Communidades dead, Save the lands

By Prabhakar Timble
30 April 2013 05:25 IST

“Communidade or gauncarias” were Goa’s traditional institutions which established the nexus between land, economy and people well before the advent of Portuguese rule. In those times, the total economic activity centred on agriculture and hence agricultural activities formed the core foundations of the Goan village communes. “Gaunkars”, the founder members of these village communities adopted this collective pattern of land ownership and the system worked well to answer the needs of the economic societies of those times. Independent India was looking at legislations for abolition of ‘zamindari’ system of land tenure and ceiling on land holdings to promote productivity, growth, equity and justice. Different models of cooperative farming were scouted as progressive tools to attain the twin goals of agricultural growth and justice to peasants or cultivators. The Village Communes of Goa fitted well in this reformist frame.

Today, the ‘Communidade’ does not exist in letter and spirit. What is attempted to be kept alive is only a nomenclature for purely administrative purpose.  It is akin to maintaining a dead patient on a ventilator in an ICU or a corpse in a morgue waiting for the day of cremation. The more the final rites are delayed, the greater is the risk of the body losing its intrinsic value. What ‘Communidade” needs today is not refined and modified legal structure but systemic change. The essence of community ownership should be retained through public ownership and the land resources need to be exploited by augmenting the supplies of this resource to the different sectors of the Goan economy fully acknowledging the fact that neither we are nor can we afford to be an agrarian society like of the past. As it is, there are illegalities and encroachments on ‘communidade’ lands. A failure to work out legal alternatives for utilisation of idle land resource opens more opportunities for encroachments, illegalities and misuse of power by the office-bearers of these institutions through the tacit blessings of politicians in power.

The issue of Communidades continues to be subjected to a lot of discussion and debate. This issue also gets knotted with Goan identity. The preservation of these institutions with rights over land only for ‘gaunkars’ (local villagers) and protection from any entry by ‘bhaylo”(outsider) becomes the centre towards which the interest-groups gravitate.

Past and Present

Though we sing the glory of these traditional institutions, we should also record its falling relevance and rigid feudal character. The Portuguese allowed these institutions to continue as they were. Any intervention by the colonial rulers was to accelerate agricultural production so as to minimise the food deficit. Communidade would establish and maintain common facilities such as wells, lakes, tanks and ponds to facilities two crops in a year. As a contrast, today we have medium irrigation projects unaccompanied by any plan for the development of crops. Rice was the main crop to be grown in Rabi and Kharif seasons with ‘nachinim’, ‘culith’ and ‘mugo’ as secondary crops including vegetables. With the Portuguese rulers joining hands with the Christian church and missionaries to clothe the local population with a new religion, its impact was also seen in the village communes. The names of the Christian members were to be written first in the register of the Communidade. The Hindu officials were forced to relinquish offices in favour of members converted to Christianity. The meetings which used to be held earlier from temple precincts were transferred to Church premises. As an operational practice, the sale or lease would go to the Christians first and later to Hindus.

Statistics reveals existence of around 227 communidades, approximately 36000 ‘gaunkars’ and 15000 shareholders on their register. Earlier, “gaunkars” owned more than half of the paddy fields in the coastal belts. On liberation of Goa, the international migration of high caste Catholics was largely responsible for the relatively low caste Catholics to get greater access into these village communes.   Another shift was seen with the internal migration of Hindus and Kunbis which formed the bulk of agricultural labour. The bug of absentee landlordism did not spare this institution. Earlier, the Communidade largely consisted of the “jonoeiro” (those who claim ‘jono’ i.e. annual income). Today, the shareholders constitute 30% of the total membership. The point of critical significance is that around 65% of the members are no more in the respective villages. They are in other parts of Goa or outside Goa or overseas.

The sickle is no more

The sickle has deserted the paddy fields long back. Nobody wants to use the agricultural tools of the past and get down to the fields. They are becoming a part of heritage illuminating the economy and occupations of the bygone years. The village communes in their present condition do not make any notable contribution to the agricultural economy. The privileges and claims on jointly held lands accrue largely to the male members and the stratification of these lands was done on caste lines.

Today, the communidade lands continue to be given on lease or are transferred to the State under land acquisition. Qualitative factors such as composition of population, occupational distribution of the population and dependency on tourism, industry and service sectors has brought pressure on the land resource. Agriculture and horticulture can be revived only if we are prepared for a systemic change. We will have to find the route to move to public ownership of the land which is presently under Communidade and make the best use of these idle resources. What needs to be retained is social ownership of the land asset. It can be viewed as a major “land bank”, the ownership of which should stay with the State.

Communidade land is certainly not a heritage monument. It was an economic and commercial institution which was needed for the agrarian economy and the social divisions of those times. Encroachments on these lands are the inevitable offshoot due to the pressure of development and immigration. A new approach is needed to harness these lands by maintaining their ownership character. The rightful place for the Communidade as it existed earlier and exists now is in the archives.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Prabhakar Timble

Mr Prabhakar Timble is an educationist and a legal expert. He has served several educational institutions, especially as the Principal of Government College at Quepem, Kare College of Law in Madgao as well as couple of Management Institutes. He was also the State Election Commissioner of Goa.

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