The Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) has issued recommendations against three linear projects that cut through the Mollem National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary to the Apex Court

In a major victory to environmentalists and Goans at large, the Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC), has issued recommendations against three linear projects that cut through the Mollem National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, to the Apex Court.

Following an application filed by Goa Foundation, the CEC examined the proposals cleared by the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (SC-NBWL) for the three linear projects in Goa – doubling of railway tracks, four-laning of a national highway, and the Goa-Tanmar Transmission Project – that will cut through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary (BMWS) and Mollem National Park (MNP) in South Goa.

Goa Foundation had filed an application before the CEC on June 26, 2020, alleging violation of the Supreme Court’s order of October 5, 2015 on matters relating to the National Park I Wildlife Sanctuaries and contravention of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, by the Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife (SC-NBWL), which had cleared the three linear infrastructure projects within the boundaries of Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park in Goa.

The SC-NBWL had given wildlife clearance to the proposal for doubling of the railway track on December 17, 2019. On April 7, 2020, the SC-NBWL cleared the proposal for the power transmission project, and took up for consideration the project of four-laning of the national highway.

Goa Foundation submitted that taken together, the three projects involved diversion of about 170 hectares of forest land and sanctuary land, and the felling of an estimated 37,000 trees.

“The Tamnar authorities have been told to go back to the old 110 KV alignment, where there is already a right of way and where there will be no further damage to the forests”
Dr Claude Alvares | Director, Goa Foundation

Goa Foundation Director Claude Alvares, said, “Today we got the best possible news. The railway doubling project has been recommended for wholesale cancellation.”

Dr Claude Alvares Director, Goa Foundation

He pointed out that the CEC had recommended the cancellation of the entire segment of the SWR doubling from Tinai Ghat to Vasco, whose approval had been granted by the NBWL Standing Committee.

Explaining the CEC’s recommendation, Alvares said the Tamnar 400 KV line alignment, which is going through a new portion of the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary in the North has been cancelled.

“The Tamnar authorities have been told to go back to the old 110 KV alignment, where there is already a right of way and where there will be no further damage to the forests. On that ground they have said that they agree with what has been suggested to them, that they should go to the 110-220 KV line and eventually their argument is once the 400 KV line comes in, in any case the 100 line and 220 line are going to be of no use. So rather than having three lines in the wildlife sanctuary, they said you will shelve the present alignment, and go back to the 110 KV alignment, so that the corridor and the wildlife sanctuary is not damaged, in another virgin area,” Alvares added.

CEC’s Examination of the Issue

In December 2020 and April 2021, the CEC held virtual meetings with Goa Foundation, representatives/counsel for Goa Tamnar Transmission Project, Ministry of Power, Ministry of MoEF&CC, South Western Railway, Rail Vikas Nigam Limited (RVNL), the PWD, Electricity and Forest Departments of the Government of Goa, and the Government of Karnataka.

From January 18 to January 22 this year, CEC Chairman P V Jayakrishnan, Member-Secretary Amarnatha Shetty, Member Mahendra Vyas, and amicus curiae ADN Rao made site visits. The CEC also went through all documents filed by the applicant and the various agencies.

CEC findings on Double-Tracking Project

In its report, the CEC said the doubling of the railway track from Castle Rock in Karnataka to Kulem “will destroy the fragile eco-system of the Western Ghats which is an internationally recognised biodiversity hotspot and also one of the most important wildlife corridor of the country.” It asked the Supreme Court to considers revoking the permission granted by the SC-NBWL for the double-tracking project.

The CEC observed: “The estimate of projected increase in traffic from Karnataka to Goa furnished by the railways is not based on facts and is without any sound reasoning and as statistics show mostly includes empty rakes returning to Goa and that despite the change in policy on import of coal the same has not been reflected in the projected traffic from Goa to Karnataka.”

On Power Transmission Project, Highway Expansion

The CEC recommended that the alignment of the Goa-Tanmar Transmission Project for laying of lines for the additional 400 KV feed to Goa be redrawn and modified along the existing 220 KV line. This will “help in saving the precious forest cover and wildlife in the ecologically fragile and biodiversity rich Western Ghats”, the CEC stated.

The CEC said, “Considering the future increase in traffic, something unavoidable, and keeping in view the interest of the Wildlife Sanctuary and the National Park, it is imperative to ensure improvement of the existing road by shifting it to an elevated structure at strategic locations leaving the surface terrain free for movement of all types of wildlife.”

The CEC observed that the width of the under passes/over passes provided for the movement of animals by the Goa PWD were inadequate, and recommended that the length of the span of the proposed four-lane elevated road be increased from 12 metres to up to 100 m.

Political Battle over the Projects

Environmentalists and citizen’s groups had opposed the projects tooth and nail. A protest had been staged against the double tracking project in November 2020 with thousands of Goans – youth in large numbers – gathering in Chandor in November 2020 under the ‘Save Mollem’ banner. On several occasions, the opposition had targeted the BJP in the Goa Assembly over the clearances granted to the linear projects.

Groups like Amche Mollem Citizen Group, Goencho Ekvott and Goencho Avaaz are some of the groups that have been very vocal about the three projects.

Now that the CEC has given their recommendations, which while being expert recommendations, are still subjective. So what are these groups doing to ensure that these recommendations don’t get overpowered by some other loopholes that the government could exploit in favour of the linear projects?

A spokesperson from Amche Mollem Citizen Group weighs in with their opinion. “The CEC report is being studied by legal experts, scientists, researchers, citizen groups from all across the board, including stake-holders and conservationists on the Karnataka side who have benefitted from the CEC suggesting cancellation of the railway project. The focused and creative efforts of citizens will continue in the same vein in the future, if not only get stronger, after the CEC’s report.”

Roshan Luke Mathias, Vice-President, Goencho Avaaz said, “The report prepared by the CEC is well compiled and has been prepared with great study covering minute details whether scientific, economic, technical, legal or any other. We respect the decision/recommendation of the CEC but at the same time, armed with concrete evidence obtained through RTI documents and advice of experts and renowned scientists and environmentalists in our team, we will definitely oppose the proposed expansion of the NH and we are confident that eventually we will be able to convince the MoEF & CC not to issue the EC for the project.”

When asked the same question, Orville Dourado Rodrigues, Founder member of Goencho Ekvott says, “There is a huge amount of trust deficit as far as people’s basic aspirations to life in a clean environment is concerned, something that the villagers had got used to as a way of life. As Chairman of VACAD and Founder member of GOENCHO EKVOTT I have had multiple interactions with our Hon. Chief Minister and other concerned Ministers wherein we put across the views of the common man through factual data reports and audio-visual presentations with regards to the three linear projects. Despite the favourable recommendation by the CEC to the Supreme Court which is on expected lines as far as the double tracking is concerned, we are treading a very cautious approach in tandem with our dedicated legal team to plug any loopholes that the Government may exploit to benefit their crony capitalists friends at the expense of our people.”

Much as these groups have given it their all in their fight to protect Goa’s lungs and bio-diversity, the next big question still stands. Is ‘objection / cancellation’ the end game for these groups, or are they also focused on sustainable development and ready to work with the system to find alternatives that are more environmentally viable and at the same time achieve some of the benefits that these projects would bring in the long run?

Amche Mollem Citizen Group says, “There is no question of with or without the system, it’s a set of common goals we espouse as citizens who care for Goa’s largest protected area. Our vision for a future does NOT involve destroying forests and are grounded in local cultural, scientific and legal values. The CEC explicitly said the railway project is not economically viable and the transmission line project will not provide any economic benefit as we are able to meet demand from the existing power infrastructure. This, if properly managed, will be able to provide for future demand as well.”

Roshan adds, “Objecting Destruction itself spells sustainability. The same was endorsed in the report of the CEC. The entire set of documents procured by Goencho Avaaz through RTI with regards to the 3 linear projects showcase the dire requirement of crony capitalists for infrastructure to ensure the smooth flow of coal transportation throughout our fragile state displacing the people, the environment, the heritage, the tourism in short ‘death of Goa.’ Objecting these ill-conceived plans wrapped in a fancy package called ‘development’ would only ensure that Goa is wiped off at a faster pace. Goencho Avaaz is committed to promote the use of alternative source of energy like harnessing of solar, wind, hydro, etc so as to keep in tune with the UN goal of sustainable development. We as Goencho Avaaz are set to do all that it takes to keep Goa safe and secure for the future generations to come!”

Orville answers this pertinent question saying, “Goencho Ekvott understands that we have to keep pace with development, in fact we are pro-development, but it should be sustainable, something that will aid and give a boost to the local economy for generations to come. Goencho Ekvott is confident that collective efforts by its citizens across all strata of our society can yield positive results and reverse the trend of a once thriving economy. Part of our natural harbour at MPT could be converted to a container terminal which will benefit our world class pharmaceutical sector to export their finished goods from Goa itself, rather than other ports on the West coast. So yes, Goencho Ekvott is definitely pro-development but a big No to Double Tracking, and transportation of dirty coal through Goa.”

What is next?

While a Supreme Court hearing is awaited, the campaigners plan to continue their work with the same vigour. These groups and various other activists and environmentalists have received plenty of threats. Clearly they are not backing down anytime soon, these threats having only strengthened their resolve to see these projects getting cancelled all together

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