In Goa, a people’s movement is picking up pace against big-ticket infrastructure projects aimed at facilitating the transport of large volumes of coal through the state.

Over the past few weeks, village councils in 54 of Goa’s 183 villages have passed resolutions opposing the movement of coal through their areas as the government moves ahead with plans to create a road-rail-river coal corridor between Mormugao port and steel factories in north Karnataka. Goans fear that the plan will increase pollution, hurting their health, their land and their livelihoods.

Already, residents around the Mormugao port in the Goan town of Vasco da Gama say they are suffering from the effects of the 12 million tonnes that are imported through the facility each year. The shipments at Mormugao are handled by JSW and Adani Ports, while Vedanta Resources recently proposed the construction of a coal terminal. The coal arrives from Australia and South Africa and is transported to neighbouring Karnakata on barges, trucks and rail wagons, covered in tarpaulin, said Abhijit Prabhudessai, an activist with the Goa Against Coal movement.

But by 2030, the government aims to increase coal imports to 51 million tonnes. It is racing ahead to build infrastructure to support these increased imports by double-tracking rail lines through the Western Ghats, constructing two four-lane national highways, dredging and developing six river stretches as a national waterway for cargo, constructing jetties alongside the rivers, concretising river banks and bunds, dredging a bay in Vasco da Gama, and dredging and deepening the harbour channel and expanding five berths for coal and cargo handling at the Mormugao port.

“The gigantic projects will change the life, environment, culture and occupations of the people of Goa, who are being kept in the dark about these plans and are being served a fait accompli as the infrastructure projects unfold piecemeal,” said Prabhudessai.

He added, “Once it [the infrastructure] is put up, the authorities will simply point to the investments made and say it is too late now.”

Citizens and activists in Goa have for long protested against the increased coal movement and the pollution caused by coal dust. They have now banded together under two movements – Goa Against Coal, and Our River, Our Rights – to stop these projects. “We promise to continue and escalate our efforts until we defeat this attempt by a few corporations to destroy our rivers, lands and environment for transient profits,” the groups said at a press conference on Friday.

They met Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar last week and submitted a memorandum demanding the coal handling facility at the Mormugao port be shut down. The campaign has the support of Opposition parties including the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party.

People fight back

The Federation of Rainbow Warriors, the group Prabhudessai represents, and the National Fishworkers’ Forum, were the first to sense the plans outlined in the government’s 2016 Sagarmala report on developing ports around India and the Master Plan for Mormugao Port. These groups matched the broad plans outlined in these reports with on-ground coal movement and expansion plans that were unfolding piecemeal. In January 2016, they moved the National Green Tribunal against dredging operations at the port. They said this posed the risk of inundating the low-lying homes of fishing communities in the port’s vicinity.

But a month later, the port received environmental clearance for its expansion plans from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. The ministry had in September 2015 also exempted the port from holding public hearings.

The fishermen associations challenged the clearances before the tribunal, which ruled in their favour in September 2016 and ordered that public consultations be held for all the projects. The Supreme Court backed the order.

The public hearings were held over eight days in Vasco city in May and saw scores citizens articulate their opposition to the projects.

The Goa Against Coal and Our River, Our Rights people's movements are fighting against the expansion of coal infrastructure in the state. (Credit: Goa Against Coal / Facebook)

The projects and their impact

In October, the Environment Ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee deferred plans to increase capacity at Marmugoa port, citing air pollution concerns raised by people at the public hearings and noting that these had not been adequately addressed, the Indian Express reported.

But the masterplan also involves double-tracking the 300-km South Western rail corridor coal route from Goa to Hospet in Karnataka. One phase of the project was launched in December 2016.

Several villages along the route have opposed the plan to increase coal traffic and demolish homes to make way for a new track, saying they are already dealing with the harmful effects of coal dust. Sporadic protests have broken out in Guirdolim and Sao Jose de Areal, where villagers confronted rail officials this month.

A third project that has generated animosity not only among citizens and fishing communities but also within the coalition government is the Centre’s listing of six river stretches – the Mandovi, Zuari, Chapora, Mapusa, Sal and Cumbarjua – as national waterways. The Goa Forward Party, a partner in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government, has expressed fear that the move might adversely affect the livelihoods of fishermen.

The Congress has also opposed the move and demanded the removal of the six rivers from the central list. Former party MP Shantaram Naik has even alleged that the state cabinet gave its assent to the project without fully understanding its ramifications. In the face of this resistance, the Goa government is yet to finalise the memorandum of understanding between the state, the Centre and the Inland Waterways Authority of India to develop the waterways.

However, the Mormugao Port Trust signed a memorandum of understanding with the Inland Waterways Authority of India in September 2016 to develop a 182-km stretch of national waterways in Goa. The development work includes dredging, bank protection, the construction of a terminal with cargo handling facilities, off-shore structures and related infrastructure.

The move to nationalise and develop six river stretches, including the Zuari, in Goa has met with resistance from citizens, activists, Opposition parties and even the ruling BJP's coalition partners.

Meanwhile, acquisition of land for each project and the impact of big infrastructure on rural spaces is steadily creating disquiet among the people.

“These rivers are our village commons, and have sustained a 15,000-year-old culture,” Prabhudessai told reporters on Friday. “And our government is so casually signing it away, using it as a means to stock, truck and transport coal. This is a project that will finish Goa as we know it, forever.”

The Aam Aadmi Party’s Rupesh Shinkre added, “This proposed coal handling will destroy many of our sustainable economies, including fisheries, tourism and agriculture, causing the biggest socio-economic collapse seen in Goa.”

Government on the backfoot

Both the Central and state governments have denied the projects will harm people and their livelihoods, but they are clearly worried.

On November 7, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, and River Development Nitin Gadkari said that he was willing to shift coal projects out of Goa if there was opposition.

In September 2016, the Centre had shelved plans for a satellite port further south in Betul after residents rejected the idea.

Central authorities have also sought to allay fears of an increase in pollution caused by coal dust by saying special covered rakes (freight trains with a specific number of wagons) can be used to transport coal.

Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, on his part, has said people ought to oppose pollution, not coal movement per se. At the same time, he has sought to convey to the people that the state government is actually opposed to the expansion of coal handling in Goa. He said he had written to the Centre in this regard.

But the people are not convinced. “The chief minister might say he has opposed increase in coal volumes, but then why is he going full speed ahead building the infrastructure for it?” asked Prabhudessai.

Public hearings in connection with coal expansion projects were held in Goa on the directions of the National Green Tribunal. (Credit: Nihar Gokhale)