THE GENERAL degradation of Goa's environment is symbolised by the damage being done to its khazan lands, a unique, coastal, estuarine agro-system that plays a crucial role in the state's coastal ecology.
Though Goa must import foodgrains to support its 12 lakh population, agriculture is the most important occupation in the state: 35 per cent of Goa's land area is being farmed and agriculture provides employment to about 1.6 lakh people. The state government estimates agriculture contributes about Rs 125 crore to the state's gross domestic product, with paddy, the most important crop, being grown on over 45,000 ha. Of this, terraced plots along the foothills -- known locally as morod -- cover about 6,600 ha; well-drained, sandy soil with a lateritic substratum called kher consists of about 17,000 ha, and the rest -- more than 18,000 ha -- are the khazan lands.
The term khazan is said to be derived from the Portuguese casana, which means a big rice field. Goan historian Joseph Barros explained khazan lands were reclaimed, according to oral tradition, about 4,000 years ago. They testify to the intimate knowledge that ancient Goans had of climate, tidal cycles, soil properties, fish species and coastal flora. They testify also to their technical knowledge, evident in the sluice gates they used to operate.
The khazan fields lying low in the basins of the state's two major rivers, the Zuari and the Mandovi, form the "foodshed of Goa". The lower reaches of these rivers have a network of drainage canals -- natural and humanmade -- in their flood plains. These plains and the inter-tidal estuarine margins are an important nursery for brackish water fish and shrimp. Thus, while paddy is grown in these fields during the monsoon when rainwater reduces the salt in the water to its lowest level, a number of water courses carry river water to the fields, which, in turn, become the spawning ground for fish and shrimp.
Both rivers join the sea after meandering through a relatively flat estuarine bed and sea water rushes into the river mouths during high tide. This lends brackishness to the river waters in the dry season. Brackish river water, in turn, adds salinity to the numerous streams and creeks.
The adjoining low-lying agricultural fields are irrigated with this water. It is here that the sluice gates in the water courses -- a simple arrangement of shutters that open and shut under the pressure of the tides -- play a pivotal role because they regulate the inundation of the fields. A simple mechanism using a bamboo pole is used to operate the gates against the flow of the tide. This regulation is crucial, because protracted exposure of the field to salt water will increase the soil's salt content and impair its fertility.
The sluice gates are also important because they help to regulate fishing activities that have been traditionally managed by the local village communities -- the comunidades -- and the state to prevent over-fishing. Fishing was permitted only in the region of the sluice gates and then, only at low tide. It was strictly banned at high tide because it is then that fish swim to the less saline waters to spawn.
The fisherfolk were allowed to set balloon-shaped nets at the gates at low tide, when the water flows towards the sea. This ensured a high catch, while also protecting the fish and shrimp. Traditionally, fishing rights at the sluice gates were auctioned and the comunidades ensured the villagers received a fair share of the catch.
Even today, fishing rights at some of the major sluice gates are auctioned annually for as much as Rs 3 lakh, which gives a rough estimate of the quantum of the catch. The village communities also monitor the sluice gates, relating its opening and closing to the salinity of the water. There are stringent penalties for violating sluice gate schedules and this ensured crops were not sacrificed for fishing.
Another key factor in the khazan land system are the bunds or embankments, built with cheap, locally available, eco-friendly materials like mud, straw, bamboo, twigs and branches from mangroves and laterite stones. These bunds protected the fields from being inundated with undesirable brackish water. The inner bunds were smaller and made of mud, while the outer bunds, which bear the maximum pressure from sea water, are constructed with laterite stones, which are both freely available and which harden when exposed to salt water. Yet another factor favouring the selection of laterite for building the outer bunds was the fact that it cannot be damaged by "boring agents" such as snails. These embankments are based on a sound understanding of the ecology of the land and the sea, says S Untawale, senior scientist at the National Institute of Oceanography in Panaji.
The bunds stretch for about 2,000 km in length and form Goa's biggest community asset. Farmlands are connected through cross-drains or pipes made of laterite that facilitate the circulation and drainage of water. The mangroves that grow along the bunds form an important feature of these protective embankments because they act as wave-breakers, absorbing the impact of the tidal waves. Farmers thus took great care to nurture these mangroves.
The khazan lands are generally privately owned, though some patches are owned by the comunidades. Earlier, the landowners -- baticars -- cultivated most of the khazan lands themselves, but gradually, many of them were let out to tenants or mundcars. But privately owned or not, khazan lands are governed by a code laid down by the comunidades, which rules that any breach in the embankments must be closed within 24 hours by the bous (associations of khazan farmers). The code also requires local cultivators to work jointly in maintaining the system and in dealing with an emergency. Breaches caused by barges plying the state's rivers and streams, are governed by separate laws.
In 1882, the Portuguese government made it compulsory for all khazan farmers, including tenants, to be members of the bous, which bore the cost of repairs and maintenance and also employed people to perform other tasks. The gauncar (supervisor), for example, supervised the work of the bous, the kulcarni (accountant) maintained the village accounts and the paini (guards) kept a vigil on the bunds. The expenses incurred by the bous were recovered from its members. Village records clearly show cultivators had to pay their dues before they could lift paddy from their fields. It was also a common practice for bous of several villages to work together when necessary.
Perhaps the most interesting example of the strict discipline prevailing in the villages are the regulations governing the retention of saline water in the fields for pisciculture. This was considered a crime, punishable by fine and imprisonment, unless it was specifically sanctioned by the authorities and the governor-general. However, in such cases, too, the saline water could not be retained at a depth of more than 20 cm, even if the plea was to kill weeds, snails and other harmful organisms.
As the bous also undertook religious activities, it maintained jurisdiction over the rights and duties of the villagers and codified them for display in the community hall, so that all the participants were aware of the rules.
Bunds under threat
The first serious threat to the bunds came in the 1950s with the increase of barge traffic. Fresh laws were passed to raise the extra funds and technical help needed to repair the bunds damaged by the barges.
The next blow to the bunds and the bous came in 1961 when a new legislation -- Codigo das Comunidades -- abolished the bous altogether. Since then, the administration of these areas has become the responsibility of the state. After the liberation of Goa, the Agricultural Tenancy Act, 1964, was passed relieving the comunidades from managing khazan lands. The new legislation laid down the government would contribute a sum of upto 50 per cent of total costs for the maintenance of the protective bunds and made it mandatory for khazan lands to have their own tenants associations. But as the Agricultural Land Development Panel's report, submitted in early 1992, acknowledged, these associations could not take off in right earnest and are, at best, a poor substitute for the comunidades. The report indicated the decline of the khazan lands began with the abolishing of this institution.
Threats to the khazan lands have multiplied with the government and even the local communities showing little interest in addressing the issue. Compounding the problem is the fact that Goa's village community has been under tremendous stress in recent years because of the increasing migration, which has resulted in more tenants. The splitting up of families has resulted in smaller and less economical land-holdings, points out Errol Desouza, associate professor of economics in Goa University. The agricultural tenancy laws of the state make it difficult to dispossess the tenants and the landlords show little interest in maintaining farmlands that have brought them little or no returns. The tenants are usually so poor they don't have the means to repair the bunds, whose quality is deteriorating steadily.
Land maintenance is expensive for the daily wage of labour in Goa is one of the highest in the country, says journalist Mario Cabral e Sa. As a result, he explains, the protective shield around the khazan lands has declined considerably and takes government agencies days to repair. Consequently, fields often remain inundated for days on end.
Proliferating prawn culture
Slumping revenues from agriculture in Goa has led to another dangerous development. The khazan lands, when inundated with brackish water, are excellent for raising certain species of fish and shrimp, particularly prawns that fetch a high price in the market. According to David Stephen, a scientist who has taken to prawn farming, in many cases the baticar or the mundcar will breach the bunds to allow saline water into the fields so they can raise fish, as this is far more profitable than cultivating paddy.
The agricultural land panel, which surveyed khazan lands extensively, says in its report many fields have been inundated for as many as 15 years and used for shrimp farming. The panel also reported cases where the owner and the tenant colluded to sell khazan land for pisciculture. How widespread this practice has become is evident from the passage by the state government of a law in 1991 prohibiting conversion of agricultural khazans for prawn culture, unless they had been lying fallow for at least five years. However, this regulation has only forced prospective prawn cultivators to obtain false land-use certificates from the landlord, tenant and village officials.
The growing density of population poses another threat to the khazan lands. Goa's population is concentrated in the Mandovi-Zuari basin, which is also where the khazan lands are situated and almost all urban expansion has taken place at the expense of these lands. As Assembly Opposition leader Ramakant Khalap pointed out, it is urban planners and developers who have vandalised khazan lands the most.
Together with this urban expansion, the state's road network has been expanded considerably and this has affected drainage in the khazan lands. The Panaji bypass, constructed some years ago, is an example. Khalap says, "Almost every expansion activity undertaken around cities such as Panaji and Mapusa and even many villages has added to the general deterioration of these lands." Khalap noted the Mapusa highway and the Kadamba bus-stand and many highrise buildings in Panaji have been constructed on reclaimed khazan lands.
Threats to the khazan lands include those arising from general environmental degradation. Deforestation in the upper river catchment areas and mining activity have added to the silt load of the rivers. The sediment that gets deposited in the estuarine region have resulted in many acres of khazan lands now getting flooded during the monsoon.
The rivers have become heavily polluted near the towns and much of the waste material they carry flows into the khazan lands with the tides. And, this problem is compounded by the petroleum residues from barges, tankers and trawlers in the rivers.
"The problem is that any expansion that takes place in Goa has to be at the cost of the khazan lands," observed a senior official of the state administration, who did not wish to be identified. He said, "However much we might want to protect them, they are being destroyed, thanks to developments over which we have no control."
Today, however, thanks to protests by environmentalists against the route proposed for the Konkan railway line, public attention is unquestionably focussed on the need to protect the khazan lands -- a valuable Goan heritage.