On the night of November 1, 2020, around 5000 people gathered on a railway track in Chandor village of the western Indian state of Goa.
Despite the growling fear of a pandemic, these people were determined and resolute towards their demand of shutting down the controversial infrastructural projects that threatened to wipe out 170 hectares of forest land and therefore disrupt the surrounding wildlife.
The threat to natural resources and the ecosystem due to the rising number of infrastructure projects in Goa is not new. The overnight cutting down of six mangrove trees in 2019 is one such event in past that erupted massive uproar.
Supreme Court lifting the restrictions on the construction of Mopa Airport earlier this year is yet another example of denial of the needs for environmental protection and preservation. It was interesting to see that this judgement was taken by the same bench of Justice Chandrachud and Justice Hemant Gupta that halted this project in its previous decision.
Preservation of livelihoods, forest, water sources, culture and countless species of flora and fauna were considered a luxury while developments that include the construction of shopping malls, convention centres, bullet trains, international airports, casinos, tourism infrastructure, five-star hotels and resorts, urban redevelopment etc were considered a human need. Many false declarations however were made and poor Environmental Impact Assessment was done, but no action was taken against the EIA consultants or the officers who made the disclosure.
Many of the reports presented by them considered Goa as treeless and waterless barren land. Further, 55000 trees were justified to be cut down however many ecological outfits believed that 200000 have been annexed in the area.
The recent protests against the decision to wipe out 170 hectares of protected land follow a similar script. The planned infrastructure projects are expected to divert 250 hectares of land, 170 hectares of which falls within protected areas. According to local concerns, the projects aim to widen the highway and deepen six rivers for barges to facilitate the transportation of coal. Although such infrastructural projects have been allowed historically, they have to adhere to the MoEFCC guidelines stating them to be “most exceptional of circumstances”.
There is a set of procedure under India’s Environmental (Protection) Act of 1986 which empowers the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) to review the environmental impacts of such projects. And only after the public consultation is done, the environmental ministry can accept the final recommendations of EAC. However, according to Deepika D’souza (one of the protest organisers) and other Goa-based environmentalists, these projects neither got approval from local authorities nor the communities they affect. She further affirms that these projects only benefit “big industrial houses and not the local Goans”.
Further, it has been found that the entire Mollem project has been broken down into smaller low impact projects which seem to be an attempt to bypass the law rather than to accept and adhere it.
There have been questions over the sanctity of the claims on Compensatory Afforestation made by authorities as Goa has been inefficient in its pursuits towards Compensatory afforestation in the past 10 years. This forced MoEFCC to stop allocating funds to Goa under the Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority. Further, what kind of trees do they actually consider trees is a question.
Initially, there has been a lot of uncertainty over the identification of forest land in Goa. Doubts over the identification and demarcation of forest cover went on for years in the High Court and Supreme Court. Such variabilities have only added to the atrocities of the Goan wildlife with Indian Forest Survey noting a loss of 51 square kms of trees in 2019 as compared to 2017. The projects that were undertaken in the meantime were mostly focussed in benefitting certain business interests.
The infrastructure developments in the Mollem too are oriented towards the needs of the Adani group to mobilise through that area.
The widespread concern is that the coal transportation through the area “will impact small and dense surrounding villages by causing air pollution, contaminate freshwater sources, and will affect fishing, a primary source of livelihood for people in Goa”.
The ongoing online petitions and mobilisation of the communities by D’souza’s coalition have been creating a huge impact.
🥁This wasn't a celebration!🥁
📢This was a CALL FOR ACTION!💪🏾
🔥GOYKAR ZAAGE ZALYAT!🔥
Goans have Risen and we will not let your ignorance destroy our Goa!
✊🏾NOTHING WILL STOP US NOW✊🏾#Chandor #GoyantKollsoNaka #SaveMollem @fayedsouza@prernabindra @stopadani @sardesairajdeep pic.twitter.com/UQueWzEJl8
— Save Mollem Campaign (@savemollemgoa) November 2, 2020
The issue is not limited to Goa. India currently ranks 168 among the 180 countries in the Environmental Performance index. Modi Government has not just been disinterested but has rather been aversive towards the concerns of environmental protection. In 2015, small coal mines in coal-rich Singrauli region, which is a critically polluted industrial region, have been allowed to expand. Furthermore, the Ministry adopted a cluster approach in clearing smaller coal mines in the coal-rich regions of the nation.
The decisions came in the backdrop of slow industrial and manufacturing growth. The Ministry lifted the moratorium on the eight critically polluted regions of the nation. Moreover, in the year 2018, it was identified that 15 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are from India. Many laws were changed across the state and central capacities during the 5 years of the Modi government.
There have been attempts to declassify saltpans into a wetland in order to benefit builders who have been eyeing these regions so as to develop affordable houses. However environmental activists have warned that such actions could damage these saltpan regions which are the last remaining open area of land in these urban areas and act as a natural buffer during heavy rains and prevent flooding.
The cutting of trees in the Aarey forests is yet another environmental blunder made in the name of development. Adding to the atrocities, the ex-post-facto clearance route in the draft Environmental Impact Assessment notification if implemented can weaken the regulations over the industrial processes. This new notification also shortens the time for the public to react over any of the upcoming local projects and it can actually give strong relaxation to industries and business houses to freely perform their economic activities without churning the environmental clearance papers.
While India is way behind reaching the average level of biodiversity protection and pollution check in comparison to the world standards, such leniency and gaucherie from the side of authorities can only further deteriorate the existing state of Indian biodiversity. The Western Ghats, which forms most of the Goa, have been recognised as one of the biodiversity hotspots in the world.
Though Goa is the smallest state in India by land, it carries special importance in the realm of diverse flora and fauna of India. With bamboo canes, Maratha barks, chillar barks and the bhirand being some of the most important forest products Goa carries major importance in India’s pursuits to create healthy biodiversity.
While the debate over “Environment vs Development” is heating up and human needs are slowly been materialised, the contribution of nature towards human survival cannot be overlooked. There is a need to be clear on our priorities. Civil society needs to have increased participation in the decision-making processes. There is a need to make education nature sensitive and climate-sensitive.
At last, if we want our next generation to breathe, we need to speak. There is a need for common citizens to be aware of the current happenings and mishappenings in the frontier of climate protection and preservation. With India charging up to reach the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 15, it needs evenly stringent government policies that affirmingly stand for social and environmental wellbeing of the people evenly enough as they stand for the economic wellbeing of the nation.