Coal Burying Goa: All along the road route, the black dust settles

If freight trains travel through the day, the night belongs to coal-laden trucks on highways that split the state — with few regulatory checks along the way.

Written by Smita Nair | Vasco/ Kulem | Updated: October 27, 2017 9:27 am
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It’s 9 am and Manjunath Nagraj waits in his truck outside Mormugao Port’s Gate No. 1 to pick up steam coal for Ms Metals and Steel Pvt Ltd, a steel factory at Koppal in Karnakata. The coal was loaded from Richards Bay, one of the world’s largest coal export facilities in South Africa, and lugged into MV Jaguar Max, a Bahamas-flag vessel now docked at the port. The importer, records show, is Singapore-based Adani Global Private.

Unlike JSW, Adani’s needs from Mormugao are more that of a “trader” — they use their berth for “coal needs of a third party,” says a port official. And Manjunath is the last logistical link in this freight chain that leads to a clutch of steel factories in Koppal, 320 km away by road.

Transporters say road provides a cost advantage of 50 paise for each kilometre compared to rail. But Mormugao makes economic sense for the importer in more ways than one. The main port in Karnataka, on the western coast in Mangalore, is 500 km from Koppal. In business terms, this means the cost of 10 trips a month from Mormugao equals four from Mangalore.

But this “freight advantage,” comes at a cost.

Goa currently has two national highways, NH 17 and NH 4A, which divide the state vertically and horizontally. An extension of NH17 and NH4A connect the port to Karnataka, climbing the Western Ghats, after crossing the Goa-Karnataka border at Anvoldem. Under night’s cover, these roads are a veritable coal corridor — it takes 13 hours for a coal-laden truck to travel across the state, climb the Ghats, and enter Karnataka by dawn.

Express Investigation part 1: Coal on move, 25 tonnes a minute, is choking Goa, more is on the way

There are no official estimates for the number of trucks currently carrying coal from the port every month but the 2016 Sagarmala report on coastal upgradation gives an indication of what’s in store. It states that the rail route can carry a maximum of 30 million tonnes of coal a year, even after the tracks are doubled, due to the difficult Ghats stretch. This leaves 21 million tonnes to be transported through road and water to match the port’s import projections for 2030 — the coal trucks come in different capacities, starting with 20 tonnes.

The Indian Express took the main coal road route (see map, page 6) from Vasco via Dabolim, Verna, Nuvem, Khandepar and Mollem before it crosses into Dharwad onwards to Bellary.

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HARBOUR & VASCO, 5-6 km from port
‘Dust has wrecked my wife’s health’

Every morning, Mulla Dawood Muzawar, 70, and his wife wipe the thick coat of coal off their doors and windows. Outside, the conveyor belts that carry coal from the ship to the trucks form a backdrop for selfie-obsessed tourists. “We start cleaning even before making our morning tea… The tourists stand and take selfies. Only we know the cost. The port authorities want residents like us to vacate the neighbourhood,” says Mulla.

Mulla’s neighbour Parshuram Sonurlekar, 35, says he got his wife Pari, a 23-year-old from Vasco, “closer to calamity” — his home is 150m from the coal operations. “My wife got skin allergy soon after moving into my home. The dust and noise pollution has wrecked her health. Doctors say her allergy is a coal-dust problem but will not give it in writing,” says Sonurlekar.

As the road curves ahead, Prashant Raut is busy washing the floor of the 200-year-old Kair Kashi Vishweshar Khapro Devasthal. “I have to keep cleaning the premises to get worshippers. Everything turns black, the roof, the walls, this floor,” he says. Raut, a former quality control inspector for coal, then makes a startling admission. “I have signed various reports saying ash coal was safe. The quality in reality was hazardous… We had to adhere to our company’s policy. We not only lied, we gave it in writing,” he says.

Express Investigation part 2: What the toxic train leaves in its wake

‘Meals ready’ boards line the Father Louis Gomes road. Off the street, Chandrashekhar Vast, 48, and his wife are lining up lunch plates, ready to serve deep-fried King fish, prawn curry and calamari. “I see coal dust on my daughter’s hands, legs every day. It will kill us all slowly,” says Vast.

Ahead is the office of Councillor Krishna Salkar, 46, an aspiring politician who is coming to terms with his daughter’s coal dust-induced illness. “This summer, I took my family to Kashmir. I asked her paediatrician if I should carry the nebuliser because he keeps saying that the coal is giving her problems… At Gulmarg, I saw her playing in snow at the highest point. Nothing happened. She entered Goa and started sneezing again,” he says.

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CHICALIM & DABOLIM AIRPORT, 9-10 km
‘They started digging without asking’

Two highway extensions — NH 17A and NH 17B — lead towards Vasco as the land juts into the Arabian Sea. North of this strip are two natural bays, Chicalim and Sancoale, known for their oyster-shell window panes. NH17A is what empty coal trucks take while a fully loaded coal truck takes a diversion towards the airport on NH 17B.

Across Chicalim bay lives Madeline Pereira, 72, ex-chairperson of the Mormugao Municipal Corporation, a cancer survivor and a coal-pollution fighter. “If these developments are a conduit for coal, then for whom is it? If it is for the nation, we could find some way, we could make some allowances. This, unfortunately, doesn’t seem so,” she says.

Ahead, Caitano Fernandes, 60, is at his field where he grows paddy and coconuts for a living. This May, he and his family fought with labourers of a private construction company who began digging in his field. “They got a big JCB and starting digging without my permission or acquiring my land. I was at home and we ran to stop them,” he says.

Outside Dabolim, loaded trucks for clients in Karnataka wait for an embargo — for six hours ending 7 pm — to end. On the road to the airport, Vidya Shetye, 55, who owns a medical shop in Vasco, says respiratory ailments have seen a spike and she has been selling bronchitis and asthmatic prescriptions daily.

Advocate Aires Rodrigues says coal trucks pass less than 50 m from the airport. “Law requires a certain jurisdictional distance to be maintained from defence installations, which is not the case here,” he says.

Reagan Fernandes, 43, a taxi driver, says coal-laden trucks are the “worst sight” to welcome a tourist — Goa’s tourist count for 2016 was 63,30,744. “The trucks are always spilling coal as they jump speed breakers. Goans and tourists commute by bikes and we see so many of them skid on these spillages,” he says. See photos of the toxic coal train leaving Goa

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NUVEM, 27 km
‘People don’t know that coal is crossing at night’

The main coal route connects with NH17 as it moves towards the Christian-dominated south, where increased truck movement has triggered protests and boycotts. Along the route is Nuvem, a village lined with homes marked by Indo-Goan architecture. At one such home, Aurea, 73, and Olencio Fernandes, 84, are angry at “what is passed off as development”. Says their son, Bruce, “In a small state like Goa, the geographical lines are going to be wiped out, the cultural fabric will be rewritten.”

Bruce, 47, fears the highways and coal development will lead to a “demographic imbalance between indigenous Goans and the rest”. “Everything is now going to be one template. The village and the villagers will be transgressed, and these highways and the government policies supporting them are not being integrated into the way Goans live. They have taken a road right through us. One massive road, bulldozing our heritage, our dignity, our identity,” says Bruce.

It’s near evening, and at the bypass near Nuvem-Fatorda is a service station belonging to Menon Silva Lobo, 68, a fabricator. For Lobo, the “coal issue” was someone else’s problem until more and more coal-laden trucks began to rumble past. “Without cover, the coal dust spreads all over. I first saw them late in the night. Then, there were more, 10 to 15,” he says.

The evening sets and the road now curves east to a state highway. At Archies restaurant in Raia village, Dan Vaz, 31, a chef with tattoos on his body and graffiti on his restaurant walls, is setting tables. “People here don’t even know that coal is crossing us in the night,” he says. The highway is widest outside his restaurant, with one side giving a panaromic view of paddy fields.

A few kilometres ahead, below the old Borim bridge, Umanath Ganesh Naik, a retired employee, is taking a break by the banks of the Zuari river. “Our rains are less now, the farms are weak. Mining has already destroyed our rivers. Now the coal dust refuses to leave us,” says Naik. A proposed new bridge at Borim is expected to shoulder the increased coal traffic, according to port documents.

The state highway stretches on to the bypass via Bethora, where the forests begin. Forest Survey of India records show that 5.4 per cent of the 1,424.46 sq km forest cover is under private ownership with the bulk of the eco-sensitive stretch spread in this eastern pocket. “The forests will be swallowed by coal dust. They will go barren too, everything dies slowly here,” says Naik.

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KHANDEPAR, 45 km
‘Now we realise, they were buying our silence’

The trucks are now on NH 4A, and the population dwindles as the forest takes over.

At Khandepar, the trucks will cross Opa where water for Panjim, the capital, is stored in reservoirs. “That’s still a few kilometres inside, but we know that it will be affected. The region has already suffered with mineral exports, but unlike iron ore, coal is light and travels far,” says Diana Tavares, who is fighting against the highway expansion for coal. An RTI response shows that from Khandepar to the state’s border at Anmod, the government wants to acquire 144.53 hectares of forest land for widening NH 4A.

At Tisk, the highway runs parallel to the state’s bio-diversity stretch, with the road passing below canopies of gulmohar and mango trees interspersed with coconut, banana, areca nuts and rubber and sugarcane farms. Prakash Jambale, a retired agriculturist from the state Directorate of Agriculture, runs a farm in Tisk and has a word of caution. “A decade ago, my family was funded by a mining firm to build a nursery of Germera flowers. That decision pinches till date. We thought our indigenous ways of living was still being promoted… Now we realise that they were buying our silence,” he says.

“Unlike iron ore, coal dirt will cover the leaves and create a dark cover damaging photosynthesis. There are tropical swathes here that are most sensitive to such pollution… The bio-diversity here is at risk,” he warns. As a result, harvest cycles could reduce by 20-25 days, affecting crop yield, including that of cashew, says Jambale. Farmers across the region say the flowering, pollination and harvest of tropical plants are spread from December and May — a period when the coal transport peaks.

DHARBANDORA & MOLLEM, 54-68 km
‘Elephant corridor, tiger reserve, all at risk’

The coal trail inches ahead to Dharbandora, known for sightings of the state mascot, the great Indian bison, and lined with spice plantations. Milagris Fernandes, 67, runs the Pascal Farm, known for its tropical exotic plants. Fernandes’ latest experiment is growing a rare spider fern imported from Thailand. “The coal trucks are not a problem in monsoon, but any increase (in their numbers) and the temperature will rise and ruin green experiments,” he says. The highway curves at Suctali, home of former sarpanch Rajan Prabhudesai, 60, who’s also fighting against expansion of the highway from two to four lanes.

Ten years ago, he says, 7,500 sq m of his land was acquired by the government “for a meagre price”. “I haven’t been paid yet. Now they have brought their men and are asking for more as they want to widen it to 35m. I am a former sarpanch and if I am so helpless in front of them, imagine the plight of all the farmers on the way,” says Prabhudesai.

From Suctali, the highway enters what the Forest Department has classified as a “tropical moist deciduous” forest, filled with the scent of flowers and the hum of forest flies.

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Running north to south, it’s almost like a green border, and believed to cover 23.39 per cent of the state’s forest area. The stretch encompasses two wildlife sanctuaries Bondla and the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary with forest boards calling it an “elephant corridor” and a “tiger reserve”.

Here, traffic is heavy, and the coal trucks stop at Mollem, the checkpost, before they climb the Ghats. “The area is already seriously affected due to mining. Any further developmental activity without proper scientific investigation would impact many more species,” says Dr Nitin Sawant, former member secretary of the Goa State Bio-diversity board. “The Western Ghats are a biological hotspot and naturally maintain all the necessary hygrothermal profiles. Any interference will affect many species, which are habitat-specific,” he says.

The roads get dense, and the steep incline to Anvoldem begins for the coal trucks. “A botanist recently identified a new plant species, Dipcodio, found nowhere in the world. Imagine if some pollutant should destroy it. There are so many such tropical species to be discovered still. It’s like killing an unborn child,” says Miguel Braganza, secretary, Botanical Society of Goa.

It takes another hour to cross the Ghats — the 20-tonne coal trucks take longer. PWD officials say the Ghats will be the toughest stretch for road widening. The Forest Department expects over 93 hectares of forest cover to be diverted just for road-widening around Anmod. The stretch between Khandepar to Anmod will be another 90 hectares, they say. See | Images from Ground Zero of the coal routes in Goa

Tomorrow | Problems unsolved, new coal corridor in the works

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