More than 5,000 people gathered at a railway track in the Chandor village of the western Indian state of Goa on the night of November 1, to protest controversial infrastructure proposals by the state government that threaten to wipe out 170 hectares of forest land and disrupt surrounding wildlife sanctuaries. From midnight to 6 a.m. – despite the pandemic – the mask-clad crowd chanted slogans, gave speeches, played music, and performed Kunbi, a traditional folk dance – sparking a festive and energetic the atmosphere.
Locals are concerned that these projects, which seek to expand a railway track, widen a highway, and deepen six rivers for barges to facilitate the transportation of coal, will damage the ecology of the region.
If implemented, Goa will lose 59,024 trees in protected areas like the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, which are known as “Goa’s lungs” and are home to many endemic species.
“Coal transport will impact small and dense surrounding villages by causing air pollution, contaminate freshwater sources, and will affect fishing, a primary source of livelihood for people in Goa,” Deepika D’souza, one of the protest organisers and a volunteer from the Goyant Kollsa Naka (No coal for Goa) movement, told VICE World News. D’souza said that in its attempt to clear these forests for industrial benefits, the government has not followed due process. “The notification for the land acquisition was announced when Goa went into lockdown in March, which meant nobody could see the plan or oppose it in a public hearing.”
India’s Environmental Protection Act of 1986 empowers an expert appraisal committee (EAC) composed of scientists and project management experts to review the environmental impact of a proposed industrial project. After a public consultation process, the environment ministry is obliged to accept the final recommendation of the EAC before approving the project.
According to D’souza and other Goa-based environmentalists, these projects have neither gotten the approval of local authorities nor the communities they directly affect. “They only benefit big industrial houses and not the local Goans,” she said.
Between 2016 to 2017, 12.75 million tonnes of coal was carried across Goa to refineries and power stations in Karnataka and nearby areas. The biggest importers of this coal have been the Jindal group’s JSW Steel Ltd and the Adani Group, according to The Indian Express.
D’souza’s coalition has been mobilising communities in affected areas for the last six months by conducting door-to-door campaigns, bike rallies and silent protests.
Online petitions opposing the industrial projects have received thousands of signatures and have been endorsed by influencers and celebrities.
Last Friday, October 30, a team of workers showed up in Chandor to lay railway tracks that would expand the South Western Railway Line. Locals say they were not informed of this expansion, and that it was planned after sunset to avoid getting noticed. Over the next few days, large groups of people gathered at the site and began vociferously protesting.
Construction work on the railway track has since stopped.
“We still don’t have any assurance that they will listen to our demands,” Mithila Prabhudesai, a 20-year-old medical student from Goa, who launched the art protest page Mollem Memory Project along with her classmates, told VICE World News. Prabhudesai, who was one of the first young Goans to join the movement, said that these industrial projects would pass through and pollute Dudhsagar, Goa’s tallest waterfall and a tourist attraction. “Dudhsagar is the origin source for many rivers, which many villages use for water consumption. So it will impact everyone’s water supply.”
State police have booked activists from Goyant Kollso Naka and Goencho Ekvott for unlawful assembly, wrongful restraint and inciting riots.
In April 2017, Goa’s Mormugao Port, the main point of transit from Goa to other states and countries including South Korea, United Arab Emirates and Thailand, held a public hearing to expand its coal handling capacity from seven million tonnes to 24 million tonnes.
However, the proposal was scrapped after locals vehemently opposed it.
“But this time, the government is being ignorant, despite Vasco, the area where the port is, being one of the most affected by COVID-19 and reporting high numbers of asthma cases due to the coal transportation that happens at the port,” said Prabhudesai. Despite worries about the risk of getting coronavirus, Prabhudesai and thousands of other locals chose to protest to make their voices heard.
“Goans are deeply connected with nature, and we don’t want to lose the green spaces that provide us recreational peace for the sake of development that will only benefit big corporates,” Trisha Dias Sabir, a volunteer at Amche Mollem (My Mollem), an online movement at the forefront of the protests, told VICE World News.
Amche Mollem uses art and films to provide information on the ecological damage the proposed projects would cause.
“We’re angry because we, the stakeholders, are not being taken into consideration,” Dale Dias, 23, a student from Goa who runs the popular meme page The Goan Pao told VICE World News. Dias has used his platform to make memes about the government’s refusal to follow legal processes and listen to their people. “Even if you couldn’t attend the protest, it’s important to contribute by calling it out on social media, signing online petitions and standing in solidarity,” he said.
Despite the massive opposition, Goa’s state government has maintained that these projects will benefit the locals, and will not turn Goa into a polluted coal hub. “Coal has been imported for so many years now,” Goa’s chief minister Pramod Sawant said at a press event following the protests. “We have not even increased the import of coal. We are carrying out this development, for development of industries and promotion of export and import.”
Follow Shamani on Instagram.