In Goa, a battle to save sanctuaries and homes from railway, highway expansion
In 2010, the Union Ministry of Railways had sanctioned the doubling of the existing Hospet-Tinaighat-Vasco railway line in neighbouring Karnataka and Goa.Updated: Jul 10, 2020 21:03 IST
A train running past the gurgling Dudhsagar waterfall as it roars down from 320 metres of steep Western Ghats’ ridges is one of the most enchanting and breathtaking sites to behold in tourist-friendly coastal Goa.
But, that iconic railway track is at the centre of a raging controversy and battlelines have been drawn between environmentalists, local villagers, and the South Western rail authorities over the latter’s bid to expand it into a double-track owing to saturated traffic movement.
Earlier this week, hundreds of local residents braved a torrential downpour, accompanying inclement weather and the fear of contracting SARS-CoV-2, which causes coronavirus disease (Covid-19), to attend a public gathering at Cansaulim, a sleepy Goan hamlet.
The locals gathered there because the South Western Railway authorities were scheduled to conduct an on-the-spot assessment survey, but retreated because of the vociferous public mood.
“The track expansion plan will add to our daily woes manifold. Six coal-laden goods train pass every day and cover our houses with dust. Senior citizens shudder at the daily travails. God forbid, if the track expansion comes through, we’ll have hell to pay,” said Paccelli Pereira, who lives close to the railway tracks.
“The track expansion project needs to be scrapped at the earliest. We won’t part with our land to a few industrialists, who want to trample us in a bid to accumulate more wealth for them,” he said.
Pereira said old houses, churches, and chapels would have to be demolished for the proposed track expansion.
Pereira lives along a stretch where South Western Railway and Konkan Railway tracks run parallel to each other.
Now, there is fear that the expanded South Western Railway track would spell a death knell to Cansaulim and adjoining villages.
In 2010, the Union Ministry of Railways had sanctioned the doubling of the existing Hospet-Tinaighat-Vasco railway line in neighbouring Karnataka and Goa.
The first phase between Hospet and Tinaighat involved easier terrain atop the largely flat Deccan plateau and has already been completed.
It’s the second phase between Tinaighat and Vasco da Gama that involves crossing the steep slopes, raging rivers and the dense forests of the Western Ghats and the thickly populated parts of coastal Goa, which is in the eye of an infrastructure development vs. environment protection storm.
Commissioned in 1882 following the Anglo-Portuguese treaty in 1878, the 83-kilometre (km)-long railway line called the West of India Portuguese Guaranteed Railway was built by British engineers in 1888 to connect Goa’s Mormugao Port with the country’s hinterland in a bid to make the Arabian Sea port more profitable and, in turn, make Goa a trade hub.
The railway project is one of three projects that will slice through the ecologically-fragile Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve in Karnataka and the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary, Goa’s oldest protected area since 1967.
Earlier, the project was approved during the 57th meeting of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) on April 20.
The meeting was held via video-conference amid the nationwide lockdown restrictions, which were enforced from March 25 to contain the spread of the Covid-19 outbreak.
The railway line is the biggest of the three projects, which include the expansion of National Highway (NH) 4-A and new power transmission line, and is likely to lead to loss of an estimated 113.857 hectares (ha) of forest cover from the protected area in the sanctuary and felling of 18,451 trees.
The second project -- the four-laning of the existing two-lane highway (NH-4A) -- that was constructed by the Portuguese colonial government between Panaji in Goa and Belgavi in Karnataka will cost another 31.015 ha of forest cover and the felling of 12,097 trees.
A 400 kilo-volt (KV) power transmission line, whose 3.5 km will pass through the protected forest, is the third project that is likely to cause an adverse ecological impact in the region. It seeks to augment the power supply between Goa and Karnataka.
These ministerial clearances have been challenged before the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) on grounds that the approval was given in haste and not enough thought was given to protect the region’s rich biodiversity.
Though the railway authorities have submitted an undertaking and have made provisions for eight underpasses for the crossing of wild animals in consultation with the state forest department, these concessions have failed to impress the environmentalists.
Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant, who heads the Goa State Wildlife Board (SBWL) that recommended the projects last December, said they were “only granted a NOC (no objection certificate)” by the Board “looking at the development of the state”.
“It is a project by the earlier government. All measures like underpasses (for wildlife), wherever required have been taken,” Sawant said.
A clearance from the SBWL is one of the many permissions that a project within wildlife sanctuaries requires.
The projects have been opposed by environmentalists and civil society groups, as the approvals are being seen to largely facilitate the transport of imported coal for steel plants in North Karnataka for which Goa is the closest port.
Three separate representations have been sent to the Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, urging him to reconsider the clearances because of the environmental concerns and also the move could damage Goa’s immense hinterland tourism potential.
“At present, the steel plants in north Karnataka are handling 12 million tonnes per annum, but plans are afoot to ramp it up to 50 million tonnes. Imagine what will happen to Goa, if these steel plant owners are allowed to go ahead. But, we will oppose the move tooth and nail,” said Antonio D’Silva, a local protester.
“They are using the lockdown to approve these projects that have no benefit for the public. Only big corporate entities stand to gain,” he added.
Thousands of Goans would join the movement, if these projects are allowed to go ahead, the protesters warned.