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Caught in a storm of local protests and legal challenges over a construction within the protected world heritage zone at Old Goa with its cluster of centuries-old churches, Mumbai’s power couple Shaina N.C., the BJP’s Maharashtra spokesperson, and her husband, developer Manish Munot have decided to pull out of the project.
Insisting that they were being targeted with an ulterior motive because his wife is “famous”, Munot told The Wire he was withdrawing from the project because he didn’t want to hurt anyone’s sentiments. “I am on the verge of selling my property; in fact I have basically sold it,” he said.
The property was no longer of any use to him, the builder said. “I had every intention of building there. Had I been given permission I would not let go of my rights. I go by the law in everything.”
The question is why would an experienced developer like Munot buy a property in a protected area (under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958)?
Calling it “a case of gross misuse of power by the state government to favour a powerful and influential party,” a special leave petition (SLP) filed in the Supreme Court by the Save Old Goa Action Committee has challenged the ongoing construction of the river-front ground plus one bungalow coming up within the protected zone and a stone’s throw away from the Chapel of St. Cajetan, the Viceroy’s Arch and Largo of St. Cajetan.
The controversy has also stung the Goa Forward Party (GFP). It recently eased out its treasurer Suraj Lotlikar after the Old Goa case sparked objections from the church and created a political uproar. “He is no longer with us,” GFP spokesperson Durgadas Kamat told The Wire. Just months away from an election early next year, the local party was obviously keen to distance itself from the political blowback from the case.
Munot and Lotlikar’s wife, Suvarna Suraj Lotlikar, are co-owners of the property in question which they acquired in two separate sale deeds executed on the same day in May 2015.
Goa’s real estate market has spiked to new highs post the second phase of the coronavirus pandemic with scores of young professionals and the urban rich from the rest of India scouring for their Goa dream house to work from home in more conducive surroundings. The resurgent boom has also spawned a subterranean tribe of “brokers” with connections within a highly compromised administration willing to provide, or at least promise, a fix even for cases governed by the most stringent laws.
“The illegal construction coming up within the protected area of Old Goa is a classic case of how powerful and influential people can pressurise, bribe, threaten and manipulate the bureaucracy and system to get permissions, where it is absolutely not possible to get permissions,” Fr Noel D’Costa, a priest with the Goa Archdiocese said.
Fr D’Costa praised the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Goa Circle, for standing up to the pressure to withdraw its objections to the project. The ASI’s investigation of the documents brought to light the extent of the fraud and misrepresentation in the case, he said.
The high court, however, set aside the ASI’s orders to stop work.
According to the documents presented in the apex court which has admitted the petition, though the original owners of the property, Jose Maria de Gouveia Pinto, his wife and sister sold the land to Munot and Lotlikar in 2015, applications for “reconstruction of an ancestral house” (which never existed there in the first place, says the ASI) and a green signal from the director general ASI was sought as late as January 2020 in the name of the Gouveia Pintos. Under the law, only repairs to an existing structure are allowed in a protected zone. And all that stood on the property, the Goa ASI reported, was but a small, dilapidated hut used usually to store coconuts. Currently, the construction of a 397 square metre one-storied structure is underway.
To back the claim that a “19th century ancestral house” had indeed existed on the property but had somehow been blown away “in a cyclone that hit Goa in 1992”, Suvarna Lotlikar (co-owner of the property) appended photographs of a house, only to have her bluff called by the ASI. Some excellent sleuthing by the government agency showed that the house did actually exist. Except that it was still standing and was located some 30 km away from the site in a village called Barcem, in Pernem, North Goa.
Architect Tulio D’Souza who has worked on projects to restore heritage structures said he feared that “any attempt to put up new constructions within notified protected zones clearly in breach of law will be the beginning of many such permissions and structures that may come up in the future destroying the sanctity of a world heritage site”. Even worse, the government of Goa through its agencies has been a party to ruining a heritage site revered by pilgrims the world over.
In the real estate frenzy that has gripped Goa, it’s easy to see why the rich and famous would be drawn to a site such as the one acquired by Shaina and Munot. With an unobstructed view of the River Mandovi, a scenic ferry point to Divar Island at hand and a drive through the Viceroy’s Arch built in the memory of Vasco Da Gama in 1597 — all of it framed in the brooding backdrop of the 16th century churches —What’s not to like in the furious competition to own a Goan Portuguese house?
Devika Sequeira is an independent journalist based in Goa.