Projects pass through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and National Park in Mollem.

 

New Delhi: Agitated residents of Goa have been protesting against three infrastructural projects that will pass through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park in Mollem. Last Sunday, several people gathered on railway lines of Chandor in South Goa to block several trains carrying coal. Thousands of Goans protested through the night condemning the series of government projects. These projects—expansion of national highway 4-A, construction of transmission line, and doubling of the existing Railway line—will favour coal companies and make Goa a coal transportation hub, according to the protesters.

According to scientists, researchers, and several others, the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and National Park in Mollem is Goa’s largest “protected area” that falls in the Western Ghats. It is one of the 36 biodiversity hotspots and recently, it has been declared a natural World Heritage Site.

The sanctuary is located near the town of Mollem, and about 60 km southeast of Panaji district in Goa. It is also an important tiger corridor between Goa and the adjoining Kali Tiger Reserve in Karnataka.

Several scientists who were part of the State Wildlife Board meeting told The Sunday Guardian that though there were disagreements about the approval of these projects, the report that was sent to the National Wildlife Board stated that it was approved.

Omkar Dharwadkar, a naturalist, was part of the State Wildlife Board meeting held in December last year. He told The Sunday Guardian: “During the first lockdown, two of the three projects were approved by the National Board of Wildlife. During the State Wildlife Board meeting, it was not approved, but the minutes of the meeting stated otherwise. We had written to the member secretary of the wildlife board that disapproval by some of the members should also reflect in the minutes. Basically, the drafts of the minutes are sent to the members and the finalised one is sent to the National Board, but it didn’t happen. The National Board after receiving these unapproved minutes approved the projects via video conference within 10 minutes. This was the first meeting of the board and the agenda was handed over to them right then and there; so many of the new members didn’t get a chance to go through the EIAs and make an informed decision.”

“The Railway tracks are existing since the Portuguese’s times. Now, they are planning to put another track beside it and basically it will cut through the prime forests and it involves passing through difficult terrains; so, there will be a lot of damage and disturbance in the area. The second project is the expansion of the national highway. The national highway already cuts through the region, but what they have proposed will not follow the alignment of the existing road. The third project is the transmission line. They are planning to pass this through the forested area. The area that they have chosen for the transmission line is only accessible on foot. You can imagine the damage that will be caused after erecting those large towers which will carry the high-tension wires,” Dharwadkar said.

Meanwhile, the High Court of Bombay at Goa has stayed the project passing the wildlife sanctuary and the national park till December. However, the protesters are saying this is not the solution and they want the projects to be completely scrapped. Several protesters told The Sunday Guardian that these projects will lead to the destruction of over 70,000 trees and the government is denying this claim.

Wildlife Researcher Nandini Velho, who is also part of the ongoing campaign against these projects, told The Sunday Guardian: “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.”

Last month, Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant blamed the Opposition for trying to mislead residents of the state regarding the projects. During the same period, according to reports, Union Minister Prakash Javadekar said that he would “study” the objections to the proposed projects at Mollem if he received a memorandum from the people. His statement has angered the protesters as they claim that they have sent multiple requests to him. At the same time, several leaders from the BJP, along with the Opposition leaders, are also raising concerns over these projects. BJP MLA Alina Saldanha has sent a number of letters along with other official representations made in the last few months. Besides them, Leader of the Opposition Digambar Kamar, and Prerna Singh Bindra—former member of the National Board for Wildlife—have made official representations voicing objections to the Mollem projects.

BJP MLA Alina Saldanha told The Sunday Guardian: “They have to listen to the people. The development should benefit the people. If it’s not, then what is the purpose of this so-called development. The environment minister is going on and saying that coal is not coming, but our issue is not just Goa turning into a coal hub. Presently, coal is being transported to Karnataka through Goa. People are suffering at the moment. Our issue is with the second track as it will be laid closer to the houses throughout South Goa. Do we have any rights to a decent living? The Environment minister doesn’t want to accept the ground realities. There are so many heritage houses. How will they withstand the vibrations? So many students have lost their lives due to the track because there is no infrastructural development for people living near these tracks.”

The BJP leader also said that after sending several letters to Union Minister Prakash Javadekar, he replied a fortnight back and said they will look into the issues.

“He said that he has received my letter regarding the issues and he says that he has directed the authorities concerned to look into the issues. I received this letter a fortnight ago. Is this time to look into the issues? Now permissions have been granted. The environment has to be respected. Maybe these projects will be welcomed in bigger states like Karnataka and Maharashtra. Because those states are huge and Goa is just a dot in the map of India. So, what is possible is these big states, it is not possible in tiny Goa and this aspect has to be respected by those who govern the place. People’s lives are at stake and I have hope that they will listen,” said Saldanha.

Nerissa Santimano, a public health professional, who is also a part of the ongoing campaign, told The Sunday Guardian: “Court proceedings are carrying on, yet the utility companies are proceeding with the work in the dark of night. This is why thousands of Goans have been gathering at rail crossings to demonstrate against the work and the projects. The destruction is not just about the loss of tree cover, but in fact destruction of these protected ecologies. We are forced to march to the streets because it is the only option we are left with.”