As this is being written, the Supreme Leader has inaugurated a zoo in Gujarat. The Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change promptly tweeted that this will make people feel as if they are in a jungle. Ironically, the same minister has hastened the destruction of real, vibrant, bio-diverse jungles in the Western Ghats and in the Eastern Himalayas, in the name of development. Right in the middle of a pandemic, that is screaming out loud to anyone who cares to listen “Don’t mess with Nature”. This has certainly fallen on deaf ears in the state government of Goa.
The people of Goa are battling three linear intrusion projects in Ecologically Sensitive Areas and Protected Areas. These projects – doubling of a railway track, 4 laning of a major highway and installation of a 400 kV transmission line – will hack away 170 hectares of protected forest cover and 240 square kilometers of the Western Ghats, acknowledged as a global biodiversity hotspot. The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) reports of these three projects have raised several questions by scientists and concerned citizens:
- Why are there three mega projects in protected areas? When did these areas lose their protection? How were those decisions taken? What was the involvement of the affected citizens of the state?
- Why were Cumulative Impact Studies not conducted to assess impact on both the wildlife in the Mollem area as well as the human habitat around it?
- Why were wildlife clearances for two of the projects provided during the pandemic through means that clearly subverted a robust audit and scrutiny?
- Why is there an inadequate detail on environment costs and mitigation as also on compensation, penalty and compliance?
- The scientific assessment also leaves a lot to be desired – why are several issues like methodology of baseline surveys, afforestation and protection methods, soil erosion and its impact, water and air assessment methods, assessment of insect and fish diversity, snowballing impact of change in microclimates, to name a few, given scant or no review?
The proposed draft EIA 2020 notification had already raised a hue and cry earlier this year. It proposed, among several controversial changes, plans to set aside public consultation and introduce ex-post facto clearances for many projects. If such an EIA process is finally approved, one can reasonably assume safe passage of the three Goa projects, despite a flawed and inadequate EIA around them.
The ruling party’s own MLA, Alina Saldanha, has been vocal about the havoc these projects will cause to the people of the state. Alleging coal transportation as a key reason, she has expressed concern around the “destruction of the environment, coal dust pollution that will further lead to pulmonary disorders, destruction of people’s houses and Goa’s heritage”.
Has the country forgotten its obligations to the Climate Change goals as part of the Paris treaty? A quick reminder:
- Reduce emissions by a third by 2030, from 2005 baseline
- Increase share of the power generated by non-fossil fuels to 40 percent by 2030
- Create an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 Gigatons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) by 2030 – from enhanced tree and forest cover (this would need 25 million acres of new forests with five billion native trees – a 15 percent increase – roughly the size of 30 Goas in new forest cover)
Any reasonable citizen would question the need to destroy forest land when one must enhance forest and tree cover. One would also question the need for investing in infrastructure to support coal and fossil fuels when the focus must be shifted to renewables. Why do so anyway in a power surplus state? Given the nature of Goa’s landscape, abundant sunshine and its typical Mangalore tile roof-based housing, every house in Goa could be generating its own solar energy and even offering the surplus to the grid, resulting in many micro industries around the same. Goa’s coast-based tourism is already saturated. Keeping its lush hinterland pristine and unspoilt would be the way to develop a premium nature-based tourism and revive the sector. More reason, why these projects will hinder Goa’s future.
Any reasonable citizen would question the need to destroy forest land when one must enhance forest and tree cover.
The State’s lack of transparency around the motivation of these projects, its relations, if any, with the project beneficiaries, the inadequate and hurried process surrounding the various environmental approvals and the lack of consultation with citizen groups has led to a public outpouring of peaceful, nonviolent protest uniting various cross-sections of society. Leading the struggle are citizen-led groups such as Goyant Kollso Naka, whose vigilant participation has exposed the facts around power usage in Goa. The name, meaning “Goa Does Not Want Coal” has now become a rallying cry across Goa uniting even the opposition parties such as the Congress, AAP and Goa Forward on standing in solidarity with the citizens. A documentary, The Art of Destruction, brought together some of Goa’s prominent ecologists, environmentalists, architects, activists, artists and government representatives and explored the dilemmas faced in conservation and development and what strikes the right balance.
Despite these protests, the railway double-tracking project has already begun. Working clandestinely at night amidst heavy security cover, the state has chosen to cock a snook at its people. The same rhetoric that has played elsewhere is playing out in Goa – confuse the people with half-truths & untruths, run roughshod over established norms and processes, decimate the autonomy of institutions, brand the dissenters as anti-state, anti-development and help a few crony companies profit at the expense of the people. The midnight protest on November 1 until 5 AM the following day in Chandor, Goa – the seat of the double-tracking rail project – may well be a turning point. This brought together several thousands of ordinary citizens in an all-night vigil on the railway track that ferries coal through the state. The message was clear – Goa’s people WILL NOT allow Goa to become a Coal Hub. Are the state ministers listening? Is the centre listening?
Peaceful dissent cannot be de-legitimised. Nor can it be overlooked. An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere. What is happening in a corner of Goa may eventually engulf all of Goa. Indeed, the whole country is seeing a cruel, capricious, anti-people decision making in every aspect of governance – an unprincipled demonetisation, a poorly implemented GST, the incarceration of an entire state and its people, a hurried, unplanned lockdown, an uncoordinated pandemic response, arrogant handling of the migrant labour crisis, an insufficient economic revival package – undermining all the socio-economic gains of the previous decade and possibly slipping tens of millions back into poverty.
Goa has a vibrant culture, natural heritage and a viable economy. Its ecology is its unique selling proposition. Attacking it relentlessly and ruthlessly with illogical projects that reflect 19th-century thinking, could endanger its very existence. The whole country must come together and stand with the people of Goa. In solidarity.