Ecological Emergency - Goa's Coaling (calling) 

THE UNDYING SPIRIT OF YOUNG STUDENT ACTIVISTS IN MOLLEM STRUGGLES TO SAVE ITS BIODIVERSITY. 

Written by muskaan palod 

Illustrated by Preksha Sipani

How is this construct one of social democracy and how did we manage to reach this stage where there is no simple singular verbatim to convey anything - neither solidarity nor hurt?

This year has been nothing short of a catastrophe. You’d think we would have learnt our lessons in accountability, conservation, conversation and kindness. You’d think civic engagement would be appreciated instead of getting penalised but with everyday growing polarisation, I guess it only boils down to wishful thinking. I remember Goa as the spot I wanted to go to, with my friends, on a starry night dancing away on the edge of something historic yet novel. Today it has become the space of pronounced political anxiety, environmental activism, dissent and authoritarianism. 

 

You must have caught this in some corner of a newspaper on page 4 perhaps. Three development projects are currently in pipeline (so to say but have already started running its course). These include, one, widening the highway NH 4A within the protected area, hence cutting through untouched parts of the wildlife sanctuary and national park. Two, construction of a transmission line starting in Karnataka and extending till Goa. Third, Castlerock-Kulem Railway Doubling; the railway line that passes through the sanctuary in two parts endangering wildlife and forest cover. 


I tuned into a conversation about the same with Devanshi Singh and Gilbert Soyus. They have been actively engaging with respect to social media campaigns for the #SaveMollem - constantly organising events, talks, Twitter storms, filing petitions, writing letters, so on and so forth. In a nutshell, these graduate students have been the face of everything the millennial folks need to connect the dots with. To begin with, I asked them how much of their social media, especially Twitter handling translates to real-time impact or awareness. “In current times, it is the most effective manner to communicate since the State does not allow any other format of doing so. Plus, the covid-scare really dilutes the offline reach. The Internet percolates in every space and since the mainstream does not cover it, it definitely helps.” Soyus adds on to say, “The only way concerned ministers send out appeals to us and the rest of the masses has been on Twitter instead of actual press-conferences. This gives us the scope to constantly put out facts the State has put out as their representative stance.”

There is a constant need to keep putting out information, hoping for a public consciousness to rise in our solidarity. “Most of the people are still unaware about what is happening. A common perception among most is  that Goans are anti-development. This has trivialised the issue to become one  of claim and counterclaim at this point. People are only half aware.”, as Singh states. This is largely because activist groups have been covering information provided by local farmers and indigenous groups, this is in the Konkani language. It remains largely inaccessible and information has to be constantly upcycled to be kept within circulation. 

 

On the other hand, social media campaigning never comes without the trolls of  the BJP IT cell. These groups continue to put out falsifying information on the internet without any scrutinization. “The internet stands polarised and it breaks down the chain we create.” Netizens have to learn to track the trail of information, check sources for verification in today’s digitised information age.

 

Like most people, this issue came to my attention only early in November when I was stunned after a friend forwarded  a live stream of the protest scene at the railway tracks. I watched it until early AM hours. I watched a wave come over me, it spoke of hope, resilience but also, of utmost dissonance, mistrust and anger. Why would over 5000 people have to assemble in the middle of the night, in the middle of a pandemic to show their State authorities that they were unhappy with wrongfully set government agendas? Why weren’t these plans and projects based on assessment of public interests? Why did people have to risk their lives to want to save their environment (a collective ownership)? How much of my dissent would qualify as enough? When will a citizen’s voice be heard? How is this construct one of social democracy and how did we manage to reach this stage where there is no simple singular verbatim to convey anything - neither solidarity nor hurt?

It is not okay that the civic engagement comes at the cost of health. It is not okay that the desperation of the people of Goa had to come to a point where the system’s failure proved to be enough to prioritise their ecology over health.

Minister Nilesh Cabral is one of the only concerned persons who has had the time to speak with journalists and activists. He was cited multiple times having assumed that the people who were protesting were not actually representative of the “people of Goa”, but were outsiders. This extends to the narrative the State has been peddling -- anybody who shows resentment is to be deemed an anti-national element. I probed about this with my panel and what they said made sense in perspective. “These statements are just that, opinions. These are not facts, these are defensive prerogatives.” When such discussions are brought up by Cabral who tags socialist environmentalists, including students as “so-called activists”, it simply reflects lack of substance in argumentation. “Why are they making it a political issue, it is not that, it is not about any singular party. This is about something much bigger. This is about the ecology and indigenous rights of the citizens of Goa. We aren’t anti-BJP or pro-Congress. In fact if you see the statistics, there are many BJP leaders, MLAs who have written letters and signed petitions towards the Centre demanding for these projects to be stopped. However, these things will purposely never be brought into light.”, as they add. 

 

When people on the Internet resort to acknowledgement, whether it is in bad, tasteless defense or multiple retweeting, you know your dissent is publicised, politicised and visible. However, this remains far limiting. As we discussed further it was unravelled how the Government of Goa had, to the media, sustained their statement saying they have paused the project of the railway double-gauge extension. In real time, the project is very much kept on and it's been guarded with a strong police force. Activists are getting slammed with FIRs and arrests. This is used to paralyse the movement but one has to absolutely love the spirit with which these young adults have kept on with it. Their undying enthusiasm to work in and out simply for they envision the same aspiration - for their city to not become a coal hub.  

The protest culture within the no-coal Goa discourse has evolved largely. Singh states, “We had to move to the streets, we were left helpless. We had to organise and mobilise. Initially it was about the letters and signing petitions by environmental experts, political party members, students and many organisations collectively. However, when the Union Environment minister Prakash Keshav Javadekar denied having received any of these letters or petitions, we had to give a tangible effect to our dissent.” It is not okay that the civic engagement comes at the cost of health. It is not okay that the desperation of the people of Goa had to come to a point where the system’s failure proved to be enough to prioritise their ecology over health. While these are not mutually exclusive, this is not how I define development: a data-less authoritative regime costing healthcare failure for thousands, for the  lands of tribals to be tossed away for a coal-hub to make way for  unsustainable environmental plans putting the planet at grave risk.

 

My big question is why does the mainstream media fail to capture these news bits. What is not worth journalistic trivia here? “A big part of the misconception was that there were riots. The protests were not at all violent, it was a candle-light march with folk songs and dance. It really is the people’s movement, not owned by anybody”, as Devanshi comments on being probed. 

 

One thing that really stood out for me was the element of folk culture. However, my gaze as an outsider stands unimportant. For me it translated as a factor of awe and inspiration. However its significance far transcends. These dances are of tribal cultures of Goa, they belong to the indigenous. It is to reflect a cultural consciousness, a heritage that belongs to the masses. It is a reminder of the past in its pride and richness. Goa’s nativist lineage belongs with its farmers and indigneous values. Everyone has the right to city, but it is matters like this that prove time and again how cosmopolitanism makes urban spaces sites for political insecurity. Farmers and fishers have had traditional and customary rights on the said contested lands, and in all authority, should stand reserved with them. However as Soyus pointed out in our conversation, this transcends as a mere debate of rights. These projects will have an impact that will affect the very presence of the city, not the aesthetics alone but the core of its making. 

There are questions but nobody to answer them. There is no response to any of these petitions or queries. Sawant, Cabral or the Centre - who is the face of these projects is unclear.

Ambiguity in processes, details, need assessment and clearance

 

According to a report by the Goan Network, “The Goa Forward claimed that the Electricity department white paper released by Power Minister Nilesh Cabral is completely contradictory to the petition submitted by the department to the Joint Electricity Regulatory Commission.” Only 31% of the energy consumption is for domestic purposes. Over 51% accounted for non-commercial, industrial use. It is really out of question whose vested interests are prioritised over the need of conservation of environment. There has been absolutely no research into these projects. “It is whimsical, and claims are made in the air.”

 

Why would a minister in charge of conserving the environment contest for the need to generate energy with coal? The answer is funny, but morbid for our country and its health. Goa has the same person delegated as the Minister of Environment and the Minister of Power. Cabral has time and again mentioned white papers,  the ministry has (never produced in public domain) to prove the need to generate energy off coal, but not once in the argument to save the protected forest cover of the Mollem National Park where thousands of trees have been felled. This is abuse of power. 

 

“The only white paper available in public domain was in respect to the highway widening -- also dates back to 2015. This was pulled down too for it was scrutinised way more than they’d be comfortable with.” adds Devanshi Goya. She states that only 15-20 trains pass in a route that is set out to be modified to a double-gauge track at the moment. Only five of them are used by civilians and the rest is for industrial use. “Development cannot be defined singularly. Multi-access vehicles are mostly in use. If this industrial traffic is left unregulated, it shall prove to be harmful for the ecology of the city.”, adds Gilbert.  

These projects were passed only in 2020. There is a chronology to this. “It is ambiguous who attended these Zoom meetings (where the projects were passed) during the lockdown. They claim they called upon environment experts who apparently agreed upon these. The experts deny being part of any  said meetings or even knowing the agenda of these virtual meets.” EIA was already in place by this time. Gilbert substantiates the same saying, “This was orchestrated to allow for de-facto approval without assessment. There is absolutely no documentation, no survey with respect to need assessment.” What development is occurring at this cost? Who needs this development? What is the plan from here on? There are questions but nobody to answer them. There is no response to any of these petitions or queries. Sawant, Cabral or the Centre - who is the face of these projects is unclear but what remains factually understood is that the Ministry of Shipping is a huge player for the Sagarmala project. There has been no statement from their front. While answers remain to be seen, illegal hill cutting and railway projects are already under construction, or development, as they put it. The protestors have time and again questioned the MLA, a cabinet minister, about how the work continues despite CM Sawant’s claim to have stopped the double-tracking. Farmers who were paid compensation have agreed to return the sum. Goencho Ekvott said they’d rather die with police bullets than pollution by coal dust. There is solidarity and there are enough conversations locally. What is missing is the administration failing to acknowledge the beauty and magic of Mollem’s biodiversity. What is missing is its visibility at a national level. 

 

In the past couple decades, we have seen this way too often to be ignored. We need to redefine what development means. Development cannot simply mean cutting off trees from forest cover and converting every city to a coal hub. Development also means having to provide for the unique requirements of the habitat in the wildlife. It can, and it now should mean conserving our planet. “Nobody is thinking about or exploring alternatives to the Sagarmala Project. The Ministry of Renewable Energy mandates for the production of at least 350 megawatts of solar energy by 2022. At the moment, it stands as low as 4-5megawatts.” Moving forward researching has to be the answer to crucial concerns raised by civilians. 

It is fundamentally clear that the major beneficiaries in this destruction are industries that will their maximise profits with no safety nets to the wellbeing of Goans. There is a clear indication that if these proceed any further, there will be habitat fragmentation and negative influence on wildlife. In a recent video captured by Dr. Claude Alvares, we saw coal washing up at the Keri beach shore on a casual walk. He explains how it originates from MPT, central Goa flooding every wave in the ocean with shipped coal all over the city. We can't keep breaching ecological boundaries for industrial gains. 

 

Goyant Kolso Naka! 

We don't want coal in Goa