India Needs to Notice How 3 Development Projects Could Alter Goa's Forests Forever

As many as 30 projects which threaten India's ecological fibre were discussed and cleared virtually, without an opportunity for proper scrutiny, assessment, appraisal and deliberation.

On the night of November 1, 2020, at least 5,000 Goans assembled near the level crossing at Chandor, a village in South Goa. From 10.30 pm to 4 am they demonstrated against the double tracking of the South Western Railway line. The night reverberated with chants and songs – an ode to the strong collective vision of Goa’s rich ecology.

The double tracking of the railway line is one of the three infrastructure projects that the government is determined to implement in an ecologically fragile Goa.

The three projects that threaten the forests in and around Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park in Goa are: the four laning of the NH4A, double tracking of the railway line and the laying of a 400kV transmission line. These projects will lead to the felling of around one lakh trees in Goa and Karnataka, of which a minimum of 59,000 trees will be felled in Goa.

The railway and highway projects were two of the 30 projects cleared by the Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) during the lockdown. The clearances were discussed and granted virtually, without an opportunity for proper scrutiny, assessment, appraisal and deliberation, in a clear violation of a meaningful engagement with the procedure established by law.

The process for granting environmental clearances in India is dependent upon the nature of the project, and accordingly referred to the National Board for Wildlife, the Forest Advisory Committee and the Expert Appraisal Committee. Further, there has been no cumulative impact assessment of all the three projects on the region. A fragmented assessment does not give the real picture of the impact that the region is going to take, and is mere lip service to the process of environmental impact assessment (EIA).

The government, and its concerned ministries have blatantly ignored the growing concerns regarding these projects passing through Goa’s sensitive protected regions, and the inevitable damage that will be caused by them. They have gone as far as alleging that the protestors are “outsiders” or being misled for political reasons.

The projects are touted as being in the best interest of Goa, while the naked reality is that neither are these projects by the government of Goa, nor are they for the residents of Goa. The projects are merely to facilitate vehicles of corporates to convert Goa into a coal transportation hub.

Boosting coal handling capacity

The Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) in Goa’s Vasco is one of India’s major ports connected to Maharashtra and Karnataka through the South Central Railway and the NH17A, NH17B and NH4A highways. Its berths are primarily used for coal and iron ore transfer and handling.

According to the Ministry of Shipping/Indian Port Associations Sagarmala master plan for MPT, the current coal handling capacity is 12 mtpa (million tonnes per annum). Of this, JSW transports 7.5 mtpa and Adani transports 4.5 mtpa.

The document states that MPT has to develop additional coal handling capacity to fulfil future coal demands in the region. The MPT railway system facilitates coal movement to parts of the hinterland. Currently, there is only one line that connects the port to the hinterland, limiting the coal movement capacity to 15 mtpa. JSW coal terminal and Adani coal terminal move 19 mtpa of coal and affiliated cargo.

The railway line has to be doubled to boost that figure.

The Adani terminal at MPT (berth number 7) moves coal from MPT to other parts of India through the existing South Western Railway, as well as the NH17B highway. The NH17-B highway connects to the NH4A highway which moves through the Mollem region.

This image shows how Adani moves coal. Photo: adaniports.com

On the November 5, 2020, the Adani Group tweeted refuting claims of it having business interests in the infrastructure projects in Goa.

Whose interests are the projects serving?

So whom are the projects really benefiting? Why were they granted clearance as “projects in public interest”?

The MPT expansion was first fought against by the Vasco fishermen in 2016.

Also read: Meet the Mega-Project That Goans Fighting ‘Dirty Coal’ Are up Against

MPT now stands as a gate of sorts for bringing in coal from Australia and Indonesia, and to transport it to the rest of the country. According to environmental activists, the cost of moving coal through Maharashtra and Karnataka would lead to an increase in the price of the coal, and Goa, therefore, is the convenient option.

The master plan also states that there are multiple coal power plants projected to come up in the near future in Bellary, Hospet, Belgaum, Hubli-Dharwad, Kudgi, Solapur, Bijapur, Gulbarga, Vijayanagara and Raichur. Both the public and private sectors have huge investment plans for these coal-based power plants. Currently, MPT witness a handling of around 12 million tonnes of coal and the master plan aspires to increase its capacity to 51 million tonnes by 2035.

Goa already meets more than enough of its power requirements from existing power sources, then why the need for a transmission line that has already led to the felling of 2670 trees?

Goa’s environment and power minister Nilesh Cabral has released a white paper on Goa’s electricity consumption, after a series of delays, which states that “historically, the load requirement for domestic consumers in Goa is more than double the load requirements of both commercial and industrial consumers put together.”

This statement contradicts the 19th Electric Power Survey wherein the electricity demand projections for Goa for the year 2021-2022 show that domestic consumptions is just 26.91%, whereas the commercial and industrial consumption is 65.63%. The remaining 7.46% accounts for public lighting, irrigation, and so on.

With the laying of the transmission line, Goa will have double the power that is its requirement.

It is clear that this is not for the people of Goa, it is for high tension industries. Moreover, if an EIA for the transmission line was conducted, it is not publicly available, which is a violation of the fundamental right to information under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian constitution.

The forest clearance proposals for the two transmission lines and the approach road to substation, for which stage-1 forest clearance was granted on April 29, 2020, were on the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s web portal PARIVESH, but they have now disappeared.

Moreover, the felling of 2,670 trees for the substation for the transmission line at Sangod is in clear violation of the Supreme Court’s order in 2015 wherein it directed that “No Objection Certificate(s)” will not be issued in Goa for the conversion of any land of over 1 hectare that has natural vegetation with tree canopy density in excess of 0.1. The area of land cleared for the substation is 11.8 hectares and its canopy density is 0.7.

The clearances granted by the National Board for Wildlife to the railway and highway project are currently under challenge in the High Court of Bombay at Goa.

The fragmented implementation of the larger coal hub project is shrouded in secrecy at every stage, with the Major Ports Bill 2020 being the final curtain act.

Goa is a favoured holiday destination for most of India. However, the fact that its environmental framework is at great risk has been convenient to ignore for mainstream media.

(With inputs from the Amche Mollem Campaign and Gabriella D’Cruz, a conservation biologist based in Goa)

Veera Mahuli is a lawyer and artist based in Goa.