Panaji: The Indian Navy`s plan to acquire two picturesque islands off Goa for "security purposes" has triggered a chorus of protests in the region as the state had plans to set up a tourism-oriented amusement park on one of these.
The navy is looking to acquire two islands - Grande and Pequeno - located off the Baina coast, situated 30 km from here, "in order to counter security threat to the airfield and runway approach of the Dabolim airport".
Goa`s only civilian airport at Dabolim is operated and controlled by the maritime force.
According to Rear Admiral Sudhir Pillai, flag officer of the Goa naval area, the navy had already applied for a `no objection certificate` from the state government for acquiring the islands, located a few kilometres into the Arabian sea off the state`s coast.
"Securing both the islands, Grande and Pequeno, which are closely located to the approach way of runway and airfield of Dabolim airport, is important in order to avoid security threats to the aircraft," Pillai said.
The two islands, in the navy`s cross-hair, are part of a cluster of three such islands. Grande Island is a hub for scuba diving activity and it also has a `Cross`, which is venerated by the Christian community, dominated by fisherfolk from the region.
Pequeno Island is relatively smaller and is favoured as an overnight picnic destination by tourists and locals alike.
Parts of the islands are owned by both the government and private individuals.
According to top navy officials, the strategic location of these islands is significant in view of protecting the coastline and maintaining vigil, in the light of a series of recent sea-borne terror threats.
However, the navy`s attempts have found no cheer as a cross section of the local population is vehemently opposing the move.
According to Shantaram Naik, MP, representing the ruling Congress party in the Rajya Sabha, the Indian Navy was simply attempting to `grab land`.
"These islands are part and parcel of the state. Tourism activity, fishing activities and religious ceremonies will be trampled upon by the Indian Navy in the name of security. They are just trying to hog land. Goa should be opposing these attempts by the Indian Navy tooth and nail," Naik said.
Goa`s influential Roman Catholic Church has also questioned the navy`s move.
"The navy should acquire with care. Do they need this to protect the security of the country?" said Fr Francisco Caldeira, spokesperson, Archdiocese of Goa.
Local civic bodies of Chicolna and Bogmalo, under whose jurisdiction the islands fall, have also opposed the acquisition plans.
"We definitely won`t allow the government to let the navy acquire the islands. Hundreds of villagers earn their livelihoods by fishing and the islands have become an inseparable part of their lives. They take shelter at these islands to protect themselves when the sea turns rough or during storms," said Urbano Rodrigues, sarpanch of the Chicolna village panchayat.
Mauvin Godinho, Deputy speaker of the Goa legislative assembly and a legislator from the nearby Cortalim area, said the navy should post its personnel on the beaches for vigil instead of acquiring them lock, stock and barrel.
"If the navy claims the acquisition of islands is for security purposes, then they can beef up patrolling around the islands without acquiring them," he said.
However, Indian Navy PRO Commander M.C. Joshi said there was no need for alarm and that the wishes of the public could be incorporated in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed along with the state government.
"People have apprehension that once islands are acquired, they will be restrained from going to the shrine located at Grande Island. Similarly, there is apprehension among boat owners and water sports operators that they will not be allowed to take tourists for the island trip.
"All these things could be incorporated after discussion with the state government in an MoU with the navy," Joshi said.
Speaking to reporters, Revenue Minister Jose Phillip D`Souza said the government would oppose the navy`s move. "We are studying a proposal to set up an amusement park on one of these islands. We wanted to go ahead with that," he said.
There are three naval bases in Goa - INS Hansa, INS Mandovi and INS Gomantak.