A holding pond used for fish farming (Courtesy: George Jerry Jacob)

In Conversation with Xavier Rodrigues on the Khazans of Goa

in Interview
Published on: 18 October 2019

George Jerry Jacob

George Jerry Jacob is an architect, whose work focuses on urban ecologies. His interests lie in the relationship between city centres and their peripheries, the interdependency of rural communities on ecological systems and everyday cultural practices. He teaches at the KRVIA, Mumbai.

An interview with Xavier Rodrigues on the origins and history of the gaunkari system and its relation to the khazans system in Goa.

This interview was conducted with Xavier Rodrigues, a resident of Raia, Goa in October 2018. He is part of the Biodiversity Committee of Raia village and has a thorough understanding of the khazan system. 

Following is an edited transcript of the interview.

George Jacob (GJ): Is there a history of reclaimed land management in Goa?

Xavier Rodrigues (XR): When the Europeans set out to find new lands, Vasco da Gama knew that Goa traded in spices. They were exploring gold in Africa, in Mozambique, and learned of the trade route to Goa. There was a thriving trade between the Arab world and India. The dhows that the Arabs used were made in Calicut. Sixth-century Goa, as part of the Badami Chalukyan kingdom of Pulakeshin I, traded with the Arabs for weapons and horses for their armies. Goa was always central to the south Indian rulers, such as the Hoysalas and Cholas. When the Arabs attacked Goa, Jayakeshin I moved the capital to Chandrapur (Chandor) up the river Zuari. This established the inland rivers as crucial to the way Goa functioned.

Through all these political upheavals, the locals remained largely unaffected. Systems of management of land may have changed over time but the gaunkaria—a self-sufficient autonomous village system that was formed by descendants of the original settlers—as a system also remained largely unaffected. And the khazans were held under this gaunkaria system.

G.J.: What is the gaunkaria system?

X.R.: As I mentioned, almost all land was held collectively by the village. There were a few private land holdings as well; these were bought or gifted as inams (gratuity). Goan society was largely tribal, comprising the ancestors of the Gaudd Saraswat Brahmins from Bengal who settled in the state. South Goa particularly was largely tribal. 

The land closest to the river is the most fertile; these lands were reclaimed by building banns (bunds) to keep out the water. The management of this land was entrusted to a group of people, like an association, called bhous. A cooperative was set up with a representative from each clan. Each original settler of the village had a clan, and a male member of the clan was part of the gaunkaria. So, the gaunkaria had to manage production of agricultural produce as well as distribution of share and maintenance of these lands. They had their own set of rules and held their meetings at a common place in the village. 

G.J.: What are khazans?

X.R.: Khazans are basically reclaimed land from the sea that hold salty to brackish water, mainly used for rice cultivation and fish farming. It is not just land, but a system of different elements. The main element is the sluice gate. The sluice gate regulates the flow of water into the lands as per the tide. Freshwater is supplied to the fields through streams, constructed with bunds channelled from a spring. A poiem (depression, also a pond) on the leeward side is created to control the overflow, if any. 

G.J.: The khazans are now held by the communidade, which is said to have developed from the gaunkaria system? Can you shed some light on that?

X.R.: It is commonly stated that the communidade system is the gaunkaria system. But this is not entirely correct. The communidade system was established, rather titled, by the Portuguese when they conquered Goa. In the early days they were not dependent on land revenue but things changed after the consolidation of their rule over Goa with the introduction of the Charter of 1526. Understandably, since a large part of the land was under cultivation, they were looking at land revenue as a means to fill their coffers. The communidade, like the gaunkaria, took responsibility to auction the khazans as well as maintain them. At the time of the auction, revenue-as-dividends were given to all shareholders. Money was also set aside for the repair of roads along the khazans, sluice gates, etc. 

The Portuguese made use of the already-established authority of the bhous to bring the privately held khazans under the communidade. So, a bhous was made responsible for each sluice gate; it undertook repairs and regulated cultivation. Also, farmers whose fields were irrigated by that sluice gate, automatically became part of that bhous. 

G.J.: Who carries out maintenance work on the khazans? Also, what is the system of farming?

X.R.: The khazans are a system of many components, spread across a large area. The sluice gates were made of wood and needed annual maintenance. In the early days in Raia, people were invited from other villages based on their expertise to work on the sluice gates. Villagers from Loutulim were asked to come and settle in Raia for this purpose. The gatekeepers, some of them from the Kharvi caste, had to keep track of the tides and open and shut the gates accordingly. Usually, a small hut was built for them near the gate. 

With the gaunkaria becoming the communidade, the lands came to be held mainly by Brahmins, who would not work on the lands and instead had people, called mundkars, work for themMundkars had to till the land, where they were given a share and shelter. The rest of the produce was handed over to the bhatkar, the owner of the land. There was no formal agreement between the bhatkar and mundkar, hence the mundkar could be evicted at any time. In 1952, the Portuguese government introduced legislations which were amendments to the Communidade Act. These amendments indirectly protected mundkars to some extent. However, a consolidated Mundkar Act was only enacted in 1975. So, except for the conditions stated in the legislation, the mundkar could not be evicted on a whim.

G.J.: What is the process of conversion of lands?

X.R.: Raia and Rachol is one communidade. The communidade is declared the landlord as per the Tenancy Act. The British East India Company had developed a system of land records, so that they could easily calculate the revenue that could be taxed on them. They further documented lands as per yield. The Portuguese followed a similar format. When the camre was established, all these land records were collectively held there. The current Forms I and XIV are for land records, like property cards. Forms I and XIV give details of the type of cultivable land and have a category for uncultivable land. They state the nature of the land and hence are able to determine the revenue chargeable. They categorise land into morodpotkharabkher and khazans. Morod is higher ground, usually where the houses are; potkharab is uncultivable land. 

The form states a category of occupant not as owner, even though he may actually be the owner with valid property ownership documents. That means that land need not be acquired since technically it belongs to the government—everyone else is termed only an occupant on the land as per Forms I and XIV. 

The British system came to Goa in 1974, and Form III was changed to Forms I and XIV. The government earned revenue primarily through agriculture. Converting agricultural land for non-agricultural uses meant a decrease in revenue for the collector. This gave rise to sanad, a lump-sum one-time payment for land conversion. It is charged per square metre. It is more lucrative, for the collector as well as the owner, to convert the land into settlement reservation.  

Earlier, land conversion was not rampant because many people were engaged in agriculture. One could get a sanad only if your land is marked as settlement, not green zone. One needed permissions from four places—deputy collector, forest department, mamalatdar, and town and Country Planning office.

G.J.: Are there no regulations or rules that prevent this conversion of land?

X.R.: Earlier khazans, through the communidade, of course, were tenanted for as low as 40 paise per square metre. Now the rate is much higher. The land has to be farmed continuously to be recognised as agricultural. So khazans under the tenancy should be used for agricultural purposes only, should be cultivated at all times, and cannot be sublet or sold. The poiems are being leased out these days for prawn farming because the brackish water helps get a high yield.   

G.J.: Could you elaborate?

X.R.: The government uses Forms I and XIV to its advantage. Like I said, the forms are land records that clearly categorise land into cultivable and non-cultivable. Cultivable land categories are dry crop, garden, rice, khazans, kher and morod. Depending on the nature of land, the area of the plot is noted. Non-cultivable land is only one category, potkharab.

The forms have a category titled ‘occupant’ instead of ‘tenant’ or ‘owner’. This is often manipulated. When land has to be acquired, it becomes relatively easy because by this logic it makes the government/municipality the owner. So, acquisition with the Land Acquisition Act only requires a notice in a newspaper and compensation at ready reckoner rates. The communidade in some villages have also illegally sold land using this loophole. 

G.J.: So does this mean there is a change in the produce from khazans?

X.R.: There is no change as such. The khazans are located on the river edge and, as in the case of the Mandovi and Zuari Rivers, have always been used for agriculture and fish farming. The fields were watered with the help of the river water, and the sluice gates regulated this. This system also allowed river fish to thrive and be caught when the gates were opened. Of course, the right was held by the person who had tenanted the land. So, he would auction the catch and earn money from this as well. Shares were distributed as per the zonn (shares held). There is a big draw for this mannsacheniste, or fish from the sluice gates. People keep track of these auctions and come from different villages. The ponds are usually harvested in May or June before the rains. Salt pans were the other produce from this system. But with packaged salt being easily available, salt from khazans is no longer used. Also, a number of locals started having thyroid problem, so the salt production declined. 

The last decade has seen growth in the number of prawn farms. There has been an illegal expansion of ponds or flooding areas of the lands for prawn farming. Embankments are also being illegally broken or deliberately not repaired. These ponds were not permanent but they are now. When a sluice gate is auctioned, it is for the fish as well. Now major sluice gates are auctioned for as much as Rs 4 lakh a year, so one can imagine how much is to be made from the auction of fish. Having said that, there are efforts being made to revive the khazans.  

G.J.: Could you elaborate on these efforts?

X.R.: Although these efforts largely seem few and far between, I think they are very positive. North Goa is seeing villagers genuinely concerned for the environment come together. The khazans are actually a very fragile ecosystem but ones that are connected to daily lives of the people of the state. South Goa, specifically RaiaMainaCurtorim, functioned as the rice bowl of the state, with large areas of land under cultivation. Goa is a rice-producing state and these fertile saline khazans are conducive for rice production. In the last two decades, with people moving out for education and work, the agricultural workforce has declined to a great extent. Also, with the lucrative cruise-ship jobs, not many have the time or inclination to farm. Increase in family size and subdivision of land often do not make mechanised farming possible. The directorate of agriculture is trying by providing some incentives, but a lot more needs to be done.

There has been an initiative to set up a biodiversity committee, comprising members of the panchayat and experts, for every village. The committee is required to map all the natural features of the village. It is hoped that the next stage will be policies or projects to safeguard them. As of today, only Curtorim village has completed the preparation of the biodiversity document.

A Khazan Action Committee has been formed, comprising local residents who want to revive khazan farming. This is very positive since a lot of villages are coming together. Some politicians are also supporting the cause. St. Estevam village in the north did an experiment with a rice variety this year and will harvest to see the results. What is interesting is that the village youth have also been involved. They are beginning to see this as an occupation, which can be very positive for the state.