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Hurried nod to Western Ghat projects: 16 lakh Goans' water security 'jeopardised'

Counterview Desk
Taking strong exception to "virtual clearances" to eco-sensitive projects in the Western Ghats, the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) in a statement has said urged for a review of the four-lane highway, 400 KV transmission line and double tracking of the railway line through the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park in Goa. 
Asking the Supreme Court must ensure mandatory compliance with the recommendations in the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel Report, calling for restrictions on damaging activities like mining, quarrying and red-category industries in the Western Ghats, NAPM in a statement says, “The three projects would require cutting down over 50,000 trees and diversion of 216 hectares of forest and private land.”
Pointing out that the projects would also put the water-security of over 16 lakh Goans in jeopardy as the projects would cut across the River Ragada, a tributary of Mhadei, the statement says, “The forests in the Western Ghats have many sacred groves that have been protected by locals for centuries because of their association with many deities and are, therefore, of tremendous cultural and conservation importance.”

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NAPM expresses serious concerns over the reckless issuance of ‘virtual clearances’ to multiple infrastructure projects in environmentally sensitive areas of Goa by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
Even as the country is reeling under a pandemic and grappling with a poorly planned lockdown, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) ‘video-approved’ a four-lane highway and a 400 kv transmission line in the eco-fragile Western Ghats on April 7. These projects are to be constructed right through the forests of Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park!
As if this is not enough, a third project related to the double tracking of the railway line passing through the sanctuary and national park is also being considered by the Government. The three projects would require cutting down over 50,000 trees and diversion of 216 hectares of forest and private land. This venture would also put the water-security of over 16 lakh Goans in jeopardy as the projects would cut across the River Ragada, a tributary of Mhadei!
It has become a practice for project proponents to obtain ‘piece meal clearances’, while these three linear projects, situated within the same protected area need a rigorous cumulative impact assessment. It is a sad reflection on the state of environmental governance that the MoEFCC and NBWL overlook these crucial statutory requirements.
Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, part of a larger contiguous forest, is a treasure trove of flora and fauna and is an important tiger corridor between Goa and the adjoining Kali Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. With an area of 240 sq. km, the Sanctuary and the National Park constitute the largest protected area in Goa. 
This forest is part of the Western Ghats, which is one of the 8 biodiversity hotspots of the world and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. All three projects require diversion of forest land from this single protected area.
It is learnt that the protected area is home to more than 721 plant species, 235 bird species, 219 butterfly species, 80 odonate species, 70 mammal species, 75 ant species, 45 reptile species, 44 fish species, 43 fungi species, 27 amphibian species, 24 orchid species, and 18 species of lichens.
This list includes various endemic species as well as rare and vulnerable species such as the tiger, dhole, mouse deer, gaur and the Indian pangolin, amongst others. In addition, there are 18 bird species that are endemic to the Western Ghats and 7 bird species that are of high conservation concern found here (according to the State of India's Birds, 2020).
Besides the flora and fauna, these forests have fresh water streams that feed the main rivers including Goa’s lifeline, river Mandovi. This river is a major source of potable water and provides irrigation facilities, produces biotic and mineral resources and aids in travel of people and goods to different parts of the state.
The ancestral livelihoods of people living in the villages, on the banks of these rivers will be severely affected by these projects. This area was marked as an Ecologically Sensitive Area by the Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel (WGEEP) in 2011, that was appointed by the very same Ministry that has now given ‘permission’ to speed up its destruction! 
The WGEEP (Madhav Gadgil Committee) submitted an elaborate Report to MoEFCC, calling for restrictions on damaging activities like mining, quarrying and red-category industries in the Western Ghats.
The forests in the Western Ghats also have many sacred groves that have been protected by locals for centuries because of their association with many deities and are, therefore, of tremendous cultural and conservation importance. No plans to secure the water reserves of the state have been made public by the MoEFCC or the Government of Goa.
Western Ghats are considered one of the most important tiger habitats in the world. Expanding highway on one side and then and then double tracking of the South Western Railways will leave the southern part of the Western Ghats disconnected from the northern part. This will lead to the death of not only tigers, but also of the other numerous animals that will die under the wheels of vehicles or on the railway tracks as they try to cross over.
On June 18, the Apex Court issued notices to the Centre and the six states in the Western Ghats region, i.e. Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu
The Ghats are also topographically not suitable for such projects. The hills here are very steep and hence, the possibility of landslides increases exponentially putting both humans and nature at risk! The Western Ghats of Goa have already been decimated in a huge way, the Tillari dam has led to a loss of elephant habitats, relentless mining has also destroyed a significant part of the Ghats.
A recent petition filed in the Supreme Court by many environmental groups and young people, seeks implementation of the recommendations issued by the WGEEP. On June 18, the Apex Court took cognizance and issued notices to the Centre and the six states in the Western Ghats region i.e. Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. 
The petition foregrounds the fact that the significant recommendations of the WGEEP remain un-implemented even a decade later and almost 250 million people are directly and indirectly bound to be affected by adverse ‘developmental’ interventions in the region.
These forests in the Western Ghats range that have existed for thousands of years are irreplaceable. If these projects are cleared, they will have severe repercussions on wildlife and for the livelihoods and ecological security of the people of Goa.
It is extremely unfortunate that the decision to clear large parts of these forests are being taken without any comprehensive site-specific scrutiny to substantiate facts, examine documents in detail or consider the opinions and objections of all stakeholders, in a fully democratic manner. 
Instead, the Environment Ministry has been opting for a hasty ‘video conference mode’ and in the current case has granted approval for these ecologically destructive projects after just two such meetings!
Concerned citizens and environmental groups in Goa have taken strong objection to the fact that these projects have been given a ‘green’ by the NBWL, using poorly-done Enrionment Impact Assessment or EIA (Highway Project) or no Environment Impact Assessment or EIA (Power Transmission line). No thorough verification of the EIAs and project proposals have been done, showing the scant regard that regulatory bodies have towards such eco-sensitive zones.
NBWL and MoEFCC have completely undermined the very purpose of EIA, and rather than considering the evidence put forth by naturalists, conservationists and the people living in these forests for centuries, have reposed unquestioned trust in the project proponents, whose vested interests are not hidden.
  • NAPM urges the Centre, MoEFCC and the State Government to reconsider its model of ‘development’ and immediately re-assess the need for all such projects, which come at a huge environmental and human cost.
  • NAPM demands that the approvals granted for the four-lane highway and the 400 kv transmission line be immediately withdrawn and that no clearance be granted to the double tracking of the railway line passing through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mollem National Park.
  • NAPM demands that the State and Central Government re-assess all the infrastructure projects already underway in the Western Ghats and impose a moratorium on projects that are likely to jeopardize the environment, as per the WGEEP Report. We call for strict implementation of the recommendations by the Madhav Gadgil Committee (WGEEP Report) to protect this fragile region and hope the Supreme Court will direct the same at the earliest.
  • We demand that all the infrastructure projects cleared by the Environment Ministry, without any public participation and without conducting proper EIA, during the Corona lockdown, be immediately halted and their clearances withdrawn.
  • We strongly urge the Central Government to reconsider its environmental policy and withdraw the EIA Amendments, 2020 especially when our people are suffering due to Covid-19, a pandemic greatly tied to the environmental degradation.
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