Centre’s report on tigers boosts campaign against infra projects
A report released by the Centre on precise details of tiger presence across India has encouraged habitat connectivity and conservation along the Mollem-Netravali corridor in Goa.
Highlights of the report give impetus to signature campaigns gaining momentum in Goa and India demanding cancellation of three infrastructure projects. They include the proposed widening of an existing National Highway (NH) 4A, a railway line double-tracking, and construction of power transmission lines through the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park. The projects would lead to the diversion of 185-hectare forest land and roughly 55,000 trees with 35,762 trees within protected areas.
Among other campaigns, the ‘Save Mollem National Park, Goa’ citizens’ signature campaign gained momentum with 6,000 citizens opting against the projects. Coordinated by Bengaluru-based digital advocacy organisation, Jhatkaa.org, the campaign is addressed to the member secretary of the Supreme Court constituted Central Empowerment Committee (CEC) to overturn approvals issued to the projects by the Centre earlier this year.
“Lessons in this pandemic show how crucial it is to make choices that are in harmony with nature,” said Meghna Amin, campaigner at Jhatkaa.org.
The report released on Tuesday, conceived by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, identified a drop in tiger numbers in Goa from 5 in 2014 to 3 in 2018. It also identified the lack of source population in the region owing to fragmented corridor connectivity, development pressures and changes in habitat quality coinciding with mining activities around the forest ranges of Mollem, Kulem, Malpon in Goa.
“The Western Ghats region extending from the Kali Tiger Reserve, Karnataka right up to Sahyadri Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra has a delicate ecosystem. Linear infrastructure projects proposed in these areas require a host of mitigation measures (appropriate wildlife passageway) to ensure the ecological impact is minimal. Only if there is a great national interest, should these projects be allowed,” said YV Jhala, author of the report and senior researcher WII.
Santosh Kumar, chief wildlife warden, Goa said, “Whenever there is an infrastructure project of national importance, there will be some disturbance to wildlife habitat during the construction phase. All these three projects are from the Centre and Goa is going to be benefitted. The only thing we can do is minimise the impact and that is what we are doing.”
The 240 sq. km expanse of the Bhagwan Mahavir wildlife sanctuary and Mollem National Park are together home to more than 721 plant species, 235 bird species, 70 mammal species along with a host of other biodiversity. “The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, clearly identifies that development in and around the sanctuary can only be done in the interest of wildlife and better management of habitat. However, arguments that it benefits tourism and economic development are attempts to modify the Act. Under such circumstances, the public is never consulted and we are faced with a fait-accompli situation,” said Claude Alvares of Goa Foundation that filed a petition before the Goa bench of the Bombay high court against the projects.
The biodiversity is not getting disturbed the way it is being projected, said Johnson B Fernandes, director, department of environment and climate change, Goa, adding, “The Gadgil Committee Report itself has said there is no requirement of public consultation because Goa is a small state. These are requirements of the national level and national importance. Those opposing these projects were party to public consultations of the Gadgil Committee Report and did not raise any objections at the time.”
The Goa State Board for Wildlife (SBWL) accorded clearance to the projects in December 2019. “The decision-making process for these projects was faulty. The agenda and copies of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) were provided to non-government members minutes before the meeting leaving no time for prior research or deliberation. Additionally, EIAs for a few projects were developed in a shoddy manner. There is a need for community assessment, which has not happened,” said Parag Rangnekar, representing Goa Bird Conservation Network as a member at the SBWL.
Compensatory afforestation for projects in Karnataka instead of Goa
The Goa forest department said several mitigation measures had been proposed for all three projects including eight underpasses for the railway project, 3% of the total project cost for each project to be allocated for wildlife conservation, elevated construction of the majority of the national highway on viaducts, and minimum loss of forest cover for the transmission line since pillars would be placed.
Surprisingly, compensatory afforestation for the project would be carried out across 800 ha of degraded forest land in north Karnataka rather than. “Unfortunately, there is a paucity of land and the Goa government finding it difficult to acquire any degraded forest areas. The corridors have tiger presence but no harm can come to them or their habitat due to these projects,” said Kumar.