The Western Ghats mountain range covers an area of 140,000 square km along India’s western coast across Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat.(HT PHOTO)
The Western Ghats mountain range covers an area of 140,000 square km along India’s western coast across Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat.(HT PHOTO)

Forest clearance given to contentious Goa railway project through Western Ghats

  • The forest clearance is the latest in a long line of clearances that have been granted for the project
By Gerard de Souza
PUBLISHED ON FEB 28, 2021 10:26 AM IST

The Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change has granted approval under the Forest Conservation Act for the diversion of nearly 140 hectares of protected Western Ghats Forest land for the contentious double tracking of the railway line between the Castlerock Railway Station along the Karnataka border with Goa and the Margao Railway station in South Goa. The state is to lose 50,000 trees for the project. In a communication to the forest secretary, the MoEF has informed that the consent is being granted based on Goa’s request subject to certain conditions.

The letter of consent was issued by deputy inspector general of forests M K Shambhu after the regional empowered committee in its meeting held on January 27, 'carefully examined' the proposal and decided to grant an in-principle stage-I approval for diversion of the forest land subject to conditions including transferring of money equal to the net present value of the forest land being diverted to the CAMPA funds for raising, maintaining the compensatory afforestation for the degraded forest land.

Curiously, despite the trees being felled in Goa on the windward side of the Western Ghats, the compensatory afforestation for these projects is being done in Sutagatti, Iddalahonda, Ramadurg, Kakati, Suldal and Shigeholi villages of Gokak and Karkati talukas in Belgaum District of Karnataka, which fall on the leeward side of the mountain range and are home to very different vegetation.

The doubling of the railway line along the existing alignment is being staunchly opposed in Goa by some as the line will cut across the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park – these two are Goa’s oldest wildlife sanctuaries -- fearing that besides ecological damage, new construction will destabilise the vulnerable slopes of the Western Ghats mountain range and lead to landslides and other unforeseen consequences.

The forest clearance is the latest in a long line of clearances that have been granted for the project. In April last year, the standing committee, National Board for Wildlife approved the project, based on the approval by the Goa State Wildlife Board.

These clearances have now been challenged before the Central Empowered Committee on grounds that they have been cleared in haste and threaten the rich biodiversity of the region before the Bombay High Court at Goa. Opponents also allege that the projects are being planned solely to enhance the capacity to transport coal -- a source of severe air pollution due to its open air handling -- from Goa’s Mormugao Port to Steel units in North Karnataka.

In 2010, the Ministry of Railways sanctioned the doubling of the existing 342 kilometres long Hospet-Tinai ghat-Vasco railway line in the states of Karnataka and Goa. The first phase between Hospet and Tinai ghat involved easier terrain atop the largely flat Deccan plateau and has already been completed. It’s the second phase between Tinai ghat and Vasco da Gama that involves crossing the steep slopes, raging rivers and the thick forests of the Western Ghats as well as densely populated areas of coastal Goa that’s being contested.

The railways have said there is no alternative to locating the project in forest land as the alignment invariably has to pass through the protected area and that the existing single railway line is saturated. The authorities also announced mitigation measures in the form of four underpasses to allow for wildlife crossing for the railway project and elevated viaduct at 13 locations for the highway, which activists say are not nearly enough.

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The railways have also claimed that it is not being done solely to transport coal but for the general ‘development’ of the region.

“It has been misconstrued that the railway line double tracking is being done solely for the purpose of coal transport. Across the world, the focus is increasingly on non-conventional sources of energy. In the year 2015-16 the South Western Railway carried 12 million metric tons of coal (per year) while in the year 2019-20 we have carried 9 metric tons of coal which is a reduction of 25%,” Prashant Kumar Mishra, the additional general manager of South Western Railways which is tasked with the project, had said late last year.

Despite the clearances, the project is likely to encounter further legal hurdles on account of the staunch opposition before work begins.

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