Fury as Goa’s rare wildlife park faces invasion by rail and road

Mollem national park has long been the emerald in Goa’s crown.

The verdant jungle which covers this steep area of India’s Western Ghats mountain range is home to leopards, Bengal tigers, pangolins, black panthers and hundreds of endemic species of flora and fauna found nowhere else on the planet. The muscular state animal of Goa – the gaur, or Indian bison – is often seen trudging through the forests, and the park’s Dudhsagar waterfall is among the highest in the country.

Yet Mollem and the adjoining Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary, covering a protected area of 240 sq km, is set to be splintered and partially deforested by three invasive projects; the doubling of a railway line, road expansion and an electric power transmission line.

“This is an area declared by Unesco to be one of the world’s eight biodiversity hotspots and which includes a proposed tiger reserve. This project will undo so much that can never be recovered again,” said Claude Alvares, an activist with the Goa Foundation who has taken up litigation against all three projects in the Bombay high court and before a committee of the supreme court.

Cumulatively it will involve diverting 378 hectares (934 acres) of forest in Goa, felling 40,000 protected trees and shifting more than 1.8m tonnes of mud and earth from inside the sanctuary.

Activists and citizens claim these projects have been foisted on Goa by the central government without any public consultation or transparency. They are now subject to multiple legal challenges and have sparked a grassroots opposition movement unlike anything seen in Goa for decades, with thousands taking to the streets in protest. Students, artists, biologists, tourism bodies and 150 scientists have written to India’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar and the supreme court requesting the projects be halted, alleging environmental laws have been broken or ignored. More than 8,000 people took part in a recent demonstration and dozens have been booked by police or arrested.

“We are not just saving Mollem forests for their beauty but for the very survival of life in Goa,” said artist Svabhu Kohli, who began the My Mollem campaign, which brought together artists, lawyers, researchers, biologists and local communities to raise awareness through art and action of the impact the projects could have on Mollem.

“They say they are doing this to benefit the people of Goa. But everyone in Goa knows Mollem has a special magic, so how can cutting down irreplaceable forests be beneficial? And if it’s for us, why were we never consulted?”

Indian law bans construction in wildlife sanctuaries but the government has approved them in the name of public interest and Goa’s future development. However, many believe these three projects are part of a masterplan to turn India’s smallest state into a corridor for a fivefold increase in coal imports by some of India’s biggest industrialists, known for their close ties to the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP).

Campaigners in Goa have connected coal imports to a reported increase in air pollution, lung diseases and more recently, a spike in Covid-19 deaths in villages near where the coal is unloaded and transported.

For the past three years, Goa’s main port, Mormugao Port Trust in the north of the state, has been on an expansion drive to become a hub for imported coal. Since 2018, two of India’s biggest coal importers, Adani and JSW, have set up multiple terminals at the port.

In 2020, the environment ministry granted clearance for a third coal terminal and deep-water dredging to accommodate large coal vessels. Currently the port handles 12m tonnes of coal, but importers hope to increase that to 51m tonnes by 2035.

The coal coming into Goa isn’t even used in the state, but is transported over the border to steel and power plants in neighbouring Karnataka and Maharashtra.

Yet, as the masterplan emphasised, in order for this long-term expansion plan to be feasible, Goa’s ancient single-line railway and winding road, which both cut through Mollem to get to neighbouring states, would need to be widened to cope with the heavyweight coal trucks and frequent freight trains necessary to carry the coal over the border. “This is the most important initiative and lifeline for the port operations in the future,” stated the masterplan regarding the doubling of the railway line.

The railway expansion was the first of the three controversial projects to gain the stamp of approval from the National Board for Wildlife (NBW), which sits under the Ministry of Environment, in December 2019. The project, which involves cutting deep tunnels into the sanctuary and the upheaval of 1.8m tonnes of soil, was justified to meet future customer demand. But locals say the line is rarely busy.

The former head of the Goa Forest Department, Richard D’Souza, had originally refused to approve the railway project in 2013 as it was unnecessary and unjustifiably destructive to the delicate biodiversity of Mollem.

“I did not find it appropriate that the railway should be doubled in the sanctuary because I have seen all these animals there with my own eyes, the black panther, bats, gaur and tigers, and biodiversity not found anywhere else,” said D’Souza. “Also it was not needed because there were not many passengers on that line.”

The government commissioned an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the project. However, it was carried out by an academic who also sits on the government NBW, which later approved the railway project in December 2019. “You can see how this is a complete conflict of interest,” said Alvares.

“The doubling of the railway will be a disaster, there is no doubt about it,” added D’Souza. “The whole sanctuary is very steep and you will have to slice deep into the land and a huge amount of tree cutting will be required. The famous Dudhsagar waterfall is next to the tracks and it is bound to get damaged in the works. They should leave it as it is; that will save the sanctuary, that will save the wildlife, biodiversity, everything.”

The other two projects to affect Mollem – the expansion of the road into a four-lane highway, and the initial stages of a new electric power line – were approved in April by the NBW.

Central government’s green-lighting of the projects sparked outrage in Goa, with many unaware they were even in the pipeline due to what Nandini Velho, a Goa wildlife biologist, described as “a complete information deficit and lack of transparency”.

Lawyer Sreeja Chakraborty has taken up a legal challenge against the highway project for what she called “clear discrepancies in the application”. She highlighted that the EIA done for the highway specified only one species of bird had been found in Mollem. “One bird, in the entire 200 sq km of a wildlife sanctuary, when anyone who walks through Mollem will see multiple species including the national bird of Goa, the yellow throated bulbul. This is just absurd and disgusting. But if you don’t record what is there, then nobody will know what is lost,” she said.

“They cannot defend expanding the road on the basis of traffic data, it does not stand up,” said Chakraborty. “It’s part of a multifold attack on Goa to aid expansion of the port for coal and every step along the way we have found that due procedure was not followed.”

The state and central government are justifying the new power line, which will see six pylons 22 metres high erected through Mollem, as necessary to bring electricity to remote areas of Goa and say it requires less than 0.25 hectares of land. The project has already begun and under the cover of lockdown in April, 20,000 trees on the edge of the sanctuary were cut down to make way for the power substation.

Activists say the power line will conveniently serve the interests of coal imports, providing more power to the port and enabling the train engines to be switched to electric, so they can run more quickly, frequently and efficiently for future coal freight. “There is nothing in any documents which connect the transmission line to the railway, but the situation on the ground is very clear,” alleged Chakraborty.

Subhash Chandra, the state government’s principal chief conservator of forests, said the new elevated road would halve the amount of time it took to drive through the sanctuary. “We are taking all the necessary measures so there will be hardly any conflict with the wildlife and to ensure minimal damage to the forests,” he said, emphasising that a series of animal crossings, underpasses and gates would be installed around the road and rail to prevent collisions. Environmentalists were scathing of this however. “This is a forest not a circus,” said Alvares. “Wild animals are not going to follow signs to safely cross a road.”

Defending all three projects, Chandra said: “This is to meet human, commercial and business needs. India is a developing country and our role at the forest department is to balance conservation with development needs. The environment is not a static thing, nature has an incredible power to adapt and bounce back, and the status quo cannot continue for ever, Goa needs to progress.”

Goa’s BJP chief minister, Pramod Sawant, has repeatedly denied any of these projects are to boost coal transportation capacity, describing them as a “nation-building exercise” with “no threat to Mollem”. In November, he promised that coal imports to Mormugao Port Trust would be reduced by 50% and said he had sought assurances from the centre that Goa would not become a coal hub. The Adani Group has denied any role in the projects affecting Mollem.

Meanwhile, the protests and Save Mollem campaigns continue unabated in Goa’s villages and cities, inspiring a new generation of young Goans who have been confronting politicians and government officials for answers.

John Countinho, an environmentalist who was recently booked by police for his involvement in the protests, said he feared that if the projects go ahead, it would “secure Goa as a coal corridor for years – it makes it unlikely they will shift from coal towards renewables, as they would want returns on their investment in coal infrastructure.”

Kohli, the artist and activist, said the future of Goa’s ecology “hung by a thread”. “Goa had a beautiful ecologically diverse coast and because of greed and a lack of vision, we lost so much of our diversity,” he said. “We cannot let the same happen to Mollem.”