Woman of Substance: Judith Almeida of Colva [Citizen Activism]

By Adv. Norma Alvares with Adv. Abigail E. Fernandes 

The National Green Tribunal at Pune has recently passed a splendid judgment directing the restoration of the sand dunes at Sernabatim-Colva, which were being destroyed in order to make a road to lead right to the beach. This order is the result of the efforts of one lone woman – Mrs. Judith Almeida, a 60 years old ‘housewife’ from Colva – who through an organisation known as the Colva Consumers Citizens Forum, decided to plunge head-on into legal battle to save her village. Despite the twists and turns in the case, she stood firm and courageous. Judith is truly a woman of substance. Read on..

In February 2015, on a casual visit to the area, Judith noticed that a long bund running through the fields, skirting some massive dunes, was being widened by dumping of mud around it. Obviously some persons were trying to make a road. But, to where? There were no houses in sight. Investigating a little further, she saw to her horror that the widening had cut into the base of a massive sand dune. She was very disturbed. In the face of the legal protection given to sand dunes by the CRZ Notification, how could permission for this work have been given? Had the licensee overstepped the permission? There was no signboard to indicate who was doing this work. 

The same evening she sent an SMS to the Member Secretary of the GCZMA. The work stopped for a day – only to resume at night. So, it is illegal activity, which calls for immediate action, she figured. She then filed formal complaints with GCZMA, the Police, the Biodiversity Board, the Collector, Town Planning, Village Panchayat, in short, with anyone who could stop the damage. As expected, she found that no one had granted any permissions. They came, inspected the site, made reports and issued directions to halt the activity. Town Planning even requested the police to file an FIR against unknown persons, but till date, no FIR has been lodged.

Normally, anyone would be happy that the illegal work had finally stopped. But not Judith. She now wanted to the damaged dune to be restored to its original glory. She approached me. I suggested she file a petition before the NGT for restoration and rehabilitation of the sand dune. I told her it was a simple matter – after all she had a host of reports from every authority in her favour. It was only a matter of getting a direction from the NGT to the authorities to repair the damage. I explained that this one of the main reasons why an expert body like the NGT has been set up. Reassured with my explanations, she agreed to file and argue the petition herself.  

In April 2015, she filed her petition u/s 14 and 15 of the NGT Act. It was numbered as Appl. No.44  /2015. Notices were issued to the authorities, who were the only respondents in the case. They sought time to file their replies. All of a sudden, at one of the subsequent hearings, 6 persons filed a common application to intervene in the case. We were surprised. Who were they? They did not own up to the activity but claimed to be interested in the outcome of the case, being  local villagers. Judith researched and found out that they did not own the lands on either side of the bund/road, so they were not ‘necessary’ parties. But some of them had properties closer to the beach and at least one owned a hotel at the beach. So they must be behind this illegal activity, she reasoned. She wanted to oppose their intervention tooth and nail.

I advised her not to oppose, but to file an affidavit stating the facts she had unearthed. Let the court decide I told her. In all my three decades as a PIL lawyer, I have never opposed the intervention of any person or organisations in a PIL, even if I have been informed that they have ‘ulterior’ motives. I have always believed that if one goes to the court in public interest, one must be able to face anyone else who wants to be heard in the matter. That’s what public interest must mean. Let the court hear all interests and decide.

Rather unhappily (I think), Judith followed my advice. To her dismay, the NGT did not just join them as intervenors as they had requested, but it made them respondents in the case. That’s a higher status. It means they could participate fully in the proceedings as necessary parties. And they did. They brought legal counsel. They filed affidavits, with documents, maps and photographs, old survey records – the works. Midway, they changed counsel and he re-argued everything from a different angle. Judith had to face them all. She was nervous but stuck to her guns. 

She would meet me before every hearing, carrying a heavy pile of papers each time to my office. We would discuss, she would record on her cell phone my suggestions for her reply, then go home type it all out and email it to me for my approval. This went on for 2 years. She got a report from Dr. Antonio Mascarenhas marking out the 5 large dunes in the area and used it to good advantage. In all, she made 19 trips to the NGT, travelling to Pune by train, which arrived at the Cantonment station at 4.30 am, where she would wait in the Women’s rest room till the NGT opened at 10.30 am. The same evening, after the hearing, she would journey back to Goa by overnight bus. Her perseverance was admirable, to say the least.When the final hearing began, I happened to be in the NGT that day. I decided to show my support for her case, so I sat by her side throughout her opening presentation. I knew she would feel encouraged. She consulted me occasionally, but by and large she was so well prepared, I think she could have recited the page numbers and relevant portions of the documents by heart. 

She won. On 3rd July 2017, the NGT delivered its judgement upholding her challenge. The NGT directed the setting up of a Committee comprising the GCZMA, the Biodiversity Board and the Town Planning to mark the dimensions of the original bund, the contours of the damaged sand dune and to restore the area to its original status, by removing the excess mud and material brought to the site and undertaking whatever works are needed to bring the sand dune back to its original condition. It is victory indeed!

Piece de resistance: The NGT directed the 6 intervenors to pay Rs.2 lakhs each towards the costs of the Committee’s work, out of which Rs 50,000 was awarded as litigation costs to Judith. After all, the 6 persons did express that they were interested in the outcome of the case, now didn’t they? Justice was done.

Norma Alvares is a pioneering environmental lawyer and an animal rights activist from Goa. Abigail is a Goa based Lawyer and works with Goa Foundation. 

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