Concerns raised over environmental clearances to two Goa forest projects

The projects, passing through a wildlife sanctuary and national park, were granted virtual clearances during the COVID-19 pandemic

June 05, 2020 02:32 pm | Updated 03:24 pm IST - Mumbai:

Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary, Goa.

Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary, Goa.

A group of 149 scientists, naturalists, conservationists, artists, students and allied professionals have expressed serious concerns regarding the virtual clearances granted to two projects passing through a wildlife sanctuary and national park in Goa during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, the group based across India has pointed to the four-laning of highway and the laying of a line-in lineout (LILO) transmission line which will result in habitat fragmentation and have direct impacts on wildlife in Goa’s Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park.

These clearances were granted virtually during the ongoing lockdown in view of the pandemic.

Third project

In the letter reviewed by this journalist, the signatories pointed out that there was a third project on the double tracking of the railway line from Castle-rock in Karnataka to Collem in Goa that was also being considered by the government.

“It is disturbing how two projects can be cleared by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) in tiger habitat, using poorly-done biodiversity assessment for the NH4A project or no environmental impact assessment (EIA) of power transmission line. No fact-checking has been done whether these EIAs were done properly, or if there is sensitive biodiversity in the region. What is the whole point of the EIA process when the NBWL or MoEFCC doesn’t even care to look at it and blindly trusts project proponents,” Girish Punjabi, a wildlife biologist and signatory to the letter, said.

The signatories said that during the pandemic, when physical distancing was mandated, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) had adapted to the restrictions by use of technology, thus moving to virtual platform for clearances.

The letter argued that such platforms could not to do justice and take into account all possible factors while granting environmental clearances.

The signatories pointed out that the NH4A highway report was “shoddily done” and transmission line EIA was not accessible in public domain. They also said that there was a need to conduct a cumulative EIA of the impact of all three projects, that could not be looked in isolation.

The letter specifically addressed decisions being taken during the 56th and 57th meeting of the Standing Committee of the NBWL pertaining to the proposal affecting Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and the adjoining forests.

“This letter gives voice to thousands of trees in Mollem, Goa, part of a protected forest and critical wildlife corridor that would be felled to make way for 3 infrastructure projects namely widening of railway line, highway road widening and laying of a power transmission line. It also gives voice to the water security of the region, the forests with indigenous trees including the State tree — Matti,” architect, writer and educator Tallulah D’Silva, one of the signatories of the letter, said.

The letter also spoke about the repercussions these projects would have on the wildlife as well as the communities that resided around this protected area.

“The fragmentation of habitat is very likely to create more human-animal conflict as well as soil being eroded from the hill-cutting or land-filling during the projects being deposited in the rivers and streams downstream, thus affecting aquatic life there,” said Omkar Dharwadkar of the Foundation for Environment Research and Conservation and a signatory to the letter.

The signatories while concluding the letter called for assessing cumulative impact assessments of the project and revoke clearances granted during the lockdown until pandemic-related travel restrictions were lifted to allow in-person meetings and travel to project sites for fresh appraisals following due process in the interest of democracy to safeguard Goa’s biodiversity and ecological security.

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