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Balancing development and environment

Infrastructural development under the Central government’s Bharatmala and Sagarmala projects are rapidly taking their toll on Goa’s green areas

Balancing development and environment

Goa's much-highlighted opencast iron ore mining has resulted in significant destruction of the tree cover in the iron ore belts, where all vegetation is shaved off to scoop out topsoil from hills and access the ore. The destruction, left in its wake, is well documented.

A report by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in 1997 estimated that 2,500 hectares of forests were lost due to mining between 1988 and 1997. The India State of Forest Report 2017, said: "forest cover within the recorded forest area has decreased by nine square km (900 ha) due to mining and other developmental activities" within two years from its 2015 assessment.

"Mining companies wanted to mine even the Western Ghat foothills. I refused permission. Seven of Goa's rivers originate in the Ghats. Where will the water come from if you mine the hills," former Goa principal chief conservator of forests Richard D'Souza told Mongabay-India. D'Souza, along with the late Governor of Goa, Lt. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob, notified two additional Western Ghat wildlife sanctuaries, Mhadei and Netravali, during a brief spell of President's rule in 1999.

"That has saved Goa's soil and water," D'Souza claimed. Local legislators and the Goa government attempted to undo the notification but never succeeded. Thanks to that move, the state now has one national park and six wildlife sanctuaries, covering over 755 square km (20.4 per cent of its geographical area). Together with Dodamarg in Maharashtra and Anshi in Karnataka, they create a contiguous protected green corridor along the entire eastern section of Goa.

The process of carving out a core tiger reserve from four Goa sanctuaries is currently underway. This is expected to be further bad news for iron ore miners. A tiger reserve will increase the ecologically sensitive buffer zone to 10 kilometres from the reserve edge and put a question mark over 18 more leases. For similar reasons, mining lobbies stalled notification of an ESZ for years. A one-kilometre eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) was finally notified in 2015. Seventeen mines have to be phased out over a 10-year period due to this.

Goa's export-based iron ore mining has been temporarily contained largely due to the projected requirements of the domestic steel industry, and the backing of the central government and administration towards the latter. The leases held by Goa-based exporters stand cancelled since February 2018. The exporters, who have the backing of the Goa government, have thus far been unable to get the Centre to intervene in their favour to restart mining and permit extensions of the current leases.

But while the spotlight has been on Goa's miners, Goa's eastern forests, and statewide green cover in its coastal and middle regions, the state faces new and bigger threats. Infrastructure development under the Central government's Bharatmala and Sagarmala projects are speedily taking their toll on Goa's green areas. Projects such as eight-lane highways, a new airport, coal rail lines, and a resultant real estate and construction boom, has seen large-scale tree-felling.

Road and rail projects are set to divert nearly 218 ha of protected and reserve forests in the Western Ghats, including in national park and wildlife sanctuary areas of the forests. The proposed forest diversion has remained under the media and NGO radar. The detailed project reports for the NH 66, NH 4A, NH 17B and NH 17 six/eight-lane projects are not accessible. Work execution has been split and sub-contracted to several construction engineering firms to ensure simultaneous and speedy completion with the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), and Goa Public Works Department (PWD) overseeing projects.

"Some infrastructure development may be necessary. But when governments are in a tearing hurry, they don't want to wait and search for less damaging alternatives that would save forests and tree cover. These are five-year governments and they want to sign the contracts and tenders in a hurry before their own term ends. That's the problem," said Claude Alvares, director of the environmental action group Goa Foundation.

Infrastructure under the Sagarmala projects to move coal and other products through Goa also connects the upcoming controversial Mopa greenfield airport and links Mormugao harbour to the steel mills of Karnataka for their coal import supply. As part of this infrastructure, the South Western Railway is laying a second track from Madgaon to Kulem and Kulem to Castlerock. It has sought permissions for forest clearance in this thickly-forested protected area, where an existing track was built in colonial times.

In 15 months from April 2017 to June 2018, the Forests Department granted permission to cut 28,910 trees for government projects, including 21,703 trees alone at the Mopa airport site. One of Goa's busiest corporations, the Goa State Infrastructure Development Corporation, plans to cut 250 trees for the beautification of a Freedom Fighters Memorial.

After the recent Kerala flood devastation, environmentalist Madhav Gadgil, author of the 2011 Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) report, argued for caution in the Western Ghats regions of Goa and Maharashtra, warning of flood risks if indiscriminate development continued to disturb natural flows in the region. Forest conservationists point out that, development over the years in the Western Ghats have brought down the area under indigenous evergreen forests canopy. The percentage of evergreen forest canopy indicates the real health of any forest.

"I hope there will be some caution. In Kerala, we have seen that a week of intense rain in fragile environments can undo all the development and investment, and highways that governments have built over two decades," commented Alvares.

(In an arrangement with Mongabay.com. The views expressed are those of Mongabay.com.)

Pamela D’Mello

Pamela D’Mello

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