“Do you hear the cries of the flame-throated bulbuls
As you steal the home of the majestic hornbill
This biodiversity is not your commodity…
We all know what’s at stake
Let’s save our Mollem before it’s too late.”

A young woman called Febronia Fernandes is one of many who gives voice to the turmoil in the land of my ancestors, Goa. Thousands squabble with officials, hold nightly vigils, spar with contractors and block a rail line in Mollem (pronounced Molle) – a quiet, sleepy corner of India’s smallest state and today the epicentre of a mass movement against the government.

Mollem nestles in the Western Ghats, one of the world’s eight “hottest hotspots” of biodiversity and the source of the numerous peninsular rivers, home to Goa’s largest wildlife sanctuary and the Dudhsagar falls. These wild treasures are now threatened by three infrastructure projects: the expansion of a 150-km stretch of national highway linking Goa to Karnataka, a 345-km railway line between the two states and a power transmission line.

More than 50,000 trees are likely to be felled and a lush landscape permanently scarred.

The rail line, which is also likely to ravage the Dandeli tiger reserve in Karnataka, will mostly haul coal from Goa’s Mormugao port to Karnataka’s coal-fired power stations, among the 70% that have been stalling a cleanup of their toxic emissions for years and are likely to miss a 2022 deadline that has been already extended by five years.

In other words, India is laying out the red carpet for irresponsible but well-connected companies at the expense of people, wildlife, forests and water, endangering their collective future to deliver short-term – and questionable – benefits to the few. This is a story repeated with increasing frequency and fewer checks nationwide.

By passing the law

It is no one’s case that “development” (a euphemistic term for any kind of construction that ends in ecological destruction) be stalled – only that it be carried out in line with the law. The law, as it pertains to the preservation of fast-dwindling but still-extant forests, trees and wildlife is now routinely bypassed, selectively misinterpreted, rewritten and simply ignored.

That is evident in Mollem, where the rail line was rejected in 2013 by Goa’s chief wildlife warden, a decision confirmed by then chief minister Manohar Parrikar. Yet, in violation of the law and under dubious circumstances, the proposal was cleared three years later by Parrikar’s successor and three years after that by India’s National Board for Wildlife, a supposedly independent environmental custodian that has become little more than a governmental rubber stamp.

Hundreds of projects once rejected by the previous United Progressive Alliance government –not particularly a friend of the environment – have been resurrected and cleared post haste, dodging due process. Between July 2014 and April 2020, the ministry of environment, forest and climate change cleared 87% of 2,592 requests for environmental clearance.

Protestors in Mumbai demand that a metro car shed planned in the Aarey area be relocated. Credit: Save Aarey via Facebook.

Public hearings are avoided or held in secret or in places inaccessible to local communities. Environmental assessments are faked or mindlessly plagiarised and clearances given to illegal construction in forests. Existing laws are being dismantled, usually through stealth and subterfuge.

This year, for instance, the government proposed a change to India’s environmental-impact-assessment or EIA process but has steadfastly refused, despite court orders, to offer these changes in any language but English and Hindi. The modifications are far reaching and include approvals for violations, a fait accompli if there ever was one. They also say there should be no EIAs for chemical, fertiliser and certain coal-fired power plants for “modernisation and expansion”, a suitably vague and vaguely worded term.

As with so many other laws that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government misuses or manipulates in selective fashion, the EIA dilutions were set in motion by Congress or Congress-led governments. Public hearings were part of the EIA process and open to anyone in 1994. In 2006, hearings were allowed only to those with a “plausible” stake, as MR Rajshekhar and others have pointed out. The 2020 proposal intends to make public hearings optional.

Frenzy of destruction

The result of the systematic undermining of India’s environmental laws is a frenzy of construction and destruction that ignores the future well being of India and Indians to benefit select tycoons. In the heart of tribal lands, old-growth forests that sustain myriad forest communities are being stripped by coal-mining companies, leaving behind dust and despair. In what is supposed to be an age of development, Indians are living instead through an age of annihilation, endorsed and aided by a government that claims to preserve and grow forests and manipulates or cherry picks data accordingly.

In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that since he came to office in 2014, India’s forests had grown and the number of protected areas – wildlife sanctuaries and national parks – had risen from 692 to 860. While that may be true, protected areas have shrunk, as 278 projects were approved in and around them over the six years to 2020. The claim about an increase in forests – 1% over two years to 2017, according to official data – is misleading because satellite imagery reveals these “new” forests to be largely commercial plantations.

Over the same period, 21,000 sq km of forests were wiped out; that’s five-and-a-half times the size of Goa or 14 times the size of Delhi.

The "Save The Tree Campaign" in New Delhi on June 26, 2018. Residents of Delhi launched the campaign to save more then 16.000 trees to be cut for a redevelopment project. Credit: Chandan Khanna/AFP

It is ironic that a government bent on creating a Hindu nation conveniently ignores the ecological heritage of Hindu civilisation. Hindu scripture venerates and celebrates nature, and forests are regarded as expressions of all that is right and good. They are abodes of Aranyani, the forest goddess, and Vana Durga, protector of the wilderness. Hinduism links fertility and productivity to the Earth and nature.

But the government’s dismantling of the legal processes linked to India’s environment are the tip of a spear aimed at the evisceration of these pre-eminent sources of prosperity and national longevity.

Around Mollem, hundreds of infrastructure projects in the Western Ghats have already wrecked great swathes of peninsular India’s safehouse of ecological wealth and water. Many more are coming. Only 50 km to the south of the rail line cleaving Mollem, another parallel line will be constructed within Karnataka, from Hubballi to Ankola. It will take with it 6 sq km of core forest –
thousands upon thousands of trees – cut through a tiger reserve, a Hornbill conservation area and many wildlife corridors that serve as lifelines for myriad species.

As with the Mollem line, the Hubbali-Ankola railway was cleared in violation of legal procedures
two laws and the Constitution in this case – after two decades or rejections, the latest only 11 days before a volte face by a state wildlife board newly stuffed with six “special invitees”. The Board sought a rejection, my colleague Rishika Pardikar reported, because the line bisects the catchment area of the Kali river, an important local source of water and because similar railway lines across protected areas nationwide have become killing fields for wildlife.

Wild creatures need to be protected and left alone for no other reason than to ensure the diversity and beauty of life, but their magnificence isn’t the only reason why we need them. Trees and forests generate rainfall, are sources of rivers and, in a time of a global warming, cool the land. Wild creatures are barometers to the health of forests, which are indicators and storehouses of the kind of wealth that cannot be measured by gross domestic product and per capita income.

Are India’s last, great wild places at risk of being wiped out forever? Yes. The damage is so great and accelerating so fast, that a point of no return is at hand. An untouched wild area is not the same as “afforestation”, a term that Indian officials like to offer as a glib, one-size-fits-all solution to deforestation.

Forests are intricate, complex webs of nature. Life in a forest evolves over centuries. Evolution is a slow, ponderous process. Species are delicately, often precariously, linked to each other and to larger strands and chains of life. Remove a link, strand or chain and the entire web collapses, with almost no hope of reconstruction.

Charles Darwin famously spoke about survival of the fittest. But he also qualified the struggle for survival. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives,” wrote Darwin. “It is the one most adaptable to change.”

In India, the main species adapting to relentless human-driven change appear to be cockroaches and rats. In our dystopian future, they could be all that’s left.

Samar Halarnkar is the founder and editor of www.article-14.com, a website focused on research and reportage related to the rule of law