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Govt of India's hurried environmental nod to infra projects faces a student challenge

By Milind Patil* 

Goa is known for its beaches and pristine beauty, toured by visitors round the year from across the world. However, in recent years, it has created buzz due to infrastructural developments like Atal Setu. Despite the existing infrastructure, the State government was trying to introduce three major infrastructure projects, double tracking of railway lines, widening (four laning) of the existing National Highway 4A and construction on new 400kV power transmission line.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, these projects were virtually cleared by the National Board of Wildlife and also got approval from Ministry of Environments and Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). The proposed projects threatened the forests in and around the Mollem National Park and Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary which spreads across 240 square kilometres and is home to more than 70 mammal species, 235 bird species, 219 butterfly species, 44 fish species, 45 reptile species, and 27 amphibian species in the western ghat region.
Along with Dudhsagar, Hundreds of river feeders originate in these forests which are a lifeline for Goa. The forests affected were also important nature-based tourism sites. The projects planned around 170 hectares of protected area for forest diversion leading to chopping down of 59,024 trees in the sanctuary and National Park.
When locals in the area noticed the developmental projects, they opposed. This was the origin of the Save Mollem Movement. One striking feature of this movement was that it was not started and led by any organization but just by the citizens of Goa. They wanted to save the nature of Goa in its pristine from, protecting them from encroachment. The movement started in 2020 during the pandemic.
No part of the movement involved violence as the protestors used digital means to show their dissent against the projects. The locals started the movement, spreading it through word of mouth to other citizens of Goa. The backbone of this movement were the active students of Goa. The citizens of Goa protested that although the projects were given approvals by the concerned bodies, due diligence was not being done.
The clearances were not in compliance with the existing forest and environmental laws. No proper environmental impact assessment was done and so these projects were a threat to the environment and ecosystem of Goa.
One of the student activists in the Save Mollem Movement, Gilbert Soyus, told me, students played a major role in the movement. Students from various backgrounds, scientific, non-scientific, engineering, arts, and so on wrote letters to the ministry of environment and forests both of state and centre.
Letters also came from locals, professionals, politicians and so on asking the authorities how these projects were approved as they were not in compliance with the laws. Letters questioned the need of these projects as there was always infrastructure in place and were these projects worth the amount of deforestation being caused.
Clearances were not in compliance with existing laws. No proper environmental impact assessment was done on threat to Goa ecosystem
When there was no response from the ministry for the letters, the movement catapulted into a social media movement where social media was being used to bring to the notice of people of state and nation, what was happening in Goa. The concern spread over social media very quick, motivating a large number of citizens, especially students, to join the movement to protect Goa.
Citizens participated in the movement, writing letters to authorities, approaching local MLAs, taking part in protests, putting posts on social media, and participating in other activities. These activities included display of local talent, rich culture like folklore, folk arts, and so on aimed at showcasing how the culture of Goa is about preserving the environment and its rich biodiversity and how the destruction of forests will lead to a damage to the culture of Goa. This is what made the movement stand out from others.
It was all about citizens coming together to showcase Goa's rich culture and how it ties in to protecting the environment, through artwork, parades, song and dance, all in bid to remind the masses of the very essence of Goa. Whoever shared the concern joined the movement spreading the word beyond. Famous Youtubers like Dhruv Rathi covered the story taking the story to national level.
Because of the awareness raised by the movement, few individuals approached the court. A committee from Supreme Court came down for inspection of all the sites. They analysed whether the project followed the environmental laws, what could be the impact of the project and whether the project was necessary. The committee came up with recommendations after careful analysis. The recommendations were as follows:
  • The double tracking of railway line was not required, and it should be cancelled off completely.
  • The recommendation for the powerline project was to move the alignment of the line to an existing line of 100kV. The new proposed line will replace the existing line.
  • The national highway did not have an environmental clearance. It may be allowed, however with a long list of modifications, which need to be approved again before commencing the project.
The recommendation will be put in front of the Supreme Court shortly, as there has been a delay due to Covid pandemic. The projects are on a stay as of now until further decision is being made by Supreme Court.
Save Mollem is an example of how collective citizen and youth voices like Mr. Gilbert Sous make a difference and bring about a change, by means of showcasing local culture, harmony and an immense sense of community and togetherness, by using social media and other peaceful means.
While, the protestors are waiting for the decision of the Supreme Court, they are still concerned about the loopholes in the system that got such projects approved in the first place. So, although this might look like a good win, there’s a long way to go to keep Goa’s pristine beauty protected.
---
*PGP 2020-2022, Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore

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