What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another. ― Chris Maser
Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Park is Goa’s largest Protected Area that falls in the Western Ghats, one of the 36 biodiversity hotspots, recently been declared as a natural World Heritage Site. The Sanctuary is located near the town of Mollem, and about 60 km southeast from the Panaji district of the state of Goa. The total area of the sanctuary is about 240 Km2. It is an important tiger corridor between Goa and the adjoining Kali Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. India’s environment ministry has recently cleared multiple infrastructure projects in protected areas in the country. Goa is the only state in India that has protected the complete Western Ghats’ section within a state.
Ease of doing business spells disaster for the environment
The infrastructure projects, conversion of a road into a four-lane highway and erection of a line-in lineout (LILO) power transmission line causing Forest fragmentation and edge effects like increased Man-animal conflicts in Mollem National Park and the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary were granted virtual clearances during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is worrisome that there was a third project on the double-tracking of the railway line from Castle-rock in Karnataka to Collem in Goa that was also being considered by the government. The objective of these projects is to create the infrastructure for a coal transportation corridor from Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) across Goa and towards industries in Hubli, Dharwad, Hospet, and Bellary in Karnataka cutting across the state. Goa will only serve as a path of connectivity to the port.
In the Name of Development
There is no species-wise classification of the trees marked for felling and trees are located in areas protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, were categorized based on the height. This rich protected area is home to more than 721 plant species, 235 bird species, 219 butterfly species, 80 odonate species, 70 mammal species, 75 ant species, 45 reptile species, 44 fish species, 43 fungi species, 27 amphibian species, 24 orchid species, and 18 species of lichens. There are trees of indigenous species like Terminalia elliptica, Terminalia paniculata, jambul, Terminalia bellerica, and Terminalia chebula. Terminalia elliptica or the Indian laurel, known as matti in Konkani, is the state tree of Goa. These forests are home to many wildlife species such as the Malabar giant squirrel, which is the state animal of Maharashtra. The area also has a beautiful waterfall popular as the Dudhsagar Falls, meaning the ‘Sea of Milk’. The waterfall received its name due to the foamy white water that falls as a result of the force of the height.
Forest fragmentation is the breaking of large forest areas into smaller pieces by anthropogenic disturbances and over time patches multiply till the forest is reduced to scattered forest islands. When railways and roads pass through the dense and mountainous forest, the deep vibrations created by these engines obstruct the natural habitat of wild animals and this Habitat fragmentation would lead to restricted breeding and wildlife population decline and increased zoonotic pathogens like Corona, Nipah virus etc. It will reduce water quality as Goa’s Khandepar river originates in Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve and it provides a large quantum of water to North Goa and even tiger corridors passing through Mollem National Park and Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary, Roadkills would shoot up exponentially. The interferences in this eco-sensitive zone will also increase the frequency of landslides, affecting tribal communities like the buffalo hoarders Nomadics Dhangars and Velip Gaonkars, who reside in these hinterlands. Direct loss of biodiversity and the far-reaching impacts of habitat fragmentation will affect ecosystem stability and decrease forest resilience.
The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) cleared these two projects in tiger habitat by following a unilateral, opaque mode. Proper Environment impact assessments (EIA) were neglected. We found a poorly done EIA for the NH4A project and transmission line EIA was not accessible in the public domain. These are 80,000 full-grown forest trees and the pa is known as Lungs of Goa. The amount of carbon they soak cannot be overlooked merely to enhance the vested interests of a polluting Industry. Further, the Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012-2017) recommends moving hazardous cargo away from populated areas such as Mormugao Port Trust, the upper limit for handling coal in a populated area is 50 mt.
Questions remain about the viability of the project
Concerns have been raised about the inadequate data and the absence of a plan for ‘compensatory afforestation’ because Goa lacks the land resource needed for replanting such a large number of trees. Moreover, these three linear projects are going through a singular protected region but to understand the implications a cumulative EIA of all the three projects, is needed. Apart from this, the passing of a high-voltage electricity line through protected forests is also questionable. But despite all these concerns, the projects appear to be moving ahead at full speed without debating any peripheral and immediate fallout.
The timing of this decision couldn’t have been worse considering the severe effects of climate change like Amphan, Nisarga, locust attacks, and COVID-19. In 2019, pre-monsoon showers in Goa were delayed by almost two weeks and wells ran dry in villages. After leaving a trail of destruction in its wake, monsoon brought unprecedented floods, extensive damage to crops and houses, and washed out a section of the Opa pipeline leaving citizens of Panaji reeling without water for a week and was followed by two consecutive cyclones in the Arabian Sea. Yet, the government continues to pursue its plan to fell full-grown indigenous undisturbed forest in the Western Ghats protected area. They are insistent on transporting coal through a small and ecologically fragile state at the cost of massive environmental destruction and not pushing for renewable energy sources ironically United Nations Environment has bestowed Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the 2018 ‘Champion of the Earth’ award for his leadership in the promotion of solar energy. For the records in March, a report by Carbon Tracker reported that 60% of global coal power plants were generating electricity at a higher cost than it would have cost from sourcing from wind/solar energy. These forests that have existed for thousands of years are irreplaceable. Further, members of the Goa State Wild Life Board (GSWLB) are claiming that they were kept in dark about the project details. We demand to revoke all the clearances granted during the lockdown and public access to fresh cumulative impact assessments of the project in the interest of democracy to protect Goa’s biodiversity and ecological security.
References: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/concerns-raised-over-environmental-clearances-to-two-goa-forest-projects/article31756047.ece https://india.mongabay.com/2020/06/environment-ministry-unlocked-many-protected-areas-during-the-lockdown/ https://www.nhbs.com/flora-of-bhagwan-mahavir-molem-national-park-and-adjoinings-goa-book