Seen from a distance, they resemble a fish bone — concrete structures that rise above the beach and climb a hillock, their heights calculated “at one metre above the highest anticipated water calamity level” and designed to “dodge the tallest tsunami”.
These constitute the frame of the second coal evacuation route over road that is coming up in Goa, a 24.5-km stretch — two strips of 18 km and 6.5 km, respectively — that will skirt heavily populated areas, including Vasco town and at least six panchayats, while slashing the travel time from the port to the Western Ghats by at least an hour.
Transport of coal, at the rate of 25 tonnes per minute, by rail and road, as an ongoing investigation by The Indian Express has revealed, has left in its wake environmental damage across Goa. Much more coal is on the way — an estimated 51 million tonnes every year by 2030 — and this new route being built is a grim testament to the challenges that lie ahead. As a four-lane super carriageway that will link Mormugao port to NH17 — Maharashtra to Kerala — before it joins up with NH4A that leads to steel factories in Karnataka.
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With Goa allocating Rs184.05 crore in 2017-2018 for the second stretch of this expansion, called the “missing link”, officials at the state’s Public Works Department (PWD) describe the project as a “development commitment to the people of Goa” to “unclog the growing traffic density”.
Officials and transporters say the existing 124.5-km road route from the port to the Karnataka border is “long, not cost-effective and has a lot more potential of litigation” for any further expansion. The new route, records show, can support “a convoy of 28-tonne coal trucks” while slicing through three hillocks, a forest, levelling wetlands and paddy fields, even pushing back a village.
The Indian Express tracked this new trail (see map) on the ground to find that in the enthusiasm behind construction, several official red flags, records show, have been ignored — from warnings about unstable cliffsides to the risk to fragile forests.
Stretch 1: Mormugao to Vernapuri, 18 km
Unlike the existing road route, which heads east before dipping down, the new route circles the port land in the opposite direction, avoiding the town of Vasco before linking back to the old route in Dabolim, 10 km away. This stretch starts with two branches that leave cargo gates No.1 on the east and No. 9 on the west, looping like a garland under the port before joining to form a four-lane corridor at Baina beach along the coast. But before it reaches Baina, the route cuts through landslide-prone Sada cliff.
On April 16, 2015, the Goa Coastal Zone Management Authority (GCZMA), the state regulatory body monitoring Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) norms, discussed a report submitted by its then member secretary Dr Antonio Mascarenhas, a former scientist with the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), who warned against heavy construction on laterite soil at Sada.
Express Investigation part 2: What the toxic train leaves in its wake
According to the minutes of that meeting, Mascarenhas’s report asked “whether or not an edge of a steep cliff will bear a 4-lane road and the consequent heavy traffic?” It described the “geological stability of this cliff edge” as “unstable” and in a “No Development Zone”. The report said: “It may also be noted that not a single similar example of a flyover along a sandy beach can be found in India.”
Responding to the GCZMA’s concerns, PWD engineers replied that “geo technically, Sada Hillock is the most stable strata one can encounter in engineering structure”. In fact, records show, the Mormugao Port Trust itself wrote to the chief town planner in 2011, asking for “slope protection work” at the cliff, citing a landslide in 1999 — the last reported landslide here was in 2012. But PWD officials replied that the elevated highway was in line with established norms and that there was “a resolution unanimously adopted by the Goa State Assembly to construct a flyover at this stretch”.
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Below the cliff, is the Tariwada-Desterro beach, where Shaukat Haveri, 36, says coastal erosion and the new coal route is pushing them out of their homes. “Two years ago, authorities demolished my house along with 70 other homes of traditional fishermen. They put many of us on top of Sada, they said we were rehabilitated… The official who came to raze my house said it was in violation of CRZ norms and posed a threat to the coast. Isn’t this super carriageway violating any norms?” says Haveri, pointing to a 20m tall concrete pillar above.
On the Baina beach, Sajid Shaikh, 33, is anxious. “I follow my father’s advice, ‘respect the sea or face her wrath’. But unfortunately, the wrath we feared all our life has now sneaked from behind,” he says, standing under the tall concrete columns. A site inspection report on the flyover at Baina, conducted for GCZMA by Mascarenhas, states, “The validity of and the need for a 1.5 kilometre flyover along Baina does not seem to stand scientific scrutiny because it runs too close to an ecologically sensitive beach that suffers annual erosion… Digging of huge pits for the foundations of several columns is bound to disturb the ecological stability of a sensitive beach.”
The report also confirms that 2.5 km of the elevated highway across the Baina beach comes under the purview of the norms laid out in CRZ 2011. The construction continues till Vernapuri, 3 km from Baina, where the carriageway will climb another hillock, before connecting to the four-lane road passing parallel to the Dabolim International Airport. The road from here cuts through the industrial corridor in Verna, which houses a clutch of corporates, including Siemens, Tata Motors, IFB, Pfizer, Blue Dart, Eicher, Mahindra & Mahindra, Maruti Suzuki and Bosch.
Stretch 2: Verna to Borim, 6.5 km
The second stretch is the “missing link” from Verna to Borim, where chunks of land have already been levelled. Construction is yet to begin but the warning signs are clearly visible.
Ahead, the forest gets thicker. On this stretch, Goa’s Forest Department has applied for diversion of 5.18 hectares of forest cover for the 40m-wide coal road to stretch down the slope. Forest Department records show that they expect over 1,000 trees to be cut. Activists have claimed in public hearings that this expansion will also involve cutting a hill at parts, flattening a forest stretch, and uprooting “some very old trees”.
On September 5, 2015, the office of the Deputy Conservator of Forests, South Goa Division, wrote to the PWD Executive Engineer of Fatorda, cautioning against any excess cutting of forests. The letter pointed out that “the area is forestry in nature” and that several hectares were “included in the list of prospective private forests as identified by South Goa Private Forest Committee”. The letter also pointed to the absence of proper demarcation to mark the width of the proposed highway.
According to the expansion plan, the highway slides down a hill before moving through a stretch of wetland and paddy fields, and reaching Loutolim — the ancestral village of the legendary cartoonist, the late Mario Miranda. Among the casualties of the new coal corridor here is Casa Mascarenhas, an ancestral Goan home where Ramiro Mascarenhas, 43, stays with his wife and 15-month-old daughter. The markings for the road-widening project end at their doorstep. Opposite Casa Mascarenhas, the 340-year-old Our Lady of Milagres chapel will lose its steps.
“Till about two years ago, as the forest cover above Verna started getting trimmed, we used to spot foxes and some wild monkeys regularly. Now, a neighbour will lose his ancestral house, another his orchard. With the new road eating into my compound walls and coming so close to my door, it’s bound to damage it,” says Mascarenhas. He has been informed by PWD that of the “seven options” being considered for the new route project, “at least six” will lead to his courtyard being trimmed. “After I officially wrote to the PWD, they confirmed that soil testing is happening in all options and a decision will be taken soon,” he says.
The irony, however, is that Mascarenhas is a truck operator, charging Rs 440 for every tonne of coal that is shipped to companies in Goa from Mormugao. “But this highway expansion is not for cargo inside Goa. This is for companies outside,” he argues. From Casa Mascarenhas, the new road will reach Borim. Here, a second bridge is being planned over the Zuari river alongside the existing one. According to PWD officials, various official agencies “are still studying the best route to take to ensure minimum destruction”. “They should be ready with a plan soon,” says a PWD official. Once that bridge is completed, the new stretch will link NH17B and NH4A to complete the new coal corridor to Karnataka.