It seems to be a national record of sorts. A series of environmental clearance-related public hearings held in Goa last week on whether the administration should permit the construction of facilities to allow large amounts of coal to be imported and transported through the coastal state, took eight days to complete after being extended by an unprecedented five days. The hearings are probably the longest in the history of environmental clearances in India.

Hundreds of Goans turned up for the hearings, which started on April 26, to voice their objections to a proposal by the government-run Mormugao Port Trust, located in Vasco da Gama, in South Goa, to import and transport 26 million tonnes of coal each year to feed steel factories in Karnataka. This is more than double the current transport of coal. (See Scroll.in’s two-part series on this proposal here and here.)

Those who spoke up against the project included environment activists, engineers, lawyers, canoe fishermen, trawler fishermen, students, grandmothers, Roman Catholic priests, politicians from the Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, Aam Aadmi Party, fringe local parties, and even an MLA from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

There was no deposition in favour of the project, indicating that the Union government faces formidable resistance to its plans.

Environmental pollution

Coal has been a sticking point with Goans for years. Fine coal dust emanating from coal stacks at the Mormugao port, and from trucks and rail wagons transporting coal have caused air pollution in Goa since the 2000s. Coal is handled at the Mormugao Port Trust by JSW and Adani Ports. In 2012, the High Court shut down two coal berths on a public interest petition. In 2016, the state pollution control board even ordered JSW and Adani to cut down operations by 25%.

It is no wonder then that when the public hearings were held, hundreds turned up. While the hearings were scheduled from April 26-April 28 – one day each for three proposed projects – they only concluded on May 5. In all, the hearings took 82 hours to complete. On most days, the hearings began at 10.30 am lasted till 10 pm. The first day, which saw a turnout of over 1,500 persons, concluded at 1 am.

The three projects, which have applied to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for environmental clearances, include a proposal by the Sajjan Jindal-led JSW Group to double its coal operations at the port, a new coal terminal proposed by Vedanta Resources, and a project to deepen the port’s harbour to allow the world’s largest coal carrying ships to dock there.

At the hearings, which began to resemble a courtroom rather than a consultation, speaker after speaker quizzed port authorities about the project details, pointing out, and often making the officials reveal, legal and technical flaws in their proposal.

Port officials grilled

Avinash Tavares, a South Goa-based Right To Information activist and Congress spokesperson got officials to confess that their wind speed and directions analysis was based on measurement from just one monitoring station for one month – a crucial mistake when air pollution depends on which way the coal dust blows.

Rupesh Shinkre, another activist, and spokesperson of the Aam Aadmi Party, got a Mormugao Port Trust executive engineer to confess that one of the projects was dependent on another – which is a violation of clearance norms.

(Photo credit: Goa Against Coal/Facebook)
(Photo credit: Goa Against Coal/Facebook)

The environment impact studies, all of which were conducted by government-run consultancy Wapcos Ltd, were also criticised. Many pointed out that its disaster management studies “were a disaster”. While the study said that coal stacks frequently catch fire, it did not mention that the coal terminals at Mormugao Port Trust, which are located adjacent to each other, are barely 200 metres away from tanks storing ammonia, an inflammable chemical.

While Wapcos officials had no response to this, the South Goa additional collector Johnson Fernandes, who was conducting the hearings and also chairs the district’s disaster management authority, remarked that he “felt enlightened” by the presentation and will order mock evacuation drills in the port.

Puja Mitra, marine biologist and former Goa regional manager for WWF India, said that the port’s operations would affect humpback dolphins and coral reefs found nearby. A Vasco resident, Cyril Fernandes, pointed out that the environment impact studies took no account of a biodiversity protection zone at Chicalim Bay just a few kilometres away.

The technical submissions were supplemented by numerous small-scale fishermen, many aged, who turned up from nearby fishing villages to accuse the Mormugao Port Trust of having ignored them all along. “When I go fishing in the morning, my stomach is empty, but yours is full,” one of them charged.

BJP MLA against project

On the night of the third day of the hearing, as the pressure built up on the port trust, its chairman I Jeyakumar issued a press statement that he was “surprised” at how people from “outside of Vasco town” were opposing the project. Stating that Mormugao Port Trust was the “economic edifice of the entire state of Goa”, Jeyakumar said that people should be “prudent enough to weigh the options fairly” in favour of economic growth and not just ask for shutdown of coal handling. This drew sharp reactions from Goans, who demanded an apology.

A few days later, Carlos Almeida, the BJP’s second-term MLA from Vasco, turned up at the hearing and demanded that all coal operations be closed. He said: “I would like to ask the PCB [Pollution Control Board], if readings [of air pollution] are high then why did you not withdraw their [permit] to operate? Even the state Assembly was informed that pollution levels are high. If our pollution levels are high, then why are we getting more coal now?”

The hearings also drew many noteworthy depositions, such as from Sherwyn Correia, a high school student whose demand for intergenerational equity made headlines in local dailies, and by Gabriel Coutinho, the priest of Vasco’s St Andrews Church, who said that the church is covered in coal dust and has to be regularly washed.

(Photo credit: Nihar Gokhale).
(Photo credit: Nihar Gokhale).

Given the public sentiment against the proposed projects, it is not surprising that Nitin Gadkari, as shipping minister, had taken a decision in 2015 to waive one of the three public hearings. This decision was later overturned by both the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court, which led to the hearings being organised.

The public responses will now be studied by the Union environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee for infrastructure projects. It can either order a fresh study or recommend environment clearance with specific conditions. The environment minister holds the final authority and can overrule the committee’s recommendations.