The dense evergreen and semi-evergreen forests of Mollem at the edge of the Western Ghats, 60 km from Goa’s capital Panaji, support thousands of indigenous people and abound with a huge diversity of wildlife: tigers, leopards, gaur, and over 200 species of birds. They also happen to be the site of three proposed infrastructure projects — a highway expansion, the double-tracking of a railway line, and a power transmission line — which if initiated could mean the felling of over 30,000 trees, irreversibly impacting this rich ecosystem.
The ‘Save Mollem’ campaign in Goa has drawn everyone from celebrities to politicians, who have come together to express outrage at the absence of assessment of the threats to green cover and wildlife that the projects pose, and a consequent lack of mitigation measures.
Take the 400 kv power transmission line from Goa to Karnataka that passes through the forests near Mollem, which has been given a wildlife clearance by the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife. The line, which could involve the felling of over 5,000 trees, is being built by the Goa Tamnar Transmission Project Ltd, a special purpose vehicle of Sterlite Power. The forest department’s site inspection report says that the area has ‘semi-evergreen forests’ with 43 species of mammals such as the tiger, leopard, sloth bear, barking deer, and slender loris, and 250 species of birds.
But in its forest clearance application, the company says: “Since the project is for laying of a transmission line, post its installation, there shall not be any harmful impact on the wildlife.” This contradicts growing scientific consensus that linear projects like power transmission lines have harmful effects on wildlife. For instance, a paper published this May in the journal Biological Conservation says that power lines “act as barriers to movement, with many animals avoiding even narrow clearings”. They disrupt ecological processes and gene flow and affect seed dispersal and disease dynamics, the study says. The lead author of the paper, Anisha Jayadevan of the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru, says, “Animals like the flying squirrel and lion-tailed macaque move from branch to branch. They are unlikely to cross even really narrow clearings.” . As for large mammals, while they can cross, they stand the risk of getting electrocuted by sagging wires. “There has to be a study for each location to see what wildlife is being impacted and how it can be mitigated,” says Jayadevan.
In August 2019, the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife, chaired by environment minister Prakash Javadekar, approved a list of 13 ‘eco-friendly measures’ to mitigate the impact of power transmission infrastructure on wildlife. One of these said, “Early planning and rigorous Environmental Impact Assessment are two principal requirements for reducing wildlife mortality due to transmission lines.” But the Goa Tamnar Transmission Project, as a power transmission project, is exempted from preparing an Environment Impact Assessment report. It is also exempted from preparing a biodiversity impact assessment as part of its wildlife clearance, because it occupies a 48-ha area in the sanctuary and the minimum limit to prepare the assessment is 50 ha. In fact, the Goa forest department’s senior officials approved the project “in public interest” citing its necessity to supply electricity to Goa. At the State Board for Wildlife, some members objected to the proposal because of the impact on the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary, according to the minutes of the meeting; but they went ahead and approved the proposals saying it was necessary for “meeting and strengthening power supply to the State”.
The National Board for Wildlife’s standing committee approved the project in April 2020 without recommending any wildlife mitigation measures. It said measures recommended earlier by Goa’s Chief Wildlife Warden would do. But these were generic in nature — the warden said that the company “may install towers” in a way that fewer trees are felled, and that “the construction/ installation work should not have adverse impact on wildlife habitat.” These are vague and non-specific instructions.
Meanwhile, when contacted, the power company said in an email that it had voluntarily carried out a study in March 2019 and submitted it to the State government at the beginning of the clearance process. It will also voluntarily undertake mitigation measures such as building artificial nesting platforms and perch rejecters, it said. The company also stated that “transmission lines do not divide the forest in two parts and allow free movement of wildlife.”
Two other prominent projects near Mollem have not carried out any wildlife assessment at all. These are the four-laning proposal for National Highway 4A, and the double-tracking of the South Western Railway line through the Ghats. The projects fall within the eco-sensitive zones of wildlife sanctuaries with populations of leopards and gaur. But they are exempt from wildlife clearances thanks to an order issued by the environment ministry in 2017 for such projects in eco-sensitive zones of sanctuaries. “Such ‘executive clarifications’ weaken regulations,” says Chakraborty, the lawyer.
Several agencies — ranging from the State forest departments, to the National Board for Wildlife — have powers under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 to assess projects coming up in wildlife-rich areas and impose legally binding mitigation measures. But these powers have not been exercised for the projects coming up near Mollem. While site inspection reports prepared by the forest department document the presence of wildlife including tigers and gaur, the government does not recommend mitigation measures, and if it does, these measures are vaguely worded.
All three projects are still awaiting final forest clearance by the Environment Ministry. Meanwhile, on December 16, the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee said it would carry out site inspections in Goa for all three projects after it received a number of complaints on the manner in which the projects were green-flagged with no assessment to the threats to wildlife. There may yet be a glimmer of hope for the pristine forests of Mollem.
The writer is an environmental journalist based in New Delhi.