The Story of Mollem So Far

Chinmoyee Deka

Amidst distractions of the pandemic and the lockdown henceforth, the National Board for Wildlife (NBW) under the direction of the Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar, held two controversial meetings via video conferencing where it allowed the approval for 16 proposals that would go on to affect multiple national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. They were stone mining in Kota; railways through a tiger corridor in Telangana; and roadworks in the Gangotri national park in Uttarakhand.

Goa found itself at the receiving end of three projects that endangered its Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, which spills across 240 square kilometres into the Western Ghats. Back in December 2019, the board had accepted a proposal to double the existing railway track through these jungles but the new approvals allowed a four-lane highway expansion and a 400KV electricity transmission line, as well.

“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. The targeted region of 250 hectares of old-growth forests, is home to around 60,000 trees, 70 species of mammals, and 235 species of birds. It also includes Goa’s state tree, bird and animal which are the asan, flame-throated bulbul and gaur respectively. It also helps maintain Goa’s groundwater levels, which means that people would be deprived of water and food crops if these areas are compromised.

According to rules, such development projects are only approved after discussing the outline of the project with the regional environmental committee and an Environmental Impact Assessment of the area is conducted. Detailed information about the project must also be made public through print and electronic media. Then, public hearings are organised where people living in the area present their concerns and their suggestions are either incorporated or not, before allowing an infrastructure project to begin. But all these protocols were ignored as the government took advantage of the pandemic situation.

Even though the State government has reassured the public that these projects are meant for the development of the region, the people of Goa believe otherwise. Goa’s environment and power minister, Nilesh Cabral, said that the double tracking of the railway line is for the convenience of passenger trains and transportation of goods and the national highway expansion is to fulfil transportation requirements while the new transmission line will meet power requirements of Goa. But residents of Gia suspect that these projects are a way to increase coal transportation in the state. They view it in the context of the Centre’s 2016 SagarMala project, the flagship programme of the ministry of shipping, which seeks to increase Goa’s Mormugao Port Trust’s (MPT) capacity to increase coal transportation or handling in the state to 51 million metric tonnes per annum (mtpa) by 2035, from the current 12 mtpa.

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 EIA for the project 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. 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,” added D’Souza.

People are also worried because these projects will threaten the natural beauty that Goa is known for and depends on for its ecotourism. Large particles of coal and coal ash will scatter in the coastal areas and beaches on both sides of the railway line and disperse through the air and water, putting both land and aquatic life at risk. The forests will be fragmented, as a result of which many animals and birds will lose their natural habitat and become endangered. With this habitat destruction more and more wild animals will enter residential areas, increasing the chances of diseases like Corona in future. This will greatly impact the influx of tourists which will affect the livelihood of the people of Goa immensely. The tourism industry is the main source of the Goan economy, and these projects are sure to affect it. If seas get polluted, the sea plants will die as they will be unable to make their food due to lack of sunlight. Due to absence of food, other aquatic animals will either die out or migrate. With the scarcity of fishes, thousands of fishermen will lose their livelihood.

These chain of effects have forced the residents of Goa to oppose the projects. Goa has seen many strong environmental movements; like the rejection of Thapar DuPont’s Nylon 6.6 plant in the 1990s; the cancellation of special economic zones in 2007; and the scrapping of the 2011 regional plan. But what has happened in the case of Mollem was unexpected.

The Movement

In a letter dated July 18, 2020, addressed to the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), over 50 scientists, academicians, conservationists and recorded their “grave concerns about the planned projects”. “If these projects are cleared, they will have severe repercussions on wildlife and the people of Goa,” the letter stated. Nandini Velho, Earth Institute Fellowship Alumna, Columbia University, Prerna Bindra, wildlife conservationist, author and former member of the standing committee, National Board for Wildlife, Girish A Punjabi, Wildlife Conservation Trust, Mumbai, and Omkar Dharwadkar, Foundation for Environment Research and Conservation, Goa are some of those who signed the letter.

The letter requested the CEC to “strongly reconsider these approvals in the interest of democracy to safeguard Goa’s biodiversity and ecological security. Direct loss of biodiversity and the far-reaching impacts of habitat fragmentation will reduce ecosystem stability and decrease forest resilience that is also required to deal with the effects of climate change,” it stated. The letter also pointed out that taking such grave decisions over video conferencing “does not allow site-specific scrutiny to substantiate the facts, examine documents, or register the voices and opinions of stakeholders, in a fully democratic manner”.

In another letter to the CEC dated August 2, Bindra, former member of the National Board of Wildlife’s standing committee, wrote, “Under Section 38(O) (1) (g) of the Wild Life(Protection) Act, 1972 forest diversion cannot be allowed for ecologically unsustainable use, except in public interest with the approval of NBWL on the advice of National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and it appears that these proposals were not referred to the NTCA despite this area being an important tiger habitat and corridor.” She also wrote that the impact of the three projects “have not been considered while granting approvals to these projects, thereby grossly underestimating the detrimental impact of the projects”. She pointed out a “likely conflict-of-interest given that there is an overlap in the agencies involved in the assessment study and those involved in passing the project”. “Those responsible for the decision may perhaps be called upon to explain how these activities would lead to the improvement and better management of the wildlife sanctuary/national park or the wildlife therein, as per provisions of Section 29 and Section 35(6) of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972,” Bindra wrote.

However, both the letters did not manage to elicit any response from the government.

The Millennial Factor

“We, the Youth of Goa, in order to protect our future, request that the clearances given for the three linear infrastructure projects in Mollem National Park and Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary (the widening of the NH-4A highway by the PWD, the double tracking of the railway line by South Western Railways and the laying of a 400kV transmission by Goa Tamnar) should be immediately stopped,” stated the memorandum submitted by the youth of Goa to the principal conservator of forests.

As the pandemic kept most of the older generation preoccupied with worry, a wave of millennials came together to put up a strong campaign to raise awareness about the impacts of the three Mollem projects. With most of them bound in their homes the protest began on online platforms, but the movement grabbed national attention on November 1, when more than 5,000 Goans assembled beside the railway tracks at Chandor to observe a peaceful protest from 10 pm to 5 am in the morning. The protestors sang, danced and lit candles. “I wouldn’t even call it a protest. It didn’t have any aggression,” says 21-year-old Sherry Fernandes, one of the participants. “There were women dressed in the traditional Goan attire, who danced to Goan folk music. People started singing Goan songs — there were songs that were specifically composed for the coal issue in Goa, and against forest destruction. The experience was beautiful,” she said.

This saga of new age environmental activism, and host of innovative strategies spanning the public sphere and social media, has thoroughly shaken the state government, and drawn huge attention.

“A campaign of this nature has been a long time coming,” says 28-year-old Gabriella D’Cruz, one of the members of the core group of the #SaveMollem movement. She told me her decision to study (where she completed her MA in 2018) had been motivated by her experiences in Goa, where “young people have grown up being witness to flawed policy decisions that have destroyed large sections of our precious natural heritage for many years.”

#SaveMollem began its work soon after the monsoons started pounding in June. It included 28-year-old Gabriella D’Cruz, a biodiversity conservation and management at Oxford, the artists Svabhu Kohli and Trisha Dias Sabir, and 34-year-old Dr.Nandini Velho, one of India’s most distinguished young wildlife biologists, who has extensive experience overseeing Pakke Tiger Reserve and Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in the Himalayan foothills of Arunachal Pradesh.

The group used innovative methods by combining art with science. They created viral memes on Twitter and Instagram, and built alliances with several other young people across the world.

They managed to attract attention from a wide range of groups like scientists, medical and nursing students, and artists; all of whom wrote letters to the government on their behalf. Soon the letters reached Javadekar, and the chief minister Pramod Sawant began complaining. “The opposition to these projects is coming from Africa, England and Russia. Those who have not seen Goa and Mollem are now commenting about it from foreign countries,” he said. His power minister Nilesh Cabral railed that the protestors should “first start using solar power”.

None can however state the reason behind their stubborn refusal to consider the movement’s demands, which is the fact that these projects will serve the interests of JSW Steel, Vedanta and the Adani Group. The young activists of Save Mollem are fighting against some of the most powerful and influential of India, which is commendable.

“They have done such an impressive job. It’s remarkable how they brought in so many different fields to underline how important our forests are to everyone. I have been blown away by the art. It inspires and tears you up, but right alongside is the excellent science; the lawyers speaking up about subversion of procedures; the tourism industry pointing out damage to their interests; farmers and fishermen worried about their livelihood; the students and the whole question of intergenerational equity. I am very, very inspired by this campaign. It gives me hope,” says Prerna Singh Bindra, the acclaimed environmental journalist and author, who served on the National Board for Wildlife from 2010-13

Norma Alvares, the Padma Shri award-winning advocate whose Goa Foundation has been the doughtiest fighter for Goa’s environment for over four decades said, “I am pleased beyond words that this movement is being led by young women activists, a splendid group who have fully dedicated themselves to the cause of protecting the forest and wildlife of Goa and have further extended the fight to preventing Goa from being blackened by coal.”

She added, “If the many years that I have given to fighting public causes have persuaded at least some of the next generation of women to stand up; to decide that it is absolutely imperative to give one’s time and effort if we want Goa to remain as beautiful as we know it to be, then that brings me true happiness. Causes will come and go. You may win some and be not so successful with others. But there is no greater sense of achievement for an activist than to know there are others who are ready to take the baton onward. Not just onward, but forward and higher than our generation could have dreamt of.”

“It’s an unprecedented reversal of roles. Usually, it’s the parents who guide their children, but in this case, the cause was first taken up by these youngsters, barely out of college—and they continue to lead the struggle with determination and with verve. No government can afford to ignore, at its own peril, such a powerful protest. Governments have devious ways of breaking up a movement and so our young friends must be ever vigilant and watchful [but] they can’t lose. This planet belongs to them. The future is already here,” she concluded.

Talking about the future, D’Cruz said “Losing the battle would definitely not be a failure of the campaign, but instead just a clear indication that we are up against a very corrupt system. The strength of our team effort is that it is young, and, therefore, has tremendous promise for the future. We know that the fight for Mollem is an indicator of the larger fight we will continue to face, not of a development vs environment paradigm, but the need for good policy triumphing over bad.”

She fondly re-lived her experience as she said, “a moment that gave me goosebumps, when I was protesting along with more than fifty other young people at the steps of the Panjim church. It felt like carnival, with dancing in the streets and cars honking in support. We ended by singing the national anthem. Traffic stopped, people stood still, and all one could hear was our collective voices. I was reminded that we are not anti-nationals, dissenters, rebels or outsiders. We are actually the ones that care deeply for our country, and are willing to put in the work to make sure we safeguard it.”


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