In October 2017, I embedded myself with a group of activists protesting coal import in Goa. I attended their meetings, hung out at their work places, tagged along as they ran pillar-to-post filing RTIs; essentially a fly-on-the-wall, observing and documenting everything. This personal essay is a list of basic lessons I learned during my time with the folks. There are more questions than learnings, actually.
First, some context.
Goa is India’s smallest state on the west coast. It is flanked by the supreme Western Ghats on the eastern side, and the roaring Arabian Sea on the western side. The sliver of land in between is replete with forests, mangroves, estuaries, beaches, wetlands, waterfalls, paddy fields, rivers.
It is home to the highest variety of birds and flowers, and animals and plants. There’s rice, coconut, banana, chillies, saltpans, fish, okra, mangoes and many more delightful things to be found in abundance here. But the peace of this land is precarious.
Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) is one of the 12 major ports of India, situated in Vasco da Gama, a port town in the southern part of Goa. A major expansion plan is underway for the port to allow the import of more coking coal.
Coking coal is used as an industrial product for iron ore smelting, which helps in the manufacture of steel. It is scarce in India and some of it is imported from countries like Australia, South Africa and Canada into Goa at Mormugao Port Trust. From Goa, this coal travels through trucks, trains and rivers, cutting through the ecological landscape to be used at the steel industry near Bellary in North Karnataka.
Currently, there are two public-private partnership terminals that handle coal at the port: one run by JSW group subsidiary South West Port Limited (SWPL) and the other by the Adani Group’s Adani Mormugao Port Terminal Private Limited.
MPT already imports over 12 million tonnes of coking coal annually. If the expansion plan goes through, it will be importing 51 million tonnes annually by 2030.
The expansion involves capital dredging at the port next to two fishing villages, expanding coal berths situated close to petroleum and ammonia tanks, expanding two major highways cutting through Goa, and double-tracking of the South West Railways from Vasco to Hospet. Work on the project has been underway since early 2016. It is overseen by the central ministry for shipping, by the NHAI, and Goa’s state government.
A group of activists has been fighting against this gigantic project, and a series of investigations have revealed the lack of compliance of rules and a complete disregard for checks and balances. Environmental degradation intensifies economic deprivation. I documented the movement for three months in its initial stages. Here are a few basic things I learned.
Coal dust does not care about race or caste or gender or age. The tiny 2.5 micron particles flow with the wind far and wide, and settle in your home, on the front porch, the kitchen floor, lining on the clothes, seep into the water, and eventually sit inside your lungs. It attacks everyone that comes in its path, whether it is a fancy heritage home or a small shack. It doesn’t care.
A project of this scale stands to change the landscape of the state. It directly affects communities living close to the port. Expansion projects destroy forests and plateaus and homes of people get affected because of the acquired land. More coal brings more pollution, more health issues. Apart from the environmental impact assessment, public hearings are mandatory. They gives residents a chance to file their objections to the project, which has to be taken into account. Their opinion matters, because their lives and livelihoods are at stake.
The people of Goa were kept in the dark about this project. An investigation by Catch News revealed that the public hearing for capital dredging was canceled as a “policy decision,” which was eventually overruled by the National Green Tribunal. Things came to light only after the fisherfolk of Vasco noticed their nets being shredded because of the dredging work.
Other instances for lack of transparency include the highway expansion construction work cropping up at different locations in Goa without prior notice. Also, the extremely random acquisition of land for double-tracking railway tracks.
Once the dots were connected, the big picture understood, the activists had no time to lose. The project would affect nearly 100 villages of Goa. They began conducting awareness workshops to inform the people at the grassroots level about the perils of the project, and the steps they must take to prevent this from happening. For nearly four months starting October 2017, meetings were held several times a week, at village panchayat halls, church halls, playgrounds, under trees, in the balconies of people’s homes.
People from all walks of life, engineers, contractors, merchant navy, nuns, teachers, doctors, lawyers, fisherfolk, and they all unite for a common cause and passed on the knowledge whenever and wherever they could. For nearly four months, gram sabhas were held every Sunday, and nearly every village panchayat passed a resolution against the project. They fought for their land and their health and their rights. Once a sufficient number of resolutions are passed, the state authorities are forced to sit up and notice. Knowledge is power. Knowledge unites us.
When marine geologist Dr Antonio Mascerenhas visited the site proposed for capital dredging, he prepared a report raising red flags. Capital dredging is a process of removing large amounts of material from the sea bed to deepen the channel to allow large shipping vessels to park. His report, according to Catch News, said “drastic environmental impacts” could result from the project, inducing morphological changes to the region. He said that the existing environment impact assessment report did not contain the necessary information.
Now Mr Mascerenhas, at the time, was a member of the Goa Coastal Zone Management Authority (GCZMA), a state body that gives clearance for coastal projects such as these. His report was a clear no, submitted in November 2015. But business has to run. January 2016, capital dredging had begun, sans clearance.
In another scenario, while working on a story about a forest being razed down to construct a highway, I came across official correspondence between forest officers of the area, where the district officer wrote that the proposed road construction could lead to soil erosion, and would also cause habitat fragmentation, thus damaging the ecology of the region. His recommendation was ignored and construction went on as usual.
If due process is not followed within government departments, then what is the point of a process at all? Why do we have checks and balances in place if they eventually get bulldozed over?
State government authorities, the folks whose job it is to ensure good governance, deflect important questions with misinformation. “If you don’t want coal, don’t use electricity,” was a quote given by Goa’s former chief minister, when the furore against coal was high. Coking coal is not used for electricity. Similarly, while accompanying activists as they met state officials for specific lack of compliance issues, the questions would be brushed off by remarks like “Oh, so you are against development?” Nobody is against development. What they are against is the manner in which ‘development’ is being carried out.
Indian Express investigations revealed that South West Port Ltd (SWPL) was handling excess coal than the it was allowed. Goa’s Pollution Control Board filed a criminal case against SWPL and MPT, and banned its operations. But a few months later it has decided to give it a consent to operate.
On February 9, 2019, Parashuram Sonulekar, a resident of Vasco, posted videos of swirls of black wind outside his house. The black was the dust from mounds of coal stored in the open at the port. The wind carrying the coal dust was the sea-breeze blowing towards the land, directly into the front porches of residents living opposite the port, barely 50 metres away.
This was followed by a series of evidence collection exercise by volunteers and the town council. And today, there are two cases in court, one at the High Court of Bombay, a public interest litigation against MPT and its importers, filed by NGO Goa Foundation and five others seeking an order for total and permanent closure of operations of coal and coke handling at the port.
The next date for hearing is on October 10. The other is at the tribunal court, against Goa Pollution Control Board, slated for hearing on October 15. Governance feels like a business transaction. Instead of looking after public interest, they look out for corporate interest.
Activism is one of the most important forms of work today, especially the kind that erupts from the grassroots. Activists are people who desire change in society. They are the guardians of their people and their land and sea and air. Activism is a singular effort. It takes everything from you, and does not pay your bills.
The driven are the ones who connect the dots, see the big picture, and fight relentlessly. They fight because it is worth it. It is sad to see that a job that should be done by governments, of protecting the public interest, is instead forced upon a few good Samaritans.
They put their lives at stake for a cause. Deliberate attempts are made to make life miserable for them. In late 2017, the central ministry of environment and forests along with Goa’s state government decided to shift Goa’s cases at the National Green Tribunal, from Pune to Delhi, citing the “convenience of the government officials and lawyers” as one of the reasons for the move.
It is a fact that more than half of the cases at NGT Pune come from Goa, and are mostly represented by the litigants themselves – people who take the train or the bus to get to Pune from Goa in a few hours.
It is also a fact that Goa is closer to Pune than Delhi, when one discounts flight travel. In a beautiful, poetic judgment, Justice Gautam Patel stated that the NGT circuit bench would stay within Pune. When governance looks at its own convenience over the convenience of its people, the people take over. The judiciary, and the activism, are our two beacons of hope today, in times where the idea of development and progress is lopsided.