On December 10, Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar received considerable media coverage when he rode a bicycle and urged people to go green by shunning motorised transport, at an event in suburban Porvorim, three kilometres from state capital Panjim.

For Porvorim’s residents, there was black mockery in the event. Hectic expansion work on NH17 (renamed NH66), which links Panvel in the North to Kanyakumari in the South, while cutting through Goa, has cleaved the area in two. The highway was already dangerous for pedestrians, and the work to expand it, which started in 2016, has made it all the more difficult for local residents to make the East-West crossing across the highway on foot. Pedestrians and users of public transport are often seen stranded on either side of the road, unable to cross without risking their lives.

Recently, residents of Porvorim, including those living in Goa’s first journalists’ colony, received land acquisition notices linked to the National Highway Authority of India’s plans to expand a 136-km stretch of NH17, from the North of Goa, near the border with Maharashtra, to the South, near the Karnataka border. This stretch includes Porvorim, where elevated corridors are proposed to be built.

Metres away from the colony, construction on the controversial third bridge over the Mandovi river near Panjim has been going on for the past two-and-a-half years. Another bridge is also in the offing, with approach roads planned through Porvorim. Its residents do not know what its alignment will be.

“There is considerable turmoil in our colony and in residential colonies here,” said retired journalist Gurudas Singbal. “Last month, the local legislator held a meeting and assured us that our homes in Journalist Colony would be spared. But none of the other residential colonies here know what will happen. I told officials, if citizens are going to be dehoused for development, then for whom is this development? But they just laughed.”

His sentiments are echoed all along the highway expansion route, where several homes and businesses face demolition.

Goa’s highways were once district and village roads built around settlements before they were elevated as national and state highways.

“There are 800 lawful residences and businesses along the Porvorim main road [NH17] which will be affected by this proposal,” said Dr Ravi Chodankar, who runs a hospital in Porvorim. “They are not even showing us the plan of what they are doing. This is supposed to be a democracy, not a dictatorship with a fake majority.” Chodankar belongs to the National Highway 17 (Porvorim) Action Committee that is agitating on the matter.

Local residents allege that the hectic road works are being executed for two reasons: first, to facilitate the transition of Goa from sleepy coastal state to a busy coal hub; and second, to protect the investments of politicians of all hues, made in the northernmost taluka of Pernem, where a greenfield airport is scheduled to come up.

Western Ghats the casualty

The infrastructure projects are being executed with financial help from the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. Last year, its minister, Nitin Gadkari, announced that Rs 15,000 crores would be spent on highway works in the coastal state by 2018.

In addition to NH17, national highway NH4A (renamed NH748) is also being expanded frenetically. It covers a 70-odd km stretch from Panjim in the West to Mollem to the East, on the Karnataka border.

Expansion work on both these highways has been revved up in recent months.

According to the detailed project report for the NH17 project, the existing two-lane highway is being expanded to a four, six and eight-lane high-speed express corridor, with two-way service roads on either side. It is expected to affect 43 of Goa’s 186 villages, require 200 hectares of land acquisition, and impact 527 structures. The report admits that this will have a major social impact.

NH4A is being widened to four lanes from two. It passes through 22 villages, requires 89 hectares of land acquisition, and will impact 377 structures, according to its detailed project report.

Goa’s lush Western Ghats forest cover is expected to be a major casualty of this expansion. Large tracts of thick forests are expected to be cut especially in the national park and sanctuary areas in eastern Goa.

The state’s Public Works Department has already sought permissions under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, to divert 23 hectares of protected and reserved forests along NH17, according to the forest clearance site of the Union government.

A 13-km stretch of NH4A runs through two sanctuaries – the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary to its North and Mollem National Park to its south. These sanctuaries support populations of spotted deer, leopards, bisons, wild boars, hares, snakes, peacocks and jungle fowl. The Public Works Department wants 41 hectares of forest land in this Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot to be diverted for non-forest use.

NH 17 (officially NH66).

Green, in name only

According to local residents, one of the reasons for this road expansion push is the Union government’s plans to make the state a coal transportation hub. This entails the creation of a road-rail-river coal corridor between Mormugao Port in Vasco and steel factories in North Karnataka.

As local residents have launched a spirited fight against this plan, fearing that it will increase pollution, hurt their health, their land and their livelihoods, Chief Minister Parrikar has made environment protection his new buzzword. In several speeches, Parrikar has exhorted people to go green while simultaneously attacking the citizens, activists and environmentalists opposed to the coal hub.

On December 15, Parrikar said at an event: “Join hands with the government. Let us make Goa really green. We have to reduce our carbon footprint. They should not use vehicles some part of the day. Use cycles, use buses, so that we can tell the next generation how we saved Goa.”

A day after this speech, Goa’s Wildlife Advisory Board, headed by Parrikar, gave its in-principle approval to widen the stretch of the NH4A that runs through the two sanctuaries.

“This will affect the wildlife corridor and movement of animals,” said Rajendra Kerkar, former member of the National Wildlife Advisory Board. “There will be more deaths of animals like what is happening with elephants in Assam on the railway tracks. If they had only expanded the existing road somewhat, it would be okay, but if there is more deforestation and no curtailment of the speed of vehicles, then there will be a problem for wild animals.”

Wary of a public outcry, authorities have succeeded in maintaining secrecy about the details of this project. Its full detailed project reports, socio-economic impact assessment reports, land acquisition and resettlement plans are not available on any government website.

NH 4A (officially NH748).

Real estate angle

The second reason offered for the massive roadworks is the controversial greenfield Mopa airport in North Goa’s Pernem taluka bordering Maharashtra. This is seen more as a real estate project than an aviation necessity. Goa’s current airport is a military installation located in the South, near the port town of Vasco.

“Politicians from every political party have invested heavily in land around Mopa and in the taluka,” said architect, Arminio Ribeiro. “Since there is stiff opposition from the South Goa hotel industry to an airport at Goa’s extreme North, there is pressure on the government to mitigate that by building a high-speed expressway to connect North and South Goa and cut travel time down to an hour, from two hours presently. That is why this highway segment has so many elevated corridors and bridges.”

Local residents and activists allege that the construction spree is aimed at increasing the value of land that politicians have bought in different parts of Goa. “First they buy up land in an area for cheap, then they get road plans and bypasses sanctioned through the area, citing increased traffic volumes, accidents, etc,” said activist Soter D’Souza. “The new roads escalates its value tremendously and opens it up to speculation and construction. That is what they are doing everywhere. Who cares for the small man who loses his home, fields, occupation and land, as collateral damage?”

Bulldozing through

The approach of Congress and BJP governments towards rapid infrastructure expansion has been different. In 2010, the Congress government had attempted to expand NH17 and NH4A. But protests, which were actively backed by the Opposition BJP, resulted in the project stalling. The Congress’s manner of negotiating with opposition by citizens led to delays. But the projects picked up speed when the BJP came to power in 2012. The party swiftly shed the sustainable development avatar that brought it to power and accelerated infrastructure projects. It deployed emergency land acquisition laws to develop a section of NH4A, from Panaji to Ella in Old Goa. In 2014, earth was even laid over standing paddy crops along the corridor linking Old Goa. The government also fast-tracked processing the Mopa airport, for which Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone in November 2016.

Portions of homes demolished at Cortalim on NH17.

Crores worth of tenders

The project cost for the expansion of NH17 was pegged at an estimated Rs 1,872 crores in 2010 but has increased several times since. It has been tendered out in segments with some handled by the Goa State Infrastructure Development Corporation, the Public Works Department and the National Highways Authority of India. The tendered amounts, so far, add up to Rs 4316.22 crores.

The Goa State Infrastructure Development Corporation’s vice-chairman is Sidharth Kuncalienkar, a former BJP MLA, considered close to Parrikar, while the Goa Public Works Department minister is Ramkrishna (Sudin) Dhavlikar of the the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, a BJP ally. Ther budget for the Public Works Department was hiked by 40% to Rs 1,900 crores this year, with road works comprising a significant part of the budget.

The sharing of project works and disbursement of funds has caused its fair share of bickering between the government’s many alliance partners.

Targeting the coast

Dhavlikar is also keen to pursue the Union government’s ambitious plans to upgrade state and district highways to national highways, as well as the Bharatmala project, one of India’s largest highway construction projects. The Public Works Department hopes to develop a 250-km stretch along Goa’s coast under the Bharatmala scheme. But this stretch passes through dense habitations that are part of the tourism industry. The plans were put on the back-burner following an outcry from tourism stakeholders who said that changing the ethos of the coastal stretches that support dozens of hotels, eateries, boutiques and spas for an urbanised sprawl would hit the region’s tourism. But last week, Dhavlikar said that abandoning the project was not an option. He said that the government would negotiate with those who will lose their land and businesses to find amicable solutions to reduce the impact on humans.

But in coastal villages in North Goa that fall under the Bharatmala project, the process to push back houses from roads has already begun.

“My 90-year-aunt was simply told by local politicians to part with some portion of her front yard,” said landscape consultant Miguel Braganca. “If she agreed, they would reconstruct the compound wall at government cost. If she refused, they would move for emergency acquisition, and she would have to reconstruct it herself. There was no question of any formal land acquisition process being followed, as was earlier the practice. Now it is just arbitrary coercion.”

Braganca said that this method was used in the coastal villages of Baga and Candolim too.

People protest

The displacement the infrastructure work is spawning across Goa has led to sporadic protests and resolutions in gram sabhas against the projects in several villages.

In South Goa’s Salcete taluka, the construction of major bypasses in the city of Madgaon led to protests after hundreds of tonnes of earth were blasted off hills and dumped in the low-lying paddy fields of residential villages. Legislators had to intervene to calm tempers. While the government has made repeated promises to build elevated roads on that stretch instead, locals say that is not the solution. “Even elevated corridors earmarked on the route have not spared the villages any land either, since the land below is still being acquired and filled with mud for embankments at ground level,” said Congress member Avinash Tavares.

Sahitya Akademi award winning writer Damodar Mauzo asked: “Goa’s charm and uniqueness lies in its smallness. If such big infrastructure turns it into another big city like Mumbai, then what is left?”

Mabuli Kurgun, a taxi driver from Nerul near Panjim, is upset at the diktat his village was recently served with. “They are telling us they will clear our houses and shops near the roads,” said Kurgun. “Everywhere, we small people are facing a problem. That is why they [the BJP] lost the election [held in February in Goa]. But how they came to power, I don’t know.”