Mollem National Park has long been the crown emerald of Goa.
The verdant jungle that covers this rugged area of India’s Western Ghats range is home to leopards, Bengal tigers, pangolins, black panthers, and hundreds of endemic species of flora and fauna found nowhere else on the planet. . Goa’s muscular animal, the gaur, or Indian bison, is often seen walking through forests, and the park’s Dudhsagar waterfall is among the highest in the country.
However, Mollem and the adjoining Bhagwan Mahaveer Shrine, which covers a 240 square kilometer protected area, will be chipped and partially deforested by three invasive projects; the duplication of a railway line, the expansion of a highway and an electric power transmission line.
“This is an area declared by Unesco as one of the eight biodiversity hotspots in the world and which includes a proposed tiger reserve. This project will undo so much that it can never be recovered again, ”said Claude Alvares, an activist with the Goa Foundation who has initiated litigation against the three projects in the Mumbai high court and before a high court committee.
Altogether, it will involve diverting 378 hectares (934 acres) of forest in Goa, cutting down 40,000 protected trees and moving more than 1.8 million tons of mud and soil from inside the sanctuary.
Activists and citizens claim that these projects have been imposed on Goa by the central government without any public consultation or transparency. They are now subject to multiple legal challenges and have sparked a grassroots opposition movement unlike anything seen in Goa for decades, with thousands of people taking to the streets in protest. Students, artists, biologists, tourism bodies and 150 scientists have written to India’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar and the supreme court, requesting that the projects stop, claiming that environmental laws have been violated or ignored. More than 8,000 people took part in a recent demonstration and the police have booked or arrested dozens.
“We are not only saving the forests of Mollem for their beauty, but for the very survival of life in Goa,” said artist Svabhu Kohli, who started the My Mollem campaign, which brought together artists, lawyers, researchers, biologists and communities. premises to raise awareness. through art and action of the impact that projects could have in Mollem.
“They say they are doing this to benefit the people of Goa. But everyone in Goa knows that Mollem has a special magic, so how can cutting down irreplaceable forests be beneficial? And if it is for us, why have they never consulted us?
Indian law prohibits construction in wildlife sanctuaries, but the government has approved them in the name of the public interest and the future development of Goa. However, these three projects are believed by many to be part of a master plan to turn India’s smallest state into a corridor for a five-fold increase in coal imports by some of India’s largest industrialists. , known for their close ties to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Activists in Goa have linked coal imports with a reported increase in the air pollution, lung diseases and, more recently, an increase in deaths from Covid-19 in the villages close to where coal is unloaded and transported.
For the past three years, Goa’s main port, the Mormugao Port Trust in the north of the state, has been on an expansion drive to become a hub for imported coal. Since 2018, two of India’s largest coal importers, Adani and JSW, have installed multiple terminals at the port.
In 2020, the Ministry of the Environment granted authorization for a third coal terminal and deep water dredging to accommodate large coal vessels. Currently, the port handles 12 million tons of coal, but importers hope to increase it to 51 million tons by 2035.
The coal that reaches Goa is not even used in the state, but is transported across the border to steel and power plants in neighboring Karnataka and Maharashtra.
However, as emphasized in the master plan, for this long-term expansion plan to be feasible, the old single-line railway and the winding road from Goa, which traverse Mollem to reach neighboring states, would have to be expanded. to cope with the heavy trucks of coal and frequent freight trains required to transport the coal across the border. “This is the most important initiative and lifeline for future port operations,” stated the master plan on the duplication of the rail line.
The railway expansion was the first of the three controversial projects to obtain the seal of approval from the National Wildlife Board (NBW), which depends on the Ministry of the Environment, in December 2019. The project, which involves the excavation of deep tunnels in the sanctuary and the churning of 1.8 million tons of soil, justified to meet future customer demand. But locals say the line is rarely busy.
The former head of the Goa Forest Department, Richard D’Souza, had originally refused to approve the rail project in 2013 because it was unnecessary and unjustifiably destructive to Mollem’s delicate biodiversity.
“I did not find it appropriate that the railroad was duplicated at the sanctuary because I have seen all these animals there with my own eyes, the black panther, bats, gaur and tigers, and a biodiversity that is not found anywhere else,” he said. D ‘Souza. “Also, it wasn’t necessary because there weren’t many passengers on that line.”
The government commissioned an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the project. However, it was carried out by an academic who is also part of the NBW government, which then approved the rail project in December 2019. “You can see how this is a complete conflict of interest,” Alvares said.
“The doubling of the railroad will be a disaster, there is no question about it,” added D’Souza. “The entire sanctuary is very steep and you will have to cut deep into the earth and it will require a lot of logging. The famous Dudhsagar waterfall is next to the tracks and will surely be damaged in the works. They should leave it as is; that will save the sanctuary, that will save wildlife, biodiversity, everything. “
The other two projects that will affect Mollem – the expansion of the highway to a four-lane highway and the initial stages of a new power line – were approved in April by the NBW.
The approval of the projects by the central government sparked outrage in Goa, with many unaware that they were in the pipeline due to what Nandini Velho, a wildlife biologist from Goa, described as “a complete information deficit and lack of transparency. ”.
Lawyer Sreeja Chakraborty has taken up a legal challenge against the highway project for what she called “clear discrepancies in the application.” He noted that the EIA carried out for the road specified that only one species of bird had been found in Mollem. “A bird, in the 200 square kilometers of a wildlife sanctuary, when anyone walking through Mollem will see multiple species, including Goa’s national bird, the yellow-throated bulbul. This is simply absurd and disgusting. But if you don’t record what is there, no one will know what is lost, ”he said.
“They can’t defend the expansion of the highway based on traffic data, it doesn’t hold up,” Chakraborty said. “It is part of a multiple attack in Goa to aid the expansion of the coal port and every step of the way we have found that due process was not followed.”
The state and central government are justifying the new power line, which will see six 22-meter high towers erected across Mollem, as necessary to bring electricity to remote areas of Goa and say it requires less than 0.25 hectares of land. . The project has already started and under the cover of the closure in April, 20,000 trees were cut on the edge of the sanctuary to make way for the electrical substation.
Activists say the power line will conveniently serve the interests of coal imports, providing more power to the port and allowing the train’s engines to be switched to electric, so they can run faster, more frequently, and more efficiently to transport coal. coal in the future. “There is nothing in any document that connects the transmission line to the railroad, but the situation on the ground is very clear,” Chakraborty alleged.
Subhash Chandra, the state government’s chief forest conservator, said the new causeway would cut the time it takes to get through the sanctuary in half. “We are taking all the necessary measures so that there is hardly any conflict with wildlife and to ensure minimal damage to the forests,” he said, emphasizing that a series of animal crossings, underpasses and gates would be installed around the road and rail. . to avoid collisions. However, environmentalists were scathing about this. “This is a forest, not a circus,” Alvares said. “Wild animals will not follow signs to cross a road safely.”
In championing all three projects, Chandra said: “This is to meet human, commercial and business needs. India is a developing country and our role in the forest department is to balance conservation with development needs. The environment is not static, nature has incredible power to adapt and recover, and the status quo cannot continue forever, Goa needs to progress. “
Goa BJP Chief Minister Pramod Sawant has repeatedly denied that any of these projects are to boost coal transport capacity, describing them as a “nation-building exercise” without “any threat to Mollem.” In November, he promised that coal imports to the Mormugao Port Trust would be cut by 50% and said it had asked the center for assurances that Goa would not become a coal center. The Adani Group has denied any role in the projects affecting Mollem.
Meanwhile, protests and Save Mollem campaigns continue unabated in Goa towns and cities, inspiring a new generation of Goa youth who have confronted politicians and government officials for answers.
John Countinho, an environmentalist who was recently booked by the police for his involvement in the protests, said he feared that if the projects go ahead, “it would secure Goa as a coal corridor for years; it makes it unlikely they will switch from coal to energy. renewable as they would like to make a profit from their investment in coal infrastructure. “
Kohli, the artist and activist, said the future of Goa’s ecology “hangs by a thread.” “Goa had a beautiful ecologically diverse coastline and due to greed and lack of vision, we lost much of our diversity,” he said. “We cannot allow the same to happen to Mollem.”
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.