Goa’s environment faces problems from infrastructure boom

  • Mining is considered the major environmental issue in Goa. In the recent years there are many other issues that have potential for serious environmental consequences.
  • There is an emphasis on road and coastal infrastructure development through the Bharatmala and Sagarmala programmes.
  • There is also a construction boom and pressure on ecologically sensitive zones and private forests.
  • Since Goa shares an environment similar to that of Kerala, environmentalists question whether it is wise to push for unbridled development, considering the havoc that Kerala faced in the recent floods.

Goa’s much-highlighted opencast iron ore mining has resulted in significant destruction of tree cover in the iron ore belts, where all vegetation is shaved off to scoop out top soil 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 2500 hectares of forests were lost due to mining between 1988-1997. The India State of Forest Report 2017, said “forest cover within the recorded forest area has decreased by 9 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, 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 percent 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 ten year period due to this.

Bharatmala and Sagarmala take their toll on Goa’s green areas

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 its favour to restart mining and permit extensions of the current leases.

But while the spotlight has been focused on Goa’s miners, Goa’s eastern forests and state-wide green cover, in its coastal and middle region, face new and bigger threats. Big infrastructure under the central government’s Bharatmala and Sagarmala projects are speedily taking their toll on Goa’s green areas. Centrally-funded big infrastructure projects like eight lane highways, a new airport, coal rail lines and a resultant real estate and construction boom riding on these projects, has seen large scale tree felling.

Clearing of trees for private development in Verna, Goa. Photo by Avinash Tavares.

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 NH66, NH4A, NH17B and NH 17 six/eight laning 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.

The north-south Patradevi to Pollem six/eight laning of the 136 km long NH66 (earlier NH17) is, according to its detailed project report, expected to bifurcate 43 of Goa’s 186 villages; acquire  200 ha of land and affect 527 structures, including 75 religious structures. It passes through 10 km of reserve forests in its ghat sections and the PWD has sought permission to divert 23 ha of protected and reserve forests.

The Goa-Belgavi NH4A runs for 13 km through core sanctuary area, bifurcating the Mollem National Park and the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wild Life sanctuary. The PWD has sought permission to divert 41 ha of protected forests here. In December 2017, the state wildlife board gave its approval to permit the 13 km four lane road through the sanctuary.

Outside the sanctuary area, the NH4A traverses 65 km through reserve forests and its expansion from its current seven metre width to a four-lane highway will divert 32 ha of reserve forests. Around 5.18 ha of forest was diverted and 1001 trees felled for construction of NH 17B to link an industrial estate to the Mormugao Port. Around 655 trees were felled last year for NH 17-A expansion, while bridge constructions on three points on the highway stretches, including the third Mandovi bridge, has shaved a further 2.6 ha of forests, according to information placed in the Goa Assembly.

Why the hurry?

“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.

The Kulem to Vasco stretch will involve the diversion of 17.51 ha of forests, (14.4 ha in protected areas), while initial applications for the thickly forested Kulem to Castlerock section have sought diversion of 98.17 ha of forests. Attempts to redraw the plan, increase tunnels and reduce the forest impact may save some forest areas in a revised plan.

“It’s not possible for any private individual to divert forests on this scale. It is the government which is the large scale destroyer of forests,” Alvares said.

Clearing for an access road to the upcoming Mopa Airport in North Goa. Photo by Avertino Miranda.

In fifteen months from April 2017 to June 2018, the Forests department granted permissions to fell 28,910 trees for government projects, including 21,703 trees at Mopa Airport site. One of Goa’s busiest corporations, the Goa State Infrastructure Development Corporation plans to cut 250 trees for beautification of a Freedom Fighters Memorial.

“The state government is also working in tandem to widen all existing roads, by demolishing houses and axing trees in the hundreds. It is actively pursuing the Bharatmala coastal road, despite opposition everywhere. If government wants to build autobahns, they should steer away from villages and let them exist, instead of displacing and subsuming them” said Siddharth Karapurkar, head of Aam Aadmi Party environmental cell in Goa.          .

Real estate and construction boom

Activists say the fast-tracked road and infrastructure augmentation in rural Goa is to facilitate higher floor area ratio (FAR) in villages and permit high-rises and new constructions, which is seen as a lucrative commercial space for holiday home buyers. There’s no estimate of the tree cover loss due to this commercial activity, but it is visible to visitors as wooded spaces disappear rapidly.

“Every other day we get complaints of this or that hill being shaved off. The hill cutting and tree cutting has political backing and the government departments are forced to either give permissions for tree cutting or it is done without permissions. The official figure is conservative. We estimate that a 100,000 trees have been cut in the recent road expansions all over Goa,” said Avertino Miranda, of the environment NGO Green Brigade.

Green activism groups like this say they are unable to cope. Some have come up with digital solutions such as an app to help alert citizens contact a flying squad. “We are still losing tree cover rapidly. We want to petition the High Court that it set up a monitoring committee to contain the damage”, said Miranda.

Private forests

Where the courts have stepped in, implementation is poor. A Supreme Court order in 1996 had ordered states to identify and protect forests on privately held lands under the Forest Conservation Act. Like other states, successive governments here have delayed identification of private forests. An expert committee had in 1998, initially estimated Goa to have 256 square km of private forests. Four committees in the past twenty years have managed to map 67 square km for protection. The area identified are currently being contested by the private land owners and is being reviewed by a fifth committee set up in 2018.

Commercial and political pressures have seen that the exercise has remained incomplete, activists say. The state government has its own arguments.  “Forests identification criteria needs to be reasonable, implementable and socially acceptable and then only enforcement can be effective”, the state’s advocate general had told the NGT.

Environmental group Green Brigade estimates around 100,000 trees have been cut in the recent road expansions all over Goa. Photo by Avertino Miranda.

The state government had wanted relaxation of the criteria to include areas under “private forests”. It said 38 percent of Goa’s 3702 square km area was under protected/reserve forests, while land blocked for agriculture, coastal regulation zoning laws and presence of water bodies, left less than 20 percent land open for future development purposes.

In August 2018, the state government introduced the concept of transfer of development rights (TDR) for its land use planning. It claimed that the TDR would ensure protection of green areas, by giving land owners a compensation to protect their green areas by transferring their development rights to concentrated built up areas in exchange for cash.

Demarcation of eco-sensitive areas

Similarly the demarcation of eco-sensitive areas (ESA) under the 2014 High Level Working Group report on the Western Ghats led by K. Kasturirangan, has been actively contested by the state government. The Kasturirangan report identified 99 villages in Goa’s Western Ghat area for protection under the ecologically sensitive area category that would prevent red category industries, sand and ore mining, quarrying, new thermal plants and big townships.

Like other Western Ghat states, the Goa government too has made representations to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to curtail the ESA area to 50 and later to 19 villages. Meanwhile the National Green Tribunal passed an order recently to maintain the status quo in all 99 villages, until the MoEFCC could make a final notification in the matter.

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 regions have brought down the area under indigenous original 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.


Banner image: Tree felling in a private property at Sanguem in Goa. Photo by Avinash Tavares.

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