We refuse black coal, save Goa!

Suparna Chatterjee

An insight into the movement that seeks to protect Goa from becoming a coal hub and save the biodiversity of the state.  

The sea, sand and beach shacks along with some parties are what we have in mind when we think of Goa. But beyond that, the West Indian coastal state of Goa fosters rich biodiversity and dynamic cultural and political histories that have shaped the lives and livelihoods of the people and the ecology. All of this is currently under threat from a massive industrial onslaught. 

Goans are protesting against three infrastructure projects that will facilitate the transport of coal through the state. If allowed to proceed, as the protestors deem, Goa will turn into a “coal-hub” for the benefit of private players. 

Coal corridor through Goa? Environmental and socio-economic impacts

“Around 59,000 trees will be cut in Goa alone, and a total of over a lakh will be cut across Goa and Karnataka for the completion of these projects.”

The three infrastructure projects, namely the double-tracking of the South Western Railway line, a four-lane expansion of the NH4A, and the laying of a 400 kV transmission line, will all pass through parts of Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, and lead to a loss of 170 hectares of protected forest land. Around 59,000 trees will be cut in Goa alone, and a total of over a lakh will be cut across Goa and Karnataka for the completion of these projects. The forests in Goa are home to around 721 plant species, 70 mammal species, 235 bird species, 219 butterfly species and many other creatures, some of which are endemic to the area. The projects will result in forest fragmentation, habitat destruction and disturb the ecosystem stability of the area. It will directly impact the life of the communities that reside in these forests, and will have detrimental impacts on the health and livelihoods of a large section of the population from across socio-economic classes. 

These projects are part of the Sagarmala program which the director of the Goa Foundation, Claude Alvares describes as a scheme of turning the state of Goa into a dedicated coal corridor and says: “[..]..not designed by Goans for Goa by the Goa government” but is planned by a set of foreign actors. As part of this program, coal is to be transported from the Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) which is located in Vasco, Goa, and is well connected through the railway and highways, to the neighbouring states of Maharashtra (via roadways) and Karnataka (via railways). It currently has a handling capacity of 12 MTP (million tonnes per annum), which is projected to increase to 51 MTPA for increased coal supply to the thermal plants and the steel industries of the neighbouring states. Coking coal is scarce in India and is imported from countries like Australia and South Africa into Goa via the MPT. Three public-private partnership terminals run by JSW, Vedanta, and Adani Group handle coal at the MPT.  

“A report published in DownToEarth magazine in January 2018 explains how from 2001-02 till the current day the coal and coke carrying capacities of the MPT have tripled, causing disastrous impacts on air quality and life of the locals in the area.”

A report published in DownToEarth magazine in January 2018 explains how from 2001-02 till the current day the coal and coke carrying capacities of the MPT have tripled, causing disastrous impacts on air quality and life of the locals in the area. The three projects were cleared by the National Board of Wildlife governed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in April this year through a video conference, along with 30 other projects, which essentially cut down scope for public engagement in the process of providing these clearances. 

Goans against Coal: protest movements in Goa against the infrastructure projects

The protests against the three projects started soon after they were passed. In the early stages, there were petitions, letters to the Central and State governments from citizens, civil society organizations and Goan youths. In July, the Goa Foundation filed a PIL at the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court on this matter. The protests slowly gained momentum with the involvement of larger sections of people through the use of social media. Several individuals as well as groups like SaveMollem and GoyantKolsoNaka started trending the topic on social media platforms to educate people and gather attention on the environmental issues in the area. 

On the night of November 1, at around 10:30 pm more than 5,000 people gathered near a level crossing at Chandor village in South Goa. These people were opposing the construction of railway tracks being carried out despite the Bombay High Court staying the double-tracking project in the protected area until the next hearing scheduled in December. Amidst the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the people held a peaceful protest till 4 am. 

“Speaking to Bol Magazine, Sherry Fernandes, a youth activist involved with the movement since June says that when all other means failed, the protestors had no choice but to take to the streets: ‘[..]..People tried everything and this is (our) last resort.’” 

Speaking to Bol Magazine, Sherry Fernandes, a youth activist involved with the movement since June says that when all other means failed, the protestors had no choice but to take to the streets: “[..]..People tried everything and this is (our) last resort.” For this activist and many others like her, the beautiful association developed with Mollem over the years, along with the love of its rich biodiversity and communities is what has driven them to be a part of the fight to protect it. She is concerned about biodiversity: “[…]..Slender lorises, Mouse deers, Hornbills and so much of life in the forest”, are all currently under threat. 

The midnight protest included the middle classes of urban and rural Goa, civil society members, activists, indigenous communities and large numbers of the youth. Fernandes describes the protest as “[..].. something so beautiful and peaceful despite the agitation amongst people which had forced them to come out, risking their lives amidst the pandemic.” The immediate response to the protests was an FIR filed by the Goa Police against the six convenors of the two NGOs – Goyant Kolso Naka and Goencho Ekvott, for unlawful activity and wrongful restraint. Fernandes says that the news of an FIR being filed was shocking, mainly because of the extremely peaceful nature of the protests which displayed varied forms of Goan culture, and there was no rioting or damage to property. 

The protest at Chandor was covered by leading online media outlets, and a buzz was created on social media. Following this, several email and signature campaigns were launched in which people from across the country participated. However, large parts of the country that often dream of a vacation in Goa are still silent on the issue.

“This movement is not the first of its kind in Goa. For long several groups have been protesting unsustainable mining in parts of Goa, coal import into the state, and the Sagarmala project since its inception.” 

This movement is not the first of its kind in Goa. For long several groups have been protesting unsustainable mining in parts of Goa, coal import into the state, and the Sagarmala project since its inception. Groups like the National Fishworkers Forum and several fisherwomen groups from the region protested against the Sagarmala project and the autonomy granted to the MPT in 2016. There have been protests in 2017 and 2018 opposing the infrastructure development and increasing coal handling permits at MPT. 

“The government has also promised a capping mechanism on coal imports into the state. Sadly, such statements have not been backed by documented proof, and revisiting government response to similar movements in the past proves that such claims are an immediate measure used by those in power to pacify protestors without actually taking up concrete measures to accede to the demands.”

The response of the government to such movements has not changed over the years. In the current situation, following the mid-night protests and media-outrage over the destruction of the environment, the Minister of Environment & Power in Goa, Nilesh Cabral while speaking to the media said: “Goa will not be a coal hub.” He also suggested afforestation in other parts to counter the effect of the felling of trees. However, there is an absence of a plan regarding such afforestation which has been cited as an ineffective mitigation measure to counter the carbon loss due to the felling of 200-300-year-old trees. The government has also promised a capping mechanism on coal imports into the state. Sadly, such statements have not been backed by documented proof, and revisiting government response to similar movements in the past proves that such claims are an immediate measure used by those in power to pacify protestors without actually taking up concrete measures to accede to the demands. 

What are the stakes? Who benefits? 

Urban environmental movements of this kind are here to stay; the movements to Save Mollem and Save Aarey forests prove this fact. It becomes essential to study the nature of these movements to understand how the dynamics of environmentalism are playing out in India. 

“Environmentalism in developing countries like India has been termed as ‘environmentalism of the poor’, where concerns of material distributive justice force people to protest against environmental destruction in contrast to environmentalism in developed nations where post-materialistic concerns shape environmental justice movements.”

Environmentalism in developing countries like India has been termed as “environmentalism of the poor”, where concerns of material distributive justice force people to protest against environmental destruction in contrast to environmentalism in developed nations where post-materialistic concerns shape environmental justice movements. Another form of environmentalism which is gaining popularity is “bourgeois environmentalism” where the middle-class seek environmental protection through institutional machinery. While environmentalism of the poor emerges out of concerns for immediate loss of livelihood and habitat as a result of environmental degradation, the bourgeois environmental movements are usually shaped by health concerns and loss of beautification due to environmental degradation. Street action against such forms of degradation is usually viewed as a means used by the poor, who do not have access to other forms of protest, while the urban or in rare cases the rural middle class usually resort to court petitions and other institutional means to further their goals. 

However, movements led by the middle class have often been criticised as rooted in a feeling of contradictory consciousness among them who, unaware of their own contribution to the problem seek end goals that try to secure environmental justice for them while negatively affecting the livelihoods of the poor. They sometimes have an elitist undertone and a blatant disregard for the poor. 

“Environmental problems and environment versus development debates must be viewed in the backdrop of politico-economical and ecological interactions at the local, regional and national levels.”

Essentialist arguments by conservationists are sometimes made to gain political support for environmental protection in India, and it is often suggested that challenging the premise of such movements has a probability of weakening the larger political discourse around environmental protection. However, it is equally important to study and critique the premise of such movements regularly to improve and redefine the ways of environmentalism to suit the needs of the marginalized. Environmental problems and environment versus development debates must be viewed in the backdrop of politico-economical and ecological interactions at the local, regional and national levels. The incorporation of interdisciplinary professionals into environmental conservation has started the dialogue for maintaining an effective balance between ecological conservation and seeking social justice and livelihood protection for the marginalised.

The movement in Goa tries to overcome some of the aforementioned barriers by taking into consideration the livelihoods and lives of the marginalised and by targeting the Central government’s backing of a few private corporations in bringing coal into Goa. It is an amalgamation of the two forms of environmentalism- the protestors mainly belong to the urban and rural middle class, with some representation from the economically marginalised groups. They are using petitions and other institutional means as well as mass mobilization to secure environmental and social justice. Concerns of ecological sustainability and life and livelihood protection form the basis of this movement, unlike other middle class movements driven by elite notions of ‘beautification’ or ‘cleanliness’. 

The infrastructure projects in concern will have severe environmental and social consequences and the current movement is backed by scientific claims, giving due recognition to the dynamic cultural and political history of the state.

“‘National integration’ and ‘benefit’ have often been used as terms to pass such infrastructure projects, which serve no purpose to the populace of the region in concern, who also face the detrimental impacts of such projects.“

On the other hand, the government-corporate lobby supporting and pushing for the project is evidently disregarding concern for the environment as well as the livelihoods and habitats of the people. They are either hiding facts and making false claims to pacify the protests, or suggesting unrealistic mitigation measures such as reforestation to counter the claims of irreversible environmental and livelihood damage. “National integration” and “benefit” have often been used as terms to pass such infrastructure projects, which serve no purpose to the populace of the region in concern, who also face the detrimental impacts of such projects.  

“Public opinion at all levels is very much required, and the current draconian ways adopted by the government in prioritizing crony capitalist gains and infrastructure development benefiting a few over the livelihoods of the masses is bound to see more such protests in the near future.”

Public opinion at all levels is very much required, and the current draconian ways adopted by the government in prioritizing crony capitalist gains and infrastructure development benefiting a few over the livelihoods of the masses is bound to see more such protests in the near future. Therefore, it is very important to define the nature of environmentalism and the intellectual and political premise of such movements, to effectively counter such detrimental developmental projects and further the cause of environmental protection along with social justice. 

Suparna is an early-career researcher working with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) in Bangalore. She likes to explore and work on issues concerning the environment, society and gender. 

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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