Rail, road —and also river. The gushing Zuari and the green paddy fields on its banks may frame a Goa postcard but this river is now also a favoured route for coal transport across the state. And this, just like the coal train and the coal trucks, is raising fears all along its route. Ask Bharat Raghuvir Desai, 53, a farmer who’s lived all his life in Xelvona village, 50 km from the Karnataka border —the destination of most of the state’s coal.
“My paddy fields will be the first to go black,” he says. “They are building a freight terminal here… But I am not giving in, this is the land of my ancestors.” He is referring to Sociedade de Fomento, a Goa mining group, which is waiting for environmental clearance to stack cargo “as high as 25 metres” in Desai’s village. This is part of the group’s proposal submitted to the State Environment Appraisal Authority for Goa in 2014 to handle coal at a 2,63,000 sq m bulk freight terminal facility across Xelvona and Assolda.
Express Investigation part 1: Coal on move, 25 tonnes a minute, is choking Goa, more is on the way
As an ongoing investigation by The Indian Express has revealed, the Mormugao port expects to unload over 51 million tonnes of coal every year from 2030, to be transported over three routes —rail, road and water —to steel factories in Karnataka, leaving in its wake a trail of environmental damage. According to the 2016 Sagarmala report on coastal upgradation, 21 million tonnes of this coal will be transported across the state through road and water.
For this to happen, records show, the port will require bulk freight terminals to open up along Goa’s riverine network to move coal to bulk terminals, and using a combination of road and rail to reach the steel hubs. In 2007, the Mormugao port had proposed the same combination for the export of iron-ore, with loading at Bellary in Karnataka, transport over rail till Sanvordem, and then on barges through the Zuari to the port.
Express Investigation part 2: What the toxic train leaves in its wake
This time, according to port records, the water route will require dredging of the Arabian sea bed for bigger cargo vessels to dock at the state’s shores, and a waterway to be developed through the state’s network of six rivers. In July, Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar informed the State Assembly that the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), the Goa government and Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) is in the last phase.
In 2016-17, port records show, 0.61 million tonnes of coal was evacuated through the sea route. In 2016, they show, 5,06,717 tonnes of coking coal and 43,787 tonnes of thermal coal were moved inland on water.
Records show that Sociedade de Fomento already owned 2,02,578 sq m of agriculture land when it approached the environment appraisal authority in December 2014. Of the entire project, a section will be used to stack other cargo, including iron ore, fertilizers and cement, with 3,00,000 tonnes of coal to be accommodated in a storage yard of 180,600 sq m —that’s roughly the load of two cape-size cargo ships.
The documents show that the cargo will then be transported using “at least 260 trucks a day”, with more to be transported over the rail route – the South Western Railway line cuts right through Xelvona terminal facility. “It’s an absolute slap to local governance. The state government has still not officially informed anyone,” says Dayanand Naik, a former sarpanch of Xelvona and Assolda, adding that he got a “whiff” of the project when the company placed an advertisement in a local newspaper.
Naik has approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against the environmental clearance given to Fomento by the state appraisal authority on December 16, 2015 — the clearance is now under review.
Another village, meanwhile, is gearing to probe another land acquisition. “At Durbhat, near the passenger jetty and Borim where a new road corridor is shaping, space has been marked for a coal stack. The idea behind these projects is to create economic centres where the coal can be pushed, as the port cannot physically expand to match the cargo,” says Abhijit Prabhudesai, an activist who has mapped development in the area.
Express Investigation part 3: All along the road route, the black dust settles
The Sagarmala vision is designed to derive economic benefits from two kinds of water bodies — the sea (port) and the inland river (water corridor), with two sets of deep-sea dredging already in different stages of execution in Goa, with the backing of the National Waterways Act, 2016.
The project was relaunched by the Narendra Modi government in March 2015, with a note prepared by the central government stating that it would “boost the current proportion of merchanised trade from 42 per cent to Germany levels of 75 per cent”. Modelled around Shenzen in China and Gujarat, the project aims to boost waterways as a cargo corridor with the Goa chapter of the Sagarmala report emphasising on use of barges for speedy evacuation.
At the Mormugao port, shipping ministry records show, this means that an 18-km navigational channel will be dug at a cost of Rs 380 crore, deep enough to allow a depth of 19.8m to hold fully loaded capesize vessels. To fully benefit from this “advantage of scale and freight benefits”, 15 million cubic metres of the Arabian seabed — calculated as three-dimensional slabs — has been marked for extraction.
According to an order from the NGT on September 2, 2016, the port had completed 65 percent of dredging. “The hydrographic chart of 2007 already shows a depth of 19 metres available at the outer depths. Why are they digging more?” says Antonio Mascarenhas, a former scientist with the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) who is leading an NGT-appointed committee to monitor the dredging.
“In coastal management, the ultimate beneficiary is the coastal dweller and not the coastal businessman. The current regulatory bodies are only working for the businessmen. If anyone questions, they are tagged anti-development or activist. The port should address these concerns,” says Mascarenhas, a former member secretary of the Goa Coastal Zone Management Authority (GCZMA), the state regulatory body monitoring Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) norms.
Express Investigation part 4: Danger ahead, new coal corridor is coming up
At Sancuole Bay near the port, Sebastiao Lobo, 54, a fisherman, says, “After dredging, the fish catch has decreased. The project is encouraging mechanised trawlers, pushing us to the deep sea, and bringing ships closer.”
Dredging is yet to start on the river network, where barges have been carrying iron ore to the port. Currently, the main destination for coal from the port is the pig iron factory at Amona owned by Vedanta, which uses a network connecting Zuari and Mandovi rivers.
Responding to queries from The Indian Express, Vedanta said in a statement that it “proposed to use a combination of water and rail” for its Bellary plant, which “is in a very preliminary stage”.
Stating that it currently transports 0.75 million tonnes of coal over the inland water route in Goa, Vedanta said, “We are not handling coal at MPT land. It is directly unloaded from mother ship in barges in mid sea and same are being transported after covering with silpoline and unloaded at plant. This is the safest and most environment friendly method used by the mining industry in Goa.”
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Sociedade de Fomento did not respond to requests from The Indian Express seeking comment. On the ground, meanwhile, marine biologist Puja Mitra says the immediate impact will be seen on Humpback dolphins, among other species.
“They hunt at one place, they play at another, and they do not understand these displacements… this is going to affect the ecology, and these species will move away. They are endangered and they could also risk their lives with capesize vessels moving into their territory,” says Mitra, who runs a dolphin sighting service.
“What we forget is this is repeatedly happening to the same radius of water. In the EIA study, they couldn’t shy away from saying that the species will be affected and that they cannot bring the ecological balance to pre-project standards,” says Mitra.
Express Investigation part 5: Lives touched by coal
A study conducted by The Research Collective, an India-based research unit focusing on development, equitable growth, natural resources and people’s rights, says, “No real consideration of the existing fisheries ecosystem — economic or social — has taken place. The impact of such coastal industrialisation on the already degraded coastline of India and coastal communities has not been assessed in any of the reports so far. Considering that 45 percent of the coast is already occupied by industry, even the physical space for such expansion is suspect.”