Since November 2020, hundreds of villagers and flash mobs in Goa have been protesting against three major infrastructure projects in the picturesque Mollem town close to the state's border with Karnataka. They say the projects-to double a railway track, widen a national highway and build a sub-station for a power transmission line from Karnataka-will cause irreparable harm to the forests adjacent to the Mollem National Park, a 240 sq. km protected area in the Western Ghats.
Environmental activists claim some 100,000 trees face the axe due to these projects. A fourth project, the 345-acre IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) campus in the ecologically sensitive Melauli area of north Goa, was moved out on January 15 after protests from locals.
Meanwhile, somewhat paradoxically, another agitation is gathering steam-not in defence of the environment but in favour of resuming iron ore mining. The Goa Mining People's Front, which represents people dependent on mining for a livelihood, held a demonstration in Panaji on February 8. Mining came to a halt in Goa on March 16, 2018, following a ban by the Supreme Court. Some 200,000 people were dependent on mining in the state at that time (see Goa's Mining Pitch).
Melauli villagers protesting against the IIT campus project
The green protests first erupted against a sub-station for a 400 KV line being built in Sangod, a village of some 2,000 people in Mollem, about 60 km from Panaji. In May 2020, rampant tree-cutting in the area caught the attention of Krishna Zore, a senior MNC executive in Pune, while he was working from Sangod, his native village. Using the Right to Information (RTI) Act, Zore gathered that the project lacked the mandatory consent of Sangod villagers. He filed a petition in the Bombay High Court on September 7 against the tree-felling. On December 7, the Panaji bench of the high court stayed work on the sub-station, observing that the Mollem panchayat had permitted the project without taking the gram sabha on board. "The panchayat violated rules by not calling a meeting of the gram sabha [to approve the project]," says Zore.
Graphic by Tanmoy Chakraborty
ROW OVER A RAIL TRACK
Environmentalists and villagers have also raised the red flag in Mollem over the proposed track doubling of the rail link between Vasco in western Goa and Hospet, 280 km away in north Karnataka. The villagers say the new track is being laid to aid the transport of coal arriving from Australia and Indonesia at the Mormugao Port to existing and upcoming power plants in Ballari, Hospet, Belgavi, Hubli-Dharwad, Vijayapura and Gulbarga in Karnataka and Maharashtra's Solapur.
The contentious sub-station is supposed to help in electrification of the railway track, allowing goods trains to run at high speeds between Vasco and Hospet. The existing single-track rail link can ferry coal from the Mormugao Port to the tune of about 15 million tonnes per annum (MTPA). The Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) plans to scale up its coal-handling capacity to 51 MTPA by 2035 to increase coal shipments to power plants. For that, it will be vital to expand the Vasco-Hospet rail link as well as the Panaji-Belgavi highway. The highway, which runs close to Sangod village, is being widened by the Centre and has invited strong opposition from locals, who fear it will be used to transport coal. Widening of the highway has been completed between Panaji and Ponda.
Ground Reality: Trees cut in Sangod village for the power sub-station
The Portuguese-built 17th century Mormugao Fort offers glimpses of giant merchant ships on the Arabian Sea sailing in to offload coal at the Mormugao Port. Huge piles of coal stacked in the open greet visitors at a nearby jetty earmarked for international cruise-liners.
Goa has been a major coal export destination for Australia and Indonesia since 2000. India is the second-largest importer of coal, after China, as its own production falls short of the demand due to curbs on mining. Australia and Indonesia have vast reserves of coal that is claimed to be 'cleaner' than Indian coal. The Mormugao Port is a favoured destination for the coal being shipped in because of its location. At about 345 km, Mormugao is the closest commercial port to Hospet (the Mumbai Port is about 745 km and the Kandla Port in Gujarat 1,530 km away). The Karwar Port in Karnataka is closer (316 km), but cannot be used for commercial activity as it serves as a naval base. Coal from the Mormugao Port is transported across India's hinterlands. The port's coal-handling capacity is currently 12 MTPA. The JSW Group handles 7.5 MTPA and the Adani Group 4.5 MTPA.
Goa's power minister Nilesh Cabral says 28 per cent of the electricity to be transmitted through the 400 KV line from Karnataka will serve his state. "The transmission line is vital. While power can be purchased from anywhere in the country, it will need a transmission line to reach Goa," he says. Cabral's argument is contradicted by a 2019 report prepared by his own department, which says Goa has surplus power-1,000 MW against a peak demand of 600 MW.
"The new transmission line will double power availability. Clearly, it will serve the needs of others rather than Goans," says Zore. He calls the railway track-doubling project a grave ecological threat. "The existing single-line track has 15 tunnels. For doubling it, more tunnels will have to be dug, causing environmental damage," he says. "This line is not on any passenger route. It's quite obvious that, after doubling, it will be used to transport more coal."
The protesting villagers allege the power, railway and highway projects are designed to favour corporate giants, such as Adani and JSW, at the cost of Goa's biodiversity. Refuting the allegation, a spokesperson for the Adani Mormugao Port Terminal Private Limited (AMPTPL) said the company only provides handling facilities to its customers, who use the coal for their own consumption in steel plants and others. A major customer, JSW Infrastructure uses the coal at its steel plants in Ballari. AMPTPL handles about 70 per cent of the cargo. "AMPTPL has been struggling to handle even the quantity [of coal] consented to by the Goa State Pollution Control Board. We have no plans to expand operations. The existing consented capacity and infrastructure is fulfilling only existential needs," says the spokesperson.
A spokesperson for JSW Infrastructure said the company's maritime infrastructure in Goa and other states adheres to all regulatory requirements. "JSW Infrastructure has been operating two terminals at MPT for the past two decades. The handling of coal, steel and limestone through these terminals surpasses international benchmarks and compares favourably with many ports around the world. Our port operations are also compliant with environmental obligations," the spokesperson said.
GREEN LOBBY SEES RED
Environmental activists accuse the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change of having acted in haste and securing no objection certificates for the rail and highway projects from the Goa government during the Covid lockdown. They say that at a meeting of the National Board for Wildlife (NBW), the country's apex body on wildlife, in September 2020, clearances were granted for these projects virtually.
Activists claim at least 59,000 trees in the dense forests of Goa and another 41,000 trees in Karnataka will have to be hacked down for the three projects. Goa chief minister Pramod Sawant dismisses the figures as "exaggerated". "No more than 13,000 trees will be cut [in Goa], and all of them outside the Mollem National Park. Nobody is going to destroy Mollem," he asserts. An estimated 2,600 trees have already been cut. This is more than the number of trees lost at Mumbai's Aarey Milk Colony in October 2019 to make way for a Mumbai Metro car depot.
Sanvordem MLA and PWD minister Deepak Pauskar has tried convincing the villagers that the railway project will create jobs. But the green campaigners are unimpressed. Activist Abhijit Prabhudesai, who launched the 'Goyant kollso naka (Goa does not need coal)' campaign against the rail track doubling project, says: "Our fight is about survival of the economy and our culture. People are joining us in spite of all difficulties as their resources-land and water-are on the verge of being destroyed."
Claude Alvares, convenor of the Goa Foundation, an NGO working on environment, fears that Goa will end up becoming a coal hub. "The projects will cause enormous damage to the Mollem sanctuary and threaten not only wildlife but also people," says Alvares. Jayesh Shetgaonkar, a Vasco-based activist, adds that the release of water used for washing coal into the sea will kill marine life. "If Goa becomes a coal hub, it will not only destroy our livelihoods but affect our living standards as well," he says.
Goa's fight against coal pollution has been a long one. Vasco, a city on the Mormugao peninsula, has been waging this battle since 2000, when the Mormugao Port began handling imported coal. "In some areas of the city, you can feel coal dust under your feet," says Shetgaonkar.
Last March, the Panaji bench of the Bombay High Court ruled that coal be handled inside closed domes at the Mormugao Port. Sawant says his government backs the idea, but there's legal trouble. "The two companies handling coal at Mormugao Port have sought permission to handle coal inside domes, but this has been challenged by some activists before the National Green Tribunal. If the tribunal clears the dome concept, coal pollution will reduce by 80 per cent," he says.
Goans are known to have put up stiff fights against major infrastructure projects, such as the laying of tracks for the Konkan Railway in the late 1980s and construction of a third bridge on the Mandovi river near Panaji in 2017. Sawant says activists have a habit of opposing development work. "The impression that we are creating infrastructure only for coal business is wrong. We will not allow the MPT to increase its coal-handling capacity beyond 15 MTPA," he says.
The government is worried that agitations could harm Goa's only flourishing industry-tourism. The state's economy has taken a hit from the annual revenue loss of Rs 1,000 crore due to the ban on iron ore mining since March 2018. Sawant has in the past argued that not all of Goa's green cover is "recorded forest". The India State of Forest Report, 2019 puts Goa's forest cover at 2,237 sq. km, around 60 per cent of its total area. Of this, 1,225 sq. km is "recorded forest", as the tree canopy density over there is more than 10 per cent.
Sawant, though, understands the ground realities. At a meeting of the NITI Aayog on February 20, he requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi for allocation of projects with a scope for vertical growth given that Goa is a small state with an area of 3,700 sq. km. There are also restrictions in the Coastal Regulation Zone, wetlands and eco-sensitive areas, leaving only 30 per cent of the land for development projects. "It is not possible to allocate huge tracts of land for central government infrastructure projects," Sawant said at the meeting.
Shetgaonkar wants a written assurance from the chief minister that coal imports to Goa will be reduced by half in the near future. "The CM should also promise that the highway, after it has been widened, will not be used for transporting coal," he says. It is anyone's guess if the state government will agree.
GOA'S MINING PITCH
At a NITI Aayog meeting on February 20, Goa chief minister Pramod Sawant urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the Union government implement the amendment to MMDRA or the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 to pave the way for resumption of iron ore and sand mining in his state. The act was amended in 2015, giving every mine company the right to have a 50-year lease period from the date of award of lease.
Goa wants the amendment to come into effect from May 23, 1987, to allow mining in the state till 2037. "We request for relief on resumption of mining activity. Goa was liberated in 1961 and did not get a second renewal of mining. This has impacted the state's economy and employment," Sawant said at the meeting, adding that Goa used to be major exporter of iron ore. "Since mining is banned, exports have also stopped."
Sawant's push for resumption of mining comes amid growing unrest in Goa over unemployment and concerns over the state's sagging economy. Mining, the state's biggest source of revenue, came to a halt on March 16, 2018, after the Supreme Court cancelled all 88 operational mining leases, saying they had been renewed illegally. The court said fresh leases should have been granted instead of renewals.
Since then, a debate has been on in the state about whether mining should be resumed. On February 8, some 200 people who were directly or indirectly dependent on mining for a livelihood held a demonstration at Panaji's iconic Azad Maidan to demand resumption of the activity. The Goa Mining People's Front (GMPF), which organised the protest, plans to intensify its agitation. GMPF president Puti Gaonkar argues that the apex court has not banned mining but only sought its regulation. "It is the government's call [to renew mining] not the court's," he says.
The Centre has, so far, been cold to the state's demand for an amendment to MMDRA. Claude Alvares, environmentalist and convenor of the Goa Foundation, suggests that mining leases be auctioned rather than renewed to prevent monopoly. But local mining companies are not in favour of auctions. They claim that the leases exist since the Portuguese era and auctioning will grant 'outsiders' entry into the mining business in the state.