardware exhibition. Its exhibitors include some of the world's top defence equipment manufacturers. This time, companies from all major nations except Pakistan and China are expected to showcase their weapons. Israel is slated to have the biggest pavilion. DefExpo will last from 28 to 31 March.
By 20 March, the display areas are to be handed over to the exhibitors.
The DefExpo will be held in South Goa's Quitol plateau, situated in Quepem taluka.
There are social and ecological concerns related to the plateau:
In fact, the land has been at the centre of a controversy ever since the Goa government acquired it in 2007.
Some of the communities had refused compensation for the land. They continue to use it, and also claim that they still have rights over it.
"It has been almost a decade since the land was taken by the Goa IDC and nothing has happened. Now all of a sudden they have offered it on a platter to the defence ministry," Freddy Fernandes, convenor of Orixtt Porjecho Avaz, an organisation of villagers leading the struggle, told Catch.
The Naquerim-Betul village panchayat, under which the site falls, has alleged that the state government has violated the Goa Panchayat Raj Act 1994. The Act "mandates that no construction activities may take place in the Panchayat Area without prior permissions of the Village Panchayat," a letter drafted by the panchayat says.
Additionally, locals fear that the defence ministry is eyeing the land, and DefExpo is a foot in the door.
In the letter written by Parrikar to the Goa government asking for land for DefExpo -- as accessed by local activists through the RTI -- Parrikar specifically asks for a "permanent venue".
In fact, the letter dated 12 June 2015, requests for 150 acres of land specifically near the coastline that can be chosen as a "permanent venue" for not just DefExpo, but also Aero India.
The defence ministry has only recently insisted that it has not acquired the land.
The land at Quitol was granted by the Parsekar government on 7 July 2015, within a month of Parrikar's request.
Activists say that the choice of Quitol came as a surprise to all -- there is also no reasoning put on paper in government files about this allocation. The only reference is to a discussion that took place between the state's Chief Secretary and Chief Minister at the latter's residence in mid-June.
A reason is necessary, especially because giving this particular parcel of land makes little sense. As the FRW pointed out, Parrikar asked for land which can accommodate a 10,000-ft runway for Aero India. This requires about 9 lakh square metres of land, whereas the available land at Quitol is just 6 lakh square metres.
As for Aero India, the decision goes against the advice of a defence ministry expert committee, set up in 2012 to evaluate alternative locations for Aero India. While it approved Goa as the other location, the exact venue was supposed to be at Mopa in North Goa, where an international airport is proposed to be built, and not the land that has now been chosen.
Edited by Anna Verghese
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