A Railway line, a highway and a power transmission line — since December and during the lockdown, the Centre has cleared three key Goa projects claiming a state panel had approved it. But now at least six members of that panel have come out to say they are unaware of the clearance and have red-flagged their environmental concerns. A Supreme Court panel has taken note, too.
Double-tracking of a showpiece 120-year-old rail line from Karnataka’s Hospet to Vasco; laying down a 400-kv power transmission line and four-laning of the existing NH 4A are the three projects cleared by the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) headed by Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar.
Minutes of the meetings, one on December 17 last year and the other on April 7 this year, show that the projects were cleared by the NBWL which said that the Goa State Wild Life Board (GSWLB) “recommended the proposals in its meetings”.
Not true, say some members of the state board, who are all noted environmentalists.
According to them, no recommendations were made; they were not aware of the agenda for the state board meeting until they reached the venue; the mitigation measures are “unscientific”. And, “everything has been given to these projects on a platter with scant regard for the bio-diversity or richness of the Western Ghats”.
On Thursday, the Central Empowered Committee constituted by the Supreme Court sought a detailed response within 30 days from authorities and companies involved in implementing and clearing the three projects following a complaint from NGO Goa Foundation.
Records reviewed by The Indian Express show that the projects will lead to the diversion of 170 hectares of protected area in forest land in the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and its core notified area, Mollem National Park.
Indeed, the Environment Impact Assessment reports of these projects by the Forest Department point to “fragmentation of important wildlife refuge” and “severe changes to ecological and ecosystem process”, and warn that they will “degrade soil quality” and “deplete aquatic reservoirs”.
Records of the two meetings show that the clearance was based on mitigation measures suggested by the Chief Wildlife Warden, who is the member secretary of the GSWLB.
When contacted, Santosh Kumar, Chief Wildlife Warden, confirmed that “a few people raised issues” during the state board meeting. “Now, they have to write to the National Board,” he said.
Kumar said two types of clearances are required for such projects, and there is still one stage left.
“Since the project falls inside a National park and sanctuary, the clearance of the National Board is required, which is done. Now clearance under the Forest Conservation Act is required for use of forest land for non-forestry purposes. That approval is with the Ministry of Environment. The Central government will decide on FCA clearance based on available data,” he said.
The 30-member Goa State Wildlife Board was reconstituted in November 2019, with members from various government departments, including Tourism, Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Tribal Welfare, and 10 private members drawn from environmentalists and NGOs.
Its first meeting was held at the official residence of Chief Minister Pramod Sawant, who is the board’s chairman, on December 2, 2019, when the projects were cleared.
“We were told this is a meeting to introduce everyone and discuss general matters. There was no talk of this being an environment assessment discussion or a project clearance meeting,” said environmentalist Rajendra Kerkar, one of the members. “The haphazard manner in which the meeting was done, with no discussion, rounding off proposals in less than an hour… is shocking.”
Following the state board meeting, some of its members — NGOs Goa Bird Conservation Network and Vivekanand Environment Awareness Brigade, and environmentalists Kerkar, Arnold Noronha, Amrut Singh and Charan Desai — wrote to the Chief Wildlife Warden expressing concern “on the way the meeting was conducted with hardly any formal structured discussion or debate on serious issues”.
Pointing out that “no cumulative impact assessment (was) done of all three projects to contiguous wildlife network between Goa and Karnataka” in the Western Ghats, the letter said the projects were presented by the Forest Department instead of the proponents, which “sent a wrong signal”.
According to Anamika Gode, an environmental lawyer who has been probing the project clearances, “Section 29 and 35 (6) of the Wildlife Act are extremely prohibitive, and nothing can be permitted unless it is beneficial to wildlife or their habitat. Whether or not a project satisfies this strict legal mandate is to be examined by the wildlife boards alone, always keeping the interest of wildlife at the forefront.”
Parag Rangnekar, who represents Goa Bird Conservation Network in the state panel, says the only “environment detail” discussed in the state meeting was the “number of trees to be axed”. “It’s appalling how these meetings, which form the basis for environmental clearances at the state and national levels, are conducted with lack of technical study, no quantum strategy for compensatory afforestation,” he said.
Members Charan Desai and Amrut Singh said the “projects’ impact has still not been explained to any of us”. “We were used as puppets. They wanted signatures of attendance to forward to the National Board,” Singh said.
Responding to these allegations, Kumar said: “They raised many issues, and the project proponents, the authorities from national highways and railways and whosoever was there, explained to them and accordingly a decision was taken by the Chief Minister who is also the chairperson of the Board… There is no provision in the law that says a development project has to be done by plebiscite. It has to be done by the competent authority.”
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