Of late, Facebook groups have been flooded with posts and images of people who have or are planning to move to Goa. Some for a few months, others permanently. While a majority are looking at the vibrant beach destination as a relaxed ‘work-from-home’ option, others, primarily Delhiities, are heading to Goa to escape from rising air pollution levels. A recent post that caught my eye had a man seeking advice on whether heading to Goa for a few months with his newborn was a good idea. Many commented saying that it was a ‘no brainer’, while others spoke of how they have been doing this regularly for the past few years to escape the capital’s killer smog.
I have several issues with this concept, especially during a pandemic. Unfortunately, not only does this trend highlight our government’s incompetence to tackle the snowballing air pollution crisis in North India, but it shows how a certain privileged elite class is gradually killing Goa under the garb of tourism and escape travel.
Meanwhile, Goa has other problems. In April, it was declared Covid-free. However, the situation spiralled quickly once the State opened its borders and the tourists swarmed in. Ever since, Goans have taken to social media to convey their annoyance with the mindless tourists spiking up the Covid count. Reports have also highlighted the sudden real estate boom that has brought in several luxury homebuyers into the State. Clearly, the fear of the pandemic is not uppermost for these travellers and investors. And I am positive that not many of them are aware of, or even care, why Goans are up in arms against the government for over a week now.
Among the over 30 environmentally dubious projects cleared virtually by the Environment Ministry this lockdown, are a slew of infrastructural projects for Goa. These are slated to pass through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mollem National Park. Thousands of agitated local people have been protesting — at railway lines in South Goa — to get the government to stall these projects: the expansion of national highway 4-A, the construction of a transmission line, and doubling the existing railway line.
Oishorjyo, an independent writer based in Goa, wrote a piece for Mongabay India in August this year, highlighting how the State has seen a systematic destruction of its environment over the years. Most recently, the Supreme Court cleared the Mopa airport project, which sanctioned the felling of 55,000 trees. In the case of Mollem, Oishorjyo writes that despite the fact that the project “bifurcates the entire landscape” of a UNESCO-tagged “global biodiversity hotspot”, for the purpose of clearances, the mega grid was broken down into “piecemeal, low-impact projects” instead of assessing the project as a “cumulative” whole. She also points out that the EIA report is riddled with irregularities. For example, “the expansion of National Highway NH4A from 84 km to 153 km, for which 20,199 trees are scheduled to be felled, was approved despite the fact that of the 33 ha of land inside the Mollem National Park that is to be diverted, only 11 ha was inspected by the forest department.”
Avertino Miranda, the founder of Goa Green Brigade, notes that “these big projects have caused severe negative impact on the trees and Goa’s rich biodiversity only to facilitate the cause of big corporations — the road expansion, transmission lines being built through Mollem are mainly to facilitate the movement of coal by the Adani group.”
Not only are we seeing biodiversity hotspots killed to create a coal infrastructure network, but we are seeing how leaders respond to protests. Chief Minister Pramod Sawant lashed out at any protestors living abroad and insisted that the projects were going to benefit residents. Reports in the Goan publication Herald have focussed on the power of local voices and also on the State’s losing battle with the Centre. One such report states that “there is a palpable sense of powerlessness not just among the civil society groups, environmentalists but even the State legislators, whose vociferous objections to these projects have been shrugged aside, belittled and seen as going against the State’s interest”. One such legislator, from the ruling BJP, has been specifically told to refrain from making statements against the projects, the report says.
So how does one continue to fight the good fight? What happens if these projects are not scrapped? And what if similar projects are announced in Goa and other eco-sensitive areas? If legislations can be overlooked and environmental laws bent to suit corporate needs, what we need are not only for laws to be implemented firmly by the judiciary, but for the flawed definition of ‘development’ to change. And we need local voices to be heard louder.
Regardless of which part of the country or globe we live in, it is important to support the #SaveMollem campaign. If it’s Goa today, the country’s smallest State, it could be your home State next. If you want to head to Goa on the next low-cost flight for a break, then speak up. Unless collective dissent is amplified, India’s environment will continue to be traded to private players. Here’s hoping that better sense prevails, and Goa continues to be the green haven it has always been.
A fortnightly column on environmental sustainability and urban issues