On the night of November 1st, braving the peril of the pandemic, hundreds of people united to register their protest in South Goa, criticizing a series of government projects including the doubling of South Western railway tracks which claimed to be favoring coal companies and make Goa a coal transportation hub at the expense of its ecology. Protesters alleged that the government neglected to get the necessitated authorizations to initiate work, yet work is in full swing. But what's the uproar about?
Well, the project proposal of double-tracking railway lines, building a new flyover, constructing nine jetties along the Zuari and the Mandovi rivers, and four-laning of NH-4A make a part of the Sagarmala program. Now the Sagarmala project envisages various infrastructural projects to evacuate 51 MTPA coal/coke from Mormugao Port Trust and enable a quick turnaround for ships. Hence, it proposed the double-tracking of Hospet- Vasco rail line and the four-laning of NH-4 from Panaji to Belagavi (the missing link of NH-17B, connecting Verna and Pona that connects Mormugao port to NH4). Additionally, several jetties are proposed along Goa’s rivers (national waterways) essentially for coal transportation. What is also part of this Sagarmala plan is the capital dredging or deepening of approach channels of the Mormugao port, to facilitate navigation of coal-laden capsizes vessels.
The rail track doubling project reportedly involves the felling of trees in the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and a national park located at the Goan border. Residents claim that the government has given a go-ahead for work to proceed despite the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process remaining unfinished. Doubling of these lines enables the port to manage additional demands in the hinterland. The expected benefit, along with the new terminal construction in the long term, would cost Rs.100 Crore per annum. However, what this government is not apprehending is that this coal dust can travel into and along rail corridors due to the movement of coal trains themselves, open wagon surfaces, parasitic coal, and spillage from wagons. There is a pressing threat posed to public health if Goa is allowed to become a ‘Coal Corridor’.
Deepika D'Souza, Secretary of Goyant Kollso Naka - a people's movement United to free Goa from coal pollution stated “If an ordinary citizen wants to construct even a wall on their property, they require Panchayat's permission, they require clearances. Yet for such a big project the railways do not have requisite permissions. 3rd November night's work was being done without Panchayat's permission. Moreover, wildlife clearance has not been acquired, as well as clearance from the National Tiger conservation board, all clearances with regards to the project for the entire line is still pending with the regional office in Bangalore. Yet railways continue to work illegally", not to ignore the after-effects the Adani’s project will have if this takes off the ground. Furthermore, Digambar Kamat, a Congress leader called Goa is a destination for tourists and said, “They do not want to come to Goa to see coal,” he added. The double-tracking will see the railway line crossing from Karnataka through the Western Ghats – with protests by environment activists warning over 70,000 trees will be cut for three projects including the expansion of roads and a power line.
The residents of Goa now fear the damage to air and water quality. The Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) is one of the oldest ports of India where coal already accounts for two-thirds of the cargo. Adani and Jindal SWL in partnership with Vedanta, plan to double its coal-handling capacity, ultimately causing degradation of almost 50% of the land. Further, this perpetual dredging has weakened seabeds and will cause drastic ecological destruction. The concern of oil spills into the Arabian sea is a disaster in the making as well. Moreover, wildlife researcher Nandini Velho, a protestor in the ongoing campaigns said “The approval to these kinds of projects requires a site inspection. These areas are older than the Himalayas and yet the decision has been taken within 10 minutes. The Western Ghats are a very old mountain range. This has allowed the growth of lots of endemic species. These species are not found anywhere else in the world. Mollem being a part of this is a special place. Also, we have two new species which are quite near the railway tracks.”
“I am a mother, and I care for the better future of our children. Coal will kill the identity of Goa. Coal-burning majorly impacts the current crisis of climate change.” - A feeling of a citizen of Goa.
Online petitions rejecting the industrial projects have collected thousands of signatures and are being endorsed by influencers and celebrities across the nation. BJP MLA Alina Saldanha insists the government listen to its people, with developments serving the people. If not, then what is the purpose of the so-called "development". The Environment Minister proceeds to declare that the coal is not coming, but the problem is not plainly of Goa transforming into a coal hub. Presently, coal is being transported to Karnataka through Goa and people are suffering. Our issue is with the second track that will be laid closer to homes throughout South Goa. Evidently, the Environment Minister does not want to accept ground reality. We ask you, what will happen to the several heritage houses who will not withstand the vibrations; the countless students who have lost their lives due to the lack of infrastructural development for people living near these tracks? Despite the massive opposition, Goa’s state government maintains that these projects will serve local people, and will not turn Goa into a polluted coal center. “Coal has been imported for so many years now,” Goa’s Chief Minister Pramod Sawant announced at a press event following the protests. “We have not even increased the import of coal. We are carrying out this development, for the development of industries and the promotion of export and import.”
These projects need to be completely scrapped and we stand with Goa demanding the same. Goa should focus on growing sustainable tourism, green tourism, improving the capacity of local tour operators to follow ethical and eco-friendly practices, and enhance the existing livelihoods, rather than slaughtering all its potential.