Stir to save Mollem rages on in Goa

Residents protest expansion of rail line through protected areas to raise coal carrying capacity of Mormugao Port.
The protests and arresting visuals garnered nationwide attention and support with celebrities and other movements some from as far as Australia joining cause with Goa’s twin movements — Save Mollem and Goyant Kollso Naka (We don’t want coal in Goa).(HT Photo)
The protests and arresting visuals garnered nationwide attention and support with celebrities and other movements some from as far as Australia joining cause with Goa’s twin movements — Save Mollem and Goyant Kollso Naka (We don’t want coal in Goa).(HT Photo)
Updated on Nov 09, 2020 06:31 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Panaji | ByGerard de Souza

On Sunday night, nearly 3,000 Goans bearing torches, lanterns and candles descended on the historic village of Chandor — one of the medieval capitals of Goa and neighbouring territories — to sing, dance, beat drums and raise slogans against the government for allowing expansion of a railway line through protected areas to increase coal carrying capacity of Goa’s Mormugao Port.

The protests and arresting visuals garnered nationwide attention and support with celebrities and other movements some from as far as Australia joining cause with Goa’s twin movements — Save Mollem and Goyant Kollso Naka (We don’t want coal in Goa).

They were protesting for twin causes and opposing a trio of projects, a double tracking of a railway line, highway expansion and power line that will all slice through Goa’s oldest wildlife sanctuary, the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary which was notified in 1967 and its sister the Mollem National Park which was carved out of it in 1978. Together the sanctuaries cover an area of 240 square kilometres along Goa’s eastern frontier with Karnataka.

The expansion of National Highway 4-A, the construction of a new transmission line and the doubling of the existing railway line, all passing through the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park will collectively require the diversion and destruction of 170 hectares of forest in different areas of this protected wildlife habitat, which the activists allege will irreparably fragment and destroy the sanctuary and the pristine Western Ghats ecosystem that it was designed to protect.

The railway line, by far the biggest of the three projects will come at a cost of diversion of 113.857 ha. of forest land and felling of 18,541 trees.

The second project -- the four-laning of the existing two-lane highway was constructed by the Portuguese colonial government between Panaji in Goa and Belgavi in Karnataka will cost 31.015 ha of forest land and 12,097 trees. The third is a 400KV power line, 3.5 km of which passes through protected forest to augment power supply between Goa and Karnataka and to provide additional feed to Goa.

In 2010, the Ministry of Railways sanctioned the doubling of the existing Hospet-Tinaighat-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. The stretch between Tinaighat and Vasco da Gama is now being built.

Activists allege that the railway track doubling is being undertaken solely to expand the coal carrying capacity of the railway line from Goa’s Mormugao Port to north Karnataka. The existing single line track built through a collaboration between the British and Portuguese colonial governments in the late 19th century has since been saturated. The steep gradient and winding terrain means trains take even longer to power up and over the Western Ghats whilst passing through the breathtaking sight of Dudhsagar waterfalls enroute.

The existing track is proposed to be doubled along the same alignment after a separate proposal to build a fresh track along a different alignment was rejected by the state board for wildlife as it would mean intruding into hitherto virgin forests, but the present proposal too brings with it risks of destabilising the steep and fragile slopes of the Western Ghats leading to landslides.

A standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife Chaired by Union Minister for Environment, Prakash Javadekar cleared the three projects in April this year in a meeting that was held via video conference owing to the lockdown that was then in force.

The manner in which the projects were cleared has been challenged both before the Bombay High Court at Goa and the Central Empowered Committee constituted by the Supreme Court. Activists accuse the Government of using the lockdown to push through the projects.

“The wildlife approvals have been granted to these projects without proper consideration and examination of the proposals and studies submitted. The environmental impact assessments of the projects, wherever done, have been shoddily carried out, with little or no proper evaluation on the impact on the wildlife habitat including its biodiversity,” the Goa Foundation which is leading the legal battle against the projects, has said in its petition before the Goa bench of Bombay high court.

“More importantly there is no cumulative impact assessment for the three projects which would disclose or assess their true impact on the Mollem sanctuary and national park and as a result of significant diversion of forest lands, destruction of biodiversity and water bodies,” the Foundation said.

Till date the Ministry has received a deluge of representation to revoke the permissions that they have granted including from researchers, naturalists, students, tourism stakeholders, small business owners, etc. who all fear that the destruction will not only be bad for the environment but also for business that depends on the pristine non industrialised environment.

Besides concerns surrounding the forests of the Western Ghats, residents of villages through which the line passes have been protesting fearing that the expansion will lead to even more coal dust pollution -- a problem that is not just plaguing the port town of Vasco da Gama where the coal is loaded and unloaded from ships and onto rail wagons in the open air but also those living along the 83-kilometre track as the trains run past. Besides poor air quality, a study by the National Institute of Oceanography also found that the coal handling was responsible for poisoning the oysters and clams harvested in the waters surrounding the port with Mercury. Unlike steel plants in the Jharkhand-Odisha belt for whom coal is locally available, the lack of coal mines in peninsular India means that steel plants rely on imported coal. For steel plants in North Karnataka, the Goa port is the closest major one.

Around 12 million tons is imported annually, but plans are afoot to expand the capacity to nearly 55 million tons through a network of infrastructure projects for which the railway line will serve as a crucial link.

“The people of Goa will fight it out to their last breath, and not allow the coalition government of BJP, Adani, Sterlite, Vedanta and Jindal to destroy our land, our wildlife sanctuaries, our environment, our health and the future of our youth,” Viriato Fernandes who is among those leading the protests said.

Jindal South West (JSW) is the largest importer of coal followed by Adani and Sesa Sterlite.

In a series of tweets on Thursday the Adani group distanced itself from the projects claiming that it was “no way connected to the existing issues in Goa pertaining to the expansion of the Highway and Railway Lines.”

While claiming that its share of coal handling was only 10% of the total at Mormugao Port, the group in a statement claimed that “the ongoing issue is a politically driven agenda with vested interests that is misleading people.”

The Goa government has responded to the protests by initially claiming that the opposition was funded from outside the state, that projects were in the interest of Goa and more recently trying to reassure the protesters that the coal capacity will not be enhanced, and that the projects would benefit the state.

“Goa will not be a coal hub at all. This is a strong statement which I want to say on behalf of the government. There is an apprehension created in the minds of the people of Goa and expats across the world, that more coal will be brought to Goa. Currently, 10 to 12 million tons of coal is being imported annually. This will not increase. Government will look to make sure that the (quantum) will not increase,” Goa environment minister Nilesh Cabral said.

The railways have justified locating the project in forest land saying that there is no alternative 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.

Environmentalists have also pointed to other inconsistencies -- the highway expansion through the protected forests on the Karnataka side has been shelved with the NHAI agreeing to keep the highway of the same width leaving activists wondering why the same concessions couldn’t be given to Goa.

In response to the protests, the Goa government has filed an FIR against unknown persons for unlawful assembly .

“If the government is thinking of arresting a common man for unlawful assembly then I demand the govt representatives be arrested too, for bypassing laws to build projects within a legally protected forest area,” stated Lorraine Fernandes, a protester.

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