Goa’s pollution control agency has decided to allow the JSW group to import coal through the state, less than a year after it filed a criminal case against the company and banned its operations for violating air quality laws. A fresh permit, known as “consent to operate”, would be issued to the company to handle four million tonnes of coal each year, the Goa State Pollution Control Board announced on June 29.

The decision is a setback to the growing public movement against the transport of large quantities of coal through the state. Since last year, several village panchayats have passed resolutions demanding that coal handling be banned in the state. Civil society organisations have raised concerns about air pollution as a result of coal dust, the loss of livelihoods this could cause for small fishermen and the risk it could pose to endangered marine species.

They have also expressed reservations about permitting a “coal hub” in the tourism-dependent coastal state. The state pollution control board has been telling activists it was compelled to issue the consent after JSW produced a letter sent to it by the Environment Ministry in May that said the company’s coal-handling terminal at the Central government-run Mormugao Port Trust in Goa held a “valid and subsisting” environment clearance. The board had in March said the company did not have valid environmental clearance.

But that is not the only reason. Just as JSW’s consent to operate was revoked in January, a team of scientists from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, started a 16-month study of air pollution in Vasco da Gama, a town adjacent to the port. The study would, for the first time, establish the average share of coal dust in the town’s air. After JSW’s terminal was shut down, IIT professor Virendra Sethi wrote to the pollution control board saying the study would not meet its objective since “the sampling will not include the impact of expected sources”.

In response, the board’s member secretary Levinson Martins, while announcing the board’s decision last month, said coal handling was necessary to carry out the IIT study.

The board’s reasoning has been criticised. Savio Correa, an advocate from Vasco who has been fighting coal dust pollution for over a decade, said, “The justification that coal handling was necessary to enable the IIT Bombay study is ridiculous.” Correa pointed out that coal-handling has been permitted in peak monsoon, when the rain naturally clears dust in the air.

Abhijit Prabhudesai of the Federation of Rainbow Warriors, an environmental action group that has been campaigning against coal projects for over two years, also questioned the board’s decision. “Almost a hundred panchayats passed resolutions saying no to coal. This was as good as a referendum on coal,” he pointed out. “On what basis was the terminal allowed to restart?”

Campaign against coal

Coking coal, used in the manufacture of steel, is imported into Goa at the Mormugao Port Trust. Here, the coal handling is done by two public-private partnership terminals: one run by JSW group subsidiary South West Port Limited and the other by the Adani Group’s Adani Mormugao Port Terminal Private Limited.C oking coal is scarce in India and has to be imported from countries such as Australia, South Africa and Canada. Almost all the imported coal in Goa is transported to the steel industry near Bellary in North Karnataka.

The JSW terminal, which was established in 2004, supplies coking coal to JSW Steel’s Vijaynagar unit near Bellary. The Adani berth opened in 2014. Both handle coal in the open.

Residents of Vasco da Gama blame the companies for the town’s poor air quality and for causing respiratory ailments. They also accuse the state pollution control board of being soft on the companies, even while its annual reports since 2016 have named Vasco as the city with the most polluted air in Goa. Public opinion against coal in Goa strengthened in 2017 after the Central government announced several projects to more than double the coal handling capacity at the Mormugao Port Trust to 26 million tonnes annually, and to eventually cross 50 million tonnes (read Scroll.in’s two-part series on the proposals here and here).

One of these was JSW’s proposal to double its coal handling capacity to 13 million tonnes annually. Public hearings for the projects, held in April that year, drew record crowds that unanimously rejected all the proposals. With public pressure growing, Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, who had earlier supported the expansion in coal handling, wrote to the Environment Ministry in August opposing it. The ministry, too, has not processed the proposals. The state pollution control board also opposed the projects and in January cancelled JSW’s “consent to operate” after port data revealed the company had crossed its licensed coal handling limit every year since 2011.

The company did not deny the data. Finding the company “in gross breach” of the consent, the board invoked provisions of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, to ban its operations and initiated criminal prosecution against it in a court in Vasco.In March, the board rejected the company’s application for a fresh consent to operate licence, on the grounds that it did not have a valid environment clearance.

Pollution board’s about-turn

In this backdrop, the board’s sudden decision to allow JSW to resume operations has left many perplexed and angry.It has also drawn flak from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s legislator from Mormugao, Milind Naik, who had earlier stayed away from the controversy. Naik announced he would protest on the streets if this led to more pollution.

For JSW, restarting its Goa operations is critical to providing cheap coal to its Karnataka plant. Over the past few months, it has unsuccessfully sought relief from the Bombay High Court and the National Green Tribunal. The Mormugao Port Trust, which depends on the JSW berth for half of its revenue, joined in the petition to the tribunal.

When contacted, the state pollution control board’s Martins told Scroll.in he would comment only after the minutes of the meeting that discussed the JSW proposal are finalised. JSW did not respond to a questionnaire while JSW Infrastructure chief executive office BVJK Sharma did not respond to text messages.