Union Minister for Road Transport, Highways and Shipping Nitin Gadkari’s statement on Saturday that a “microscopic minority” opposed to development was hindering port and infrastructure expansion in Goa has drawn sharp criticism in the state. On Monday, Goa Against Coal – a coalition of citizen, fishermen and environmental groups – reiterated that projects to enhance port, highway, river and rail connectivity were being “bulldozed” in the state, and that their real objective was to create coal corridors and make Goa a coal hub.

Addressing a meeting of the Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Gadkari had said the Centre was serious about developing Goa and had sanctioned Rs 600 crores for highway expansion and Rs 40 crores for the dredging (removing silt from the riverbed to widen river channels) of the Mandovi and Zuari rivers. However, he had added, if Goa did not want the development projects, he would not hesitate to take them elsewhere, to Maharashtra and Karnataka. Apart from the road infrastructure and river-dredging projects, the minister also referred to a project to nationalise six rivers in Goa.

Critics allege that the dredging and nationalisation of rivers will create massive national waterways for greater movement of coal in the state, which would be an ecological disaster. They say the infrastructure expansion will displace citizens, heighten pollution from coal dust and adversely impact tourism while the river dredging project will deprive fishermen of their livelihoods.

‘It’s all about coal’

At a press conference on Monday, Abhijeet Prabhudessai of Goa Against Coal said all the infrastructure being created was only to increase the handling and transportation of coal at Mormugao Port Trust from the current level of 12 million tonnes to 51 million tonnes.

“The government is fooling us by trying to break up the projects into several small bits, while holding public hearings,” Prabhudessai said. “But if you examine them, they are a whole of several projects that are meant to ease the movement of coal through Goa to feed the steel mills. These include widening Goa’s highways and roads, double-tracking rail lines, dredging and deepening the channels of rivers, nationalising rivers to enable them to be commercially used as waterways, putting up jetties and ports.”

Custodio D’Souza, convenor of Goa Against Coal and president of the Old Cross Fishing Canoe Owners Cooperative Society, agreed: “The people of Goa are aware that the state and Central governments have concealed this destructive master plan from the people. We know that works for coal infrastructure are being carried out as numerous small unrelated projects, thus concealing even the existence of the coal expansion plan.”

Sajid Shaikh, a member of the Baina Ramponkar Ekvott fishing group, said rivers were already being dredged illegally while fishermen in the vicinity of the Mormugao Port Trust were being served eviction notices under the Coastal Regulation Zoning legislation to make way for the coal expansion works. “It is of no benefit to the people,” said Shaikh. “Only some corporates will gain.”

Both the Old Cross Fishing Canoe Owners Cooperative Society and the Baina Ramponkar Ekvott have challenged the dredging work in the Vasco bay area in the National Green Tribunal.

‘We are not laughing’

In April, hundreds of Goans attended a series of public hearings on whether the administration should permit the construction of infrastructure that would facilitate the transport of coal in large amounts through the state. Fishermen, activists and citizens deliberated on the various projects.

Goans have always been fierce protectors of their environment with people’s movements in the past having managed to stall the creation of special economic zones and shut down polluting plants and projects.

“If we are a microscopic minority, then why was there not a single voice that came to speak in support of the projects at the public hearings in April,” asked Prabhudessai.

Sanjay Redkar, a resident of Vasco da Gama city, told Scroll.in that Gadkari’s statement was highly irresponsible. But he also blamed state politicians for the mess. “Goans have been reduced to a microscopic minority, that is why people have the guts to make a statement like that,” he said. “Even our Goan politicians who are supporting this are irresponsible.”

For instance, the regional Goa Forward Party once vehemently opposed the nationalisation of Goa’s rivers and the proposed river-dredging project. But it is now a partner in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government and tiptoes around the issue, critics said.

Goans have also not taken kindly to Gadkari’s assurance that the nationalisation of rivers does not mean they would be taken to Delhi – a statement that drew laughter at Saturday’s meeting at the Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “We are not laughing,” wrote Bevinda Colaco, editor of the web journal Target Goa. “We are not expecting you to take our rivers and deposit them in Delhi. We are expecting you to ruin our rivers beyond repair… Future generations of Goa will wonder why we allowed this to happen.”