On April 23, the Central Empowered Committee, a fact-finding body appointed by the Supreme Court of India to research on matters related to the environment, in response to a petition filed by non-profit Goa Foundation, released a report red-flagging three infrastructure projects in Goa that threaten the biodiversity of Mollem National Park and Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary.

It recommended the complete cancellation of the double-tracking of the railway line from Castle Rock in Karnataka to Kulem in Goa, cancellation of a new transmission line for the Goa-Tamnar Transmission Project and sought environmental clearances for the widening of the NH-4 highway along the Karnataka-Goa border.

The judgment comes following almost a year-long campaign by Goa’s civil society members who have been advocating for the protection of Mollem National Park and Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary from proposed infrastructure projects.

Last year on April 7, 2020, the Standing Committee for National Board of Wildlife, in the midst of the pandemic-induced lockdown in India, gave wildlife clearances to three linear infrastructure projects in Goa – the doubling of the 26 km stretch of the railway line in the Western Ghats from Castle Rock in Karnataka to Kulem in Goa passing through Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary, four-laning of the National Highway 4A from 84 km to 97 km cutting through Mollem National Park, and the Goa Tamnar Transmission Project involving laying of additional 400 kV feed to Goa and additional system for power evacuation from generation projects pooled at Raigarh (Tamnar) Pool.

Existing transmission line at the point where they enter Goa from Karnataka. Photo credit: Shashank Srinivasan

Following these clearances, on June 26, 2020, Goa Foundation filed a petition before the Central Empowered Committee stating that the Standing Committee for National Board of Wildlife violated a 2015 Supreme Court order and the provisions of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 by providing wildlife clearance to the three projects that pass through Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park.

The Central Empowered Committee held a series of virtual meetings and site visits in early 2021. It received a large number of representations and appeals from civil society members – peoples representatives, scientists, researchers, ecologists, environmentalists, lawyers, architects, veterinarians, artists, painters, illustrators, filmmakers, musicians, sculptures, students, local communities, tourism and travel trade representatives, all of whom raised objections against these projects.

Conservation movement

The citizens of Goa had also launched a campaign, called My Mollem to inform, educate and amplify the stories of Goa’s biodiversity and what one stands to lose should these infrastructural projects come through. Finally, on April 23, the Central Empowered Committee published its report.

In its report, the Central Empowered Committee seeks to revoke the permission granted by the Standing Committee for National Board of Wildlife for the doubling of the railway track “passing through the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats from Tinaighat-Castlerock in Karnataka to Kulem in Goa involving 120.875 hectares of land.”

The report says that the “CEC does not find any justification for undertaking a project of this nature which will destroy the fragile ecosystem of the Western Ghats” in addition to stating that the “doubling project will only marginally be enhancing the capacity of the most inefficient section of the railway network”.

Talking about the Goa-Tamnar Transmission Project, the report suggested to redraw and modify the alignment of the additional 400 kV line corridor between Narendra in Karnataka (existing) and Sangod (new) in Goa in a way that the existing 110 / 220 kV line corridor can be utilised.

Shashank Srinivasan, a conservation geographer who runs a tech consultancy called Technology for Wildlife and assists the My Mollem campaign explained that the Goa-Tamnar transmission line is a project of the Central Electrical Authority given to private agency Sterlite Power. The total transmission line of 94 km travels from Karnataka to Goa – starting from Narendra village in Dharwad district of Karnataka and ending at Xeldem village in the south district of Goa.

In Goa, the line is 55 km long entering from Mapusa in the north to Xeldem in the south. “In Mollem, the line enters a few kilometres north of where the highway starts, goes west past Tambdi Surla temple, cuts through pristine virgin forests, private forests and village lands, takes a sharp turn south and then ends at a place called Sangod,” said Srinivasan.

“In conservation, when talking about infrastructure we use something called a mitigation hierarchy,” said Srinivasan. “It is a very clear set of steps you follow when deciding to implement a project that will impact wildlife and wildlife habitat.”

The first step, he said, is complete avoidance. “If you can avoid doing something that will destroy a forest, then avoid it.” The second step is mitigation, that is, to find the next best alignment. And the next steps are restoration and then offsetting.

The proponents of the project, according to Srinivasan, ignored this process and went straight to mitigation, showing that “they are extremely incompetent”, he said. “They should be thinking bigger and better. They are using the taxpayer’s money for these projects. And they need to think about the most effective way to implement this project.”

Map depicting Central Empowered Committee report’s recommendations regarding the three projects in Mollem. Photo credit: My Mollem Campaign

‘Not best outcome’

The Central Empowered Committee recommended making use of the old defunct line – a 110 kV transmission line that extends from Supa in Karnataka to Ponda in Goa, and the functional 220 kV line, merge the two and run it along the alignment, instead of building a new one that would destroy a huge chunk of the forest.

“This is still not the best outcome,” said Srinivasan. “The best outcome would have been no line through a protected area, or next best, a buried line. No one is against development but it should be sustainable. But this recommendation by the Central Empowered Committee is still better than what the project proponents proposed.”

The Central Empowered Committee report further added that the four-laning of the NH-4 highway would require appropriate environmental clearances, which it still doesn’t have.

Reacting to the report, Nandini Velho, wildlife researcher and a volunteer with My Mollem, said, “Our campaign began on June 5, 2020, World Environment Day, involving an extremely diverse group of people – artists, musicians, filmmakers, architects, researchers, lawyers, conservationists and people from all walks of life.”

“So that it was not just scientists talking to scientists, but a conversation happening across the board,” Velho said. “For example, an artist would say, ‘Mollem is my drawing board’. The diversity enabled us to use a lens we had not captured before, and as a result of it became such a strong, sustained citizen campaign.”

Giving a critical reaction to the report, Abhijeet Prabhudesai, environmentalist and part of Goyant Kollso Naka, a campaign fighting against the coal movement in Goa said that while the cancellation of the double-tracking of the railways was a good move, the other two recommendations were “not satisfactory”. “We want a complete scrapping of the transmission line and the national highway,” he said. “No mitigation measure.”

What is next? While a Supreme Court hearing is awaited, the campaigners plan to continue their work with the same vigour. “Ministers have threatened our volunteers that they will tire us out. Clearly, we are not backing down anytime soon and have only gotten stronger,” said Velho.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.