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Hot coals, red eyes

Nandana James | Updated on December 17, 2020

Not done or dusted: Goa’s uneasy relationship with coal dust and its telling effects on health have spurred many citizens to join the ongoing protests   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SAVE MOLLEM CAMPAIGN

For the past nine months, the people of Goa have been dealing with more than just the pandemic. The announcement of three infrastructure projects has doubled their fears of pollution caused by coal handling, apart from putting a question mark on the future of a biodiversity hotspot. From taking the knee to running social media campaigns, the average Goan is determined to do what it takes to keep the coal dust from settling in their lungs and homes. A report

* The state government has cleared three infrastructure projects cutting through protected areas in the Western Ghats of Goa. These projects — the double tracking of railway lines, widening of the NH4A highway and the laying of a 400-KV power transmission line — are slated to pass through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mollem National Park

* Many Goans see these projects as ways to increase the 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 up 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, up from the current 12 mtpa

* What also galvanised people is the fact that the projects would result in the felling of more than 59,000 trees around the sanctuary and the national park (home to Goa’s state tree, bird and animal — asan, flame-throated bulbul and gaur respectively), whilst also diverting 170 hectares of land in the protected area

* This campaign grabbed national attention when, on November 1, more than 5,000 Goans gathered by the railway tracks at Chandor to observe a peaceful protest from 10 in the night to 5 in the morning

* To aggravate matters, police filed FIRs — on charges of unlawful assembly and wrongful restraint — against six participants of the Chandor protest

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Ella Mascarenhas was anguished seeing her 13-year-old son gasp for breath. He would just dissolve into paroxysms of coughs. Soon, the teenager grew afraid of stepping out. At the church, the priest would fix him with a hawkish stare if he had his coughing fits. She knew that the spillage from the trains ferrying coal on the railway tracks right next to her house in Arossim, Goa, was responsible for her son’s poor health.

Four years later, the mother still shudders when she is reminded of her son’s condition. Her words echo the fears of many Goans who attribute their respiratory troubles to the coal handling and transportation in the state.

“I felt so sorry seeing my child in such a state,” Mascarenhas says. When visits to doctors and the use of nebulisers failed to help, she decided to leave her ancestral home in the village for an apartment in the city side of Goa, away from the coal-induced pollution in Arossim. Within a month, he recovered, she recalls. “I could afford to move elsewhere to protect my son. What about those who cannot?” the 52-year-old environmental activist says.

With the state government clearing three infrastructure projects cutting through protected areas in the Western Ghats of Goa in April, Mascarenhas seems to be reliving the nightmare — as a Goan who doesn’t want a repeat of what her family has suffered. These projects — the double tracking of railway lines, widening of the NH4A highway and the laying of a 400-KV power transmission line — are slated to pass through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mollem National Park. Apart from the severe damage to the environment, Goans worry that the projects will aggravate the coal transportation issues beleaguering the state.

Goans see these projects as ways to increase the 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 up 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, up from the current 12 mtpa.

However, Nilesh Cabral, Goa’s environment and power minister, tells BLink 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. He adds that the new transmission line will meet power requirements of Goa. Cabral debunks any connection between the three infrastructure projects and coal transportation in the state.

He is also clear that the three infrastructure projects will not be scrapped, much to the chagrin of Goans who have been protesting for more than nine months to get the same revoked.

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It all started on April 7, when the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) granted permission for the diversion of protected forest land for three infrastructure projects during a standing committee meeting via video conferencing of the National Board for Wildlife.

What also galvanised people is the fact the projects will result in the felling of more than 59,000 trees around the sanctuary and the national park (home to Goa’s state tree, bird and animal — asan, flame-throated bulbul and gaur respectively), whilst also diverting 170 hectares of land in the protected area. Besides, the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mollem National Park together constitute the largest protected area in Goa, with the forest being a part of the Western Ghats, one of the eight biodiversity hotspots of the world.

In a letter dated July 18, 2020, addressed to the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), over 50 scientists, academicians, conservationists and other experts put on record 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 states.

Among those who wrote the letter are 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.

The letter urges the CEC to “strongly reconsider these approvals in the interest of democracy to safeguard Goa’s biodiversity and ecological security”. These forests that have existed for thousands of years are irreplaceable, the letter notes. “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 further states. The letter also highlights the fact that video-conferencing such decisions “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”.

Over the past few months, Goans from different walks of life and age groups have made painstaking efforts to salvage the small village of Mollem, nestled at the foothills of the Sahyadri mountain range and the primary entry point for the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, from the dire ramifications of these infrastructure projects.

Goans to the fore: What started off mostly as an online campaign — due to the constraints in light of the Covid-19 pandemic — has gravitated towards peaceful gatherings at different locations   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SAVE MOLLEM CAMPAIGN

 

What started off mostly as an online campaign — due to the constraints in light of the Covid-19 pandemic — has gravitated towards peaceful gatherings at different locations in Goa. A few NGOs have also sprung up in order to fight for Mollem. Mascarenhas is the co-convenor of one such NGO.

United we dance: Protesters in traditional attire dance to Goan folk songs at the all-night protest at Chandor on November 1   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SAVE MOLLEM CAMPAIGN

 

This campaign grabbed national attention when, on November 1, more than 5,000 Goans gathered by the railway tracks at Chandor to observe a peaceful protest from 10 in the night to 5 in the morning. The night reverberated with songs and slogans. Many protesters also took to dancing and lighting candles by the railway tracks.

“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 says over a phone call.

Track record: Candelight vigil at the Chandor railway tracks on November 1   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SAVE MOLLEM CAMPAIGN

 

While the Chandor protest has brought people together, many continue to question the decision to hold such gatherings in the midst of a pandemic. “It’s the government that’s making people do this,” Karleen De Mello, a 25-year-old lawyer, says. “People have been forced to risk their health and the health of their loved ones to voice their opposition.”

Like many young Goans spearheading the Amche Mollem (Save Mollem) campaign, Fernandes came to know about the projects and the ramifications via social media. She was aghast upon seeing photos of over 2,000 trees felled to make way for a substation required for the transmission laying project. “I couldn’t believe it was the same place that I’ve been going to for so many years. It showed so many trees, stacked up in piles on a barren patch of land. And the surrounding area is so dense and green. The contrast was unbelievable. It blows your mind, just taking in all that destruction,” she recalls.

While the photos robbed Fernandes of her sleep, it also dawned on her that she won’t be at rest until she did something about it. She reached out to people working on the campaign online, and spoke to scientists who helped her deconstruct the jargon and understand the dire impact of the projects. She also mobilised the youth, spreading awareness and getting them involved in the cause. Together, they brainstormed many initiatives in order to get the attention of the government. One of them was ‘A knee for Mollem’ during which they encouraged the children of Goa to take a knee, in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the village.

Fernandes and the others involved in the campaign started tagging journalists on Twitter, sending them information on the projects. “Speaking for myself, I spammed a lot of people,” she says with a chuckle. “When it’s time for a vacation, everyone thinks about Goa, but when something like this is happening, why aren’t they paying attention to us?” she asks.

Despite living in Taleigao, which is two hours away from Chandor, 21-year-old student Mithila Prabhudesai decided to attend the protest because she felt it was the last option to get the government to listen. “Goa’s identity is its greenery and for somebody to take it away in one snap is unimaginable. In school, in my seventh grade EVS (environmental studies), I learnt that such projects are not allowed in protected areas,” she says.

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The protests, however, have elicited little or no response from the authorities in charge of the controversial projects.

Besides the letter written by Velho and group, several others (by scientists, tourism stakeholders, architects, students, small business owners and politicians), too, have gone unanswered.

In a separate 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 further stated that the cumulative 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 drew attention to 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.

In an interview with BLink, the Delhi-based conservationist says that her letter, along with those written by thousands of others, has elicited no response from the government. “Democracy, to me, is not just about the electoral process; it’s the fact that decisions that impact the population should consider the voice of the people. And this is not a shrill campaign; it’s based on knowledge. It’s pointing out the flaws in the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) which are glaring, and the ecological, public health and economic consequences. That is why you are seeing an uprising of the population,” Bindra says.

Many, in fact, have flagged the issue of due process being disregarded while clearing the projects in question. Goa Bird Conservation Network’s Parag Rangnekar, a member of the Goa State Wildlife Board (which had a meeting on December 2, 2019, regarding these projects), was one of the six people on the board who objected to the manner in which the projects got a nod. He alleges that the minutes of the meeting were not shared with the members, contrary to the standard practice of giving them seven days to study the same and respond.

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While admitting the impact of the projects on the environment, power and environment minister Cabral insists that the government has plans in place to minimise the extent of damage. Three trees will be planted for every free felled during the projects, Cabral says. Underpasses and overpasses will ensure safe passage to animals, he adds.

“They [scientists and people who are protesting] are showing as if the entire sanctuary is going to be destroyed. Trees are going to be cut, but we have to find practical solutions to the problem, right?” he argues.

However, experts say that such measures will do little to offset the kind of destruction caused by these projects.

“When you destroy and cut through such unique ecosystems which have taken thousands of years to evolve, you can’t believe that you will plant a tree and everything will be hunky dory. It’s not just a matter of ‘x’ number of trees being cut and it being replaced with 3x. You can’t replace biodiversity,” Bindra says. “And when you can’t even tell people how to cross the road, how do you tell animals to take the underpass?” she adds.

The project area, according to the aforementioned letter of protest sent by experts, is home to tigers, mouse deer, dholes, gaurs, Indian pangolins, small-clawed otters and four-horned antelopes.

To aggravate matters, police filed FIRs — on charges of unlawful assembly and wrongful restraint — against six participants of the Chandor protest. On November 27, people gathered at the Margao police station, demanding that these FIRs be quashed, whilst also questioning the rationale behind targeting just six among 5,000-plus attendees.

“We have the right to assemble peacefully and without arms as well as freedom of speech and expression. The government knows that these offences will not hold up in a court of law, and the only reasonable objective they must be trying to achieve is intimidating the public. And it’s already backfiring. You can see people coming out in numbers and saying that they aren’t just going to fight for their lands, but they are fighting for our democracy as well,” lawyer De Mello says.

Anger at the government for still going ahead with the projects is palpable. On November 20, over 100 people gathered outside the State Bank of India (SBI) office in Margao, asking them to drop a proposal to fund the Adani Group’s coal mining project in Australia. This protest — led by Goyant Kolso Naka or GKN (‘we don’t want coal in Goa’), an NGO that was founded in July — was prior to the India vs Australia cricket match in Sydney in the last week of November, wherein two spectators entered the grounds holding placards against the SBI loans to the said industrial group.

Apart from the Adani Group, two other names are being mentioned in every coal-related protest in Goa: JSW Group and Vedanta. According to GKN co-convenor Abhijit Prabhudesai, “These three corporates have taken most of the berths at MPT on lease for the coal imports and handling.”

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Goa’s campaign against the controversial projects has moved beyond raising slogans and placards. The impact of the projects on coal transportation is a topic that features prominently in BLink’s interactions with the average Goan.

Prabhudesai claims that the Centre’s SagarMala project seeks to cater to the coal demand of steel and power plants in Karnataka and Maharashtra. “The three infrastructure projects are ways to facilitate Goa to become a transportation hub for coal,” he explains. The government’s claims of not wanting to increase coal transportation are false, he says. “If they build these infrastructure projects, then they want to increase coal handling in Goa. There’s no other objective behind these projects,” he asserts.

The coal that currently passes through Goa, Prabhudesai explains, is mostly coking coal and partly thermal coal, which come from Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil and Australia. The expansion will be supplied from Adani’s Carmichael mine in Australia. At present, 12 to 15 mtpa coal is being handled at MPT and transported through Goa by SWPL (Jindal’s South West Port Ltd) and Adani. This is used primarily to process high-grade steel from Bellary-Hospet district (where Jindals own a steel plant) and for small steel plants in Goa and other parts of Karnataka.

Coal from other countries will be transported through Goa to Karnataka and Maharashtra, where it will be used in the plants, Prabhudesai says. “And then they’re going to export the steel we produce to the West. So the question that is repeatedly asked in our gatherings is ‘how is this different from what the East India Company did under British rule’?” Prabhudesai, one of the six protesters named in the police FIR post Chandor, asks.

Another GKN convenor Anthony D’silva is unwilling to give the government more time to pay heed of the public outpouring of rage in Goa. “Enough is enough, now we need a written assurance that the work on the projects will stop,” he says. He goes on to say that the ongoing movement is fully a people’s movement. “We won’t allow any politicians to take decisions.”

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Black mark: Like the residents of Vasco, people in many other places in Goa have grown accustomed to living with coal dust   -  JAYESH SHETGAOKAR

 

Meanwhile, the people of Vasco, where the MPT is located, are dealing with health issues. In fact, the concerns regarding coal transportation have led to the birth of sayings such as residents having only two real hobbies: Wiping their house clean of coal dust, and calling on the doctor for respiratory trouble.

Sherwyn Correia, a 20-year-old environmental activist from Vasco, attests to this. “As a child, I was a victim of the coal pollution that emanates from the MPT port, which has been handling coal for many years,” he says. “And now my brother, who is nine, has breathing problems,” he adds.

It’s impossible to escape the black coal dust in Vasco, Correia says: “If we keep our windows open, by evening, there is coal dust everywhere. This is how it has always been.”

In July 2019, in answer to a question raised by an MLA in legislative Assembly, the government said that 4,515 people from Mormugao and Vasco have been treated for asthma, COPD, tuberculosis and other respiratory disorders in the last five years. This is just the number of people from the Goa Medical College & Hospital and from the Directorate of Health Services. The tally would have been much higher had all hospitals in the area been considered. Correia adds that a Vasco resident is more likely to consult family physicians than visit a government facility. He also points out that the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in Goa are also from Vasco, which could be due to respiratory troubles from exposure to coal.

Activism has been a pivotal part of life for Correia, and even though he says it has never borne fruit, he is determined to fight to the end to safeguard Goa and its people. “Every government denies that they’re expanding the handling of coal. When it comes to the coal handling, all politicians are the same, irrespective of the party they belong to,” he says before adding that the three infrastructure projects are rooted in SagarMala.

In two public hearings held in 2017 and 2018, informs Correia, hundreds of Goans pressed the urgent need to reduce coal handling upon representatives of the government. Prabhudesai adds: “The 2017 public hearing held for four MPT projects went on for eight days. In preparation for these hearings, we (the people of Goa, under the banner of Goa Against Coal) studied the SagarMala programme, the 2016 National Waterways Act and a host of other documents to find out about the coal plans.” He says that the agitations since 2016 have compelled MPT to remain at 12 mtpa capacity, rather than the intended 25 mtpa.

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Meanwhile, the government and the corporates insist that coal handling has little or no role to play in the three projects that the people are up against.

Cabral insists that the state is determined that “there should be no increase in coal coming through Goa”. He adds that the government has written to the Centre how an increase in coal transportation as part of the SagarMala project is unsuitable for Goa. The government is also seeking a written assurance from the shipping ministry on the issue by the end of December 2020.

Cabral is also quick to point out that the BJP government in Goa has the best interests of the people in mind even while being committed to “development”. “People will say a lot of things, but the government has to see what is required for the people,” he says. “Four thousand people (referring to the Chandor protest) out of a 16-lakh population does not mean they are the only people. There are others who are supporting us,” the minister adds while claiming that the protests have the support of other political parties.

Interestingly, in 2013, the same BJP government in the state, then led by Manohar Parrikar, had rejected a plan for double tracking, calling it an “MPT fraud”. Parrikar had said that the proposal was mooted at the behest of a few industries, which wanted to transport coal from MPT.

What has changed in seven years? Cabral claims that the former chief minister was referring to a “different proposition at that time”. “Today, we, too, do not want coal. Parrikar also did not want coal,” he adds. “In fact, we want the coal handling to reduce.”

But what about the contention that these projects are only to serve the vested interests of the corporates?

“See, I am not for JSW or Adani, I am for the nation. I believe that the nation has to grow. We cannot be a developing nation continuously... And if this development has to come, there will be sacrifices, there will be things in the environment — some sort of destruction — but yes, we should sit together and find solutions,” Cabral asserts.

But won’t this amount to unsustainable development? “What is unsustainable about bringing a power line to the state? This is not for some individual. This is for the state... if the nation has to progress, then Goa also has to progress,” he replies.

BLink reached out to Adani, JSW and Vedanta for their response on the three infrastructure projects , their role in increasing coal transportation in the state through these projects, and the SagarMala plan.

While JSW declined to comment, an Adani Group spokesperson says the group does not have any requirement for coal: “Fact is that as an operator, it’s not been able to handle the consented quantity of coal by Goa State Pollution Control Board. It provides port handling services to customers only and doesn’t import/own or use any of this coal. In addition, the said infrastructure projects has no relevance, as there are no plans of further expansion of operations. Adani Mormugao Port Terminal Private Ltd. (AMPTPL) doesn’t procure coal for any of its projects in Karnataka or elsewhere in Goa. It simply provides handling facilities to the customers who further use the coal for their own consumption in steel plants and others.”

“Interestingly, it has served many local Goan industries also who are handling their coal from ports terminal. The berth is a terminal handling operator on DBFOT (Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Transfer) basis and acting in Goa as a service provider only,” he adds.

A spokesperson at Vedanta Sesa Goa Iron-Ore says that the company is neither engaged or has any business interest in “coal handling/ transportation from Goa port to Karnataka”: “Vedanta Sesa Goa Iron-Ore business operations in the state of Goa comprise of Iron-Ore Goa which is involved in exploration, mining, beneficiation of iron-ore and Value Added Business (VAB) comprising of Pig Iron Division (PID), Metallurgical Coke Division (MCD) and waste heat recovery Power Plant Operations.”

“Currently iron-ore mining operations are shut and only the Value Added Business, which is located in Amona in Goa, is operational which requires metallurgical coal as an input. However, Vedanta does not use MPT port as a transit point to meet its metallurgical coal needs, and the same is transhipped on sea itself — from the ship on to our barges and then further transported through the river route to our captive jetty at Amona,” the spokesperson adds.

While the government and companies claim otherwise, for Vasco residents like Correia, coal remains an indelible and incorrigible presence in their lives.

When asked if he could share photos of the black coal dust accumulating in his house, he says, almost innocently, “We just washed the house today. Can I send it tomorrow?”

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Published on December 17, 2020
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