Goa is on the boil over three infrastructure projects – the expansion of a railway track and highway, and a new power line – that residents of the state believe will harm its pristine forests and pollute its picturesque towns with coal dust.
Across the state protesters are on the streets every day, banging plates, holding public meetings and chanting “no to coal” and “save Mollem”.
All three projects cut through the Mollem National Park and the Bhagwan Mahavir Sanctuary, a biodiversity hotspot.
The trigger for the unrest appears to be a surge in coal imports via Mormugao Port. The two main importers are Jindal Soth West (for steel plants in Karnataka) and Adani (which supplies coal to industrial units including Jindal).
Mormugao Port can handle about 10 million tonnes of coal every year, but a report of the centre’s SagarMala scheme says it is projected to handle 51 million tonnes in the next 15 years.
Two of the contentious projects that pass through Goa’s forests – the widening of National Highway 4A (connecting Goa and Karnataka) and the double-tracking of a railway line from Mormugao to Karnataka) are meant to carry increased coal imports.
The SagarMala report says “doubling of the railway line has to be completed in order to improve Mormugao port’s evacuation capacity”. On the four-laning of NH-4A it says this will help “ease transport bottlenecks for cargo”.
Sherwyn Correia , a young lawyer and resident of the town of Vasco, which abuts the port, points to the stacks of uncovered coal. “The wind,” he says, “can take thecoal dust to Vasco. People are breathing it in.”
Pushed on the backfoot, the state government claims the expanded rail and road networks will carry passengers and other cargo in addition to coal. They also say they will cap coal imports.
“We are reducing (coal) imports to 50 per cent,” Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant told NDTV.
Even so, it is unclear how this will limit damage to the forest cover.
“This sanctuary is funded by the World Wildlife Fund. Crores have been put into it. It is also a UNESCO-recognised protected area,” Sharatchandra Khandeparkar, the retired headmaster of a school in Mollem, says.
In 2013 the then Chief Wildlife Warden of the state rejected proposals to double-track the railway line, pointing out it would hurt an already fragile ecosystem.
The decision was endorsed by the late Manohar Parrikar, then the Chief Minister.
However, after the Railways said it would alter alignment of the tracks, successive BJP governments have cleared the project, claiming it is in “public interest”.
Meanwhile, work on a 400 KV electricity line, which also runs through the Mollem forest, has further stoked public anger.
Activists say that as part of the prep work close to 2,600 trees were cut down during the Covid lockdown – when people were unable to organise effective protests – near the village of Sangod, which is on the fringes of the Mollem National Park, to make way for a power substation.
“I grew up in this area and live 500 metres from this clearing. As a villager I had no information about the tree-cutting. One fine day we came here and found this much land (had been) cleared,” Krishna Zore, a local resident, says.
Government documents accessed by NDTV claim the new power line will cater to Goa’s growing demands, but activists have asked why this demand cannot be met via more sustainable means.