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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Explained: Why an SC-appointed panel has red-flagged Goa infra projects

The double-tracking railway line project will “destroy the fragile eco-system of the Western Ghats”, the SC-appointed panel Central Empowerment Committee said in its report of April 23.

Written by MAYURA JANWALKAR , Edited by Explained Desk | Panaji |
Updated: April 30, 2021 8:15:25 am
The Western Ghats (Express Photo: Prashant Nadkar, File)

The Central Empowerment Committee (CEC) constituted by the Supreme Court has raised serious concerns over the environmental impact of the double-tracking of the railway line from Castle Rock in Karnataka to Kulem in Goa. The project will “destroy the fragile eco-system of the Western Ghats”, the CEC has said in its report of April 23.

Following an application filed by the Goa Foundation, the CEC examined the proposals cleared by the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (SC-NBWL) for the three linear projects in Goa — doubling of railway tracks, four-laning of a national highway, and the Goa-Tanmar Transmission Project — that will cut through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary (BMWS) and Mollem National Park (MNP) in South Goa.

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Application before the CEC

The Goa Foundation had filed an application before the CEC on June 26, 2020, alleging violation of the Supreme Court’s order of October 5, 2015 on matters relating to the National Park I Wildlife Sanctuaries and contravention of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, by the Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife (SC-NBWL), which had cleared the three linear infrastructure projects within the boundaries of Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park in Goa.

The SC-NBWL had given wildlife clearance to the proposal for doubling of the railway track on December 17, 2019. On April 7, 2020, the SC-NBWL cleared the proposal for the power transmission project, and took up for consideration the project of four-laning of the national highway.

The Goa Foundation submitted that taken together, the three projects involved diversion of about 170 hectares of forest land and sanctuary land, and the felling of an estimated 37,000 trees.

CEC’s examination of the issue

In December 2020 and April 2021, the CEC held virtual meetings with Goa Foundation, representatives/counsel for Goa Tamnar Transmission Project, Ministry of Power, Ministry of MoEF&CC, South Western Railway, Rail Vikas Nigam Limited (RVNL), the PWD, Electricity and Forest Departments of the Government of Goa, and the Government of Karnataka.

From January 18 to January 22 this year, CEC Chairman P V Jayakrishnan, Member-Secretary Amarnatha Shetty, Member Mahendra Vyas, and amicus curiae ADN Rao made site visits. The CEC also went through all documents filed by the applicant and the various agencies.

CEC findings on double-tracking project

In its report, the CEC said the doubling of the railway track from Castle Rock in Karnataka to Kulem “will destroy the fragile eco-system of the Western Ghats which is an internationally recognised Biodiversity hotspot and also one of the most important wildlife corridor of the country”. It asked the Supreme Court to consider revoking the permission granted by the SC-NBWL for the double-tracking project.

“Moreover this doubling project will only be marginally enhancing the capacity of the most inefficient section of the Railway Network passing through ecologically sensitive and bio-diversity rich Tiger Reserve, Two Wildlife Sanctuaries and a National Park”, it said.

The CEC observed: “The estimate of projected increase in traffic from Karnataka to Goa furnished by the railways is not based on facts and is without any sound reasoning and as statistics show mostly includes empty rakes returning to Goa and that despite the change in policy on import of coal the same has not been reflected in the projected traffic from Goa to Karnataka.”

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On power transmission project, highway expansion

The CEC recommended that the alignment of the Goa-Tanmar Transmission Project for laying of lines for the additional 400 KV feed to Goa be redrawn and modified along the existing 220 KV line. This will “help in saving the precious forest cover and wildlife in the ecologically fragile and biodiversity rich Western Ghats”, the CEC stated.

On the four-laning of NH 4A from Anmod near the Goa-Karnataka border to Mollem, the CEC recommended that an “elevated structure” be built at certain places.

The CEC said, “Considering the future increase in traffic, something unavoidable, and keeping in view the interest of the Wildlife Sanctuary and the National Park, it is imperative to ensure improvement of the existing road by shifting it to an elevated structure at strategic locations leaving the surface terrain free for movement of all types of wildlife.”

The CEC observed that the width of the under passes/over passes provided for the movement of animals by the Goa PWD were inadequate, and recommended that the length of the span of the proposed four-lane elevated road be increased from 12 metres to up to 100 m.
Political battle over the projects

Environmentalists and citizen’s groups had opposed the projects tooth and nail. A protest had been staged against the double tracking project in November 2020 with thousands of Goans – youth in large numbers – gathering in Chandor in November 2020 under the ‘Save Mollem’ banner. On several occasions, the opposition had targeted the BJP in the Goa Assembly over the clearances granted to the linear projects.

On Tuesday, the AAP welcomed the CEC’s recommendations and said that the Goa government should now start working in the interest of Goa instead of taking orders from the “high command”. Congress leader Digambar Kamat said the CEC had upheld the Congress’s campaign to save Mollem from destruction. Goa Forward Party leader Vijai Sardesai said the the CEC’s decision was the first step towards saving the Mollem forests and the biodiversity of Goa.

While the Goa government has said that it will go through the CEC’s 110-page report before responding, Chief Minister Pramod Sawant had earlier said that the linear projects were being executed keeping the future of Goa in mind.

“Many people oppose for the sake of opposing. They don’t even know who the project is for. They oppose following someone else’s instructions. They oppose only to politicise the issue,” Sawant had said.

What now

Goa Foundation director Claude Alvares said that the Supreme Court is likely to hear the case when it resumes regular work.he CEC’s report may then come up before the court. The Foundation is yet to be intimated about the next date of hearing, Alvares said.

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