Sam Nathan is busy. The 26-year-old techie recently shifted to Goa for ‘work from home’ and now feels like the day doesn’t have enough hours for all his activities. He is street dancing, writing scripts and marching into the jungles for midnight protests. “I've never moved beyond the beaches in Goa, but this time it's different, I feel like I’m part of something big” he says.
India's favourite holiday destination is facing a predicament. Should it retain its rustic village look, keeping Goa a haven for city dwellers, or should it take the beaten path of development with bigger roads and a wider network? Opinion remains divided.
At the crux of the matter are three development projects recently approved by the Union Environment Ministry:
- Double-tracking of the 120-year-old rail line from Hospet in Karnataka to Vasco
- Four-laning of National Highway 4A
- Laying of a 400-KV power transmission line
According to reports, these projects are all part of the Sagarmala port development project. Under this scheme, rail and road expansion aims to create a corridor to transport coal to Goa’s Mormugao Port Trust (MPT). The project master plan envisages MPT becoming a coal/coke import hub with a capacity to handle 51 MTPA (metric tonnes per annum) by 2035. This is to cater to the coal/coke demands of steel plants in neighbouring Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Chief Minister Pramod Sawant of the ruling BJP has, however, assured the people that the State will reduce coal transmission from MPT to half the current capacity, and even stop coal handling completely in the future, according to news reports.
This writer reached out to the Chief Minister’s office and the Finance Ministry for comment but is yet to get a response.
State government view
The State’s BJP government says these projects — double-tracking of the rail line and four-laning of the highway — will improve connectivity to Goa thereby bringing in more tourists and other industries to the State. The power transmission line will help Goa become self-sustainable for power, as the State currently depends on power transmitted from Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Besides, improving the existing infrastructure is expected to pave the way for development and open the State to various industrial sectors, thereby creating job opportunities, “Goa is very strategically located between South and West India. If we create good connectivity by road and rail, it can be a supply chain model for growth. This will make Goa a very efficient State,” said CII National Executive Council Member Nitin Kunkolienker.
The projects, however, have led to large-scale protests across the coastal State. Many allege that the approvals, which were given during the lockdown, have been done without proper environmental clearances. The Environment Impact Assessment Report has still not been made public.
It is estimated that the projects will lead to deforestation of over 170 hectares of forest land both in the Mollem National Park and the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary. The current forest will also be fragmented into four smaller zones.
In a letter written to Minister for Environment Prakash Javadekar, the Travel & Tourism Association of Goa (TTAG), a nodal body to monitor tourism growth in Goa, has sought a “clarification on the explicit need for the project to run through protected area”. The letter, dated June 29, 2020, points out that diversion of land within and around Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, both prime locations for hinterland and nature-based tourism, will significantly affect Goa’s overall tourism vision.
Besides being home to a varied species of flora and fauna, the ghats form a natural tiger corridor between Goa and the Kali Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. These Ghats are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and home to 17 percent of the planet’s tiger population. “It has been proposed to declare this area a tiger reserve. Forest fragmentation will disrupt the movement of animals, change the natural habitat and be detrimental to our tiger population,” said Claude Alvares, Director – Goa Foundation, an environmental monitoring action group. He added: “These ghats are the lungs of Goa. The government must find a different, more sustainable model for growth.”
The story of sustainable growth is not new to Goa. Mining and tourism have been Goa’s backbone, and the State has been struggling to maintain a fine balance between digging up her lands for ore and retaining its natural lustre for tourism.
Mining, until it was banned in 2012, and later again in 2018 after a brief start, contributed approximately Rs 900 crore to the State economy as royalty. Mining also created employment opportunities, especially in the State’s hinterlands, which do not receive many tourists. The State government has filed a petition with the apex court, asking for a resumption in mining.
Goa presented a revenue surplus budget of Rs 353.61 crore with a Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) growth rate of 8.6 percent for 2020-21. However, media reports suggest the State’s debt is rising and is at nearly 19.5 percent of the State’s GDP.
At present, nearly 50 percent of the State's revenue comes from GST and VAT collections, both of which have been severely affected owing to the pandemic.
To compensate for the loss, the State government has requested the Finance Commission to provide for Rs 6,000 crore in grants, in addition to a share of the Central taxes. These measures will help the State tide over its current fiscal requirements but do not create new growth opportunities.
No alternatives created
Goa has also been unable to create any alternative industry after the loss of revenue from the ban on mining. Besides loss of revenue there has been a significant loss of jobs for families that depended on mining.
The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CIME) pegged Goa’s unemployment rate at 13.3 percent in April 2020. Added to this are sea-farers and NRI Goans who have returned due the pandemic, leading to the State having a large number of unemployed youth.
A study by CII, released in 2020, points that in the past decade only six new MSMEs, with an investment of over Rs 5 crore and employing more than 25 people have registered in Goa. There is an urgent need for “economic re-imagination”, it states.
Kunkolienker agrees. “We have to understand that development precedes growth. Let us create the necessary infrastructure, then industries will come. MPT can be used for containers and bulk cargo handling, and we already have some cruise liners coming here; this can be developed. It need not be for coal,” he opined.
A history of successful protests
New projects in Goa have often faced public agitation. A lot of these battles are fuelled by a vigilant population that questions the environmental impact of any proposed development projects.
In the 1990s, the State witnessed an agitation against the expansion of the Konkan Railway project. Public protests also forced the exit or closure of industries such as Thapar DuPont’s nylon 6,6 tyre cord and fabric plant and Meta Strips’ copper recycling plant.
Opposition is rife for the currently under-construction greenfield airport being built at Mopa in North Goa. People have also protested and managed to delay construction of many housing projects, including DLF’s ‘River Valley’ and Gera’s ‘River of Joy’. The protesters allege that these projects, developed inside Goan villages, would lead to water scarcity, apart from environmental degradation.
The coastal State also does not have mobility platforms such as Ola or Uber owing to large-scale protests by taxi operators.
Public uprisings in Goa are strong and often find a lot of political support. Many electoral battles in the past have been won on the ‘No Development for Goa at the cost or natural resources’ mantra. For instance, with an eye on the protests against development projects, including the Regional plan and Mopa airport, veteran politician Churchill Alemao formed the Save Goa Front party for the 2007 State elections and won two seats in the 40-member Assembly. With no party winning a majority, the SGF allied with the Congress to form the government.
“People can influence government decisions and the population is small. Politicians are afraid to lose votes,” opined a senior Professor of Sociology from a prominent college in the State.
According to the 2011 census, Goa’s population was approximately 14.58 lakh. In the last decade many educated expats have relocated to Goa, leading to the State having a large number of educated people. Goa also enjoys a high literacy rate, which, at 88.70 percent, is well above the national average. Besides, with 13.3 percent growth in per capita income, Goa stands second at in the national per capita income index.
Youth in the vanguard
So, what is new this time? Unlike earlier, when most protests had political backing, the objections to the three new projects are being driven by the youth. So, there are plays, street dances, candle light marches and a continuous update of information on social media.
Hashtags such as #mymollem.goa, #mymollem are part of the citizen’s movement to raise awareness on the issue and keep it alive. “It's a youth-driven issue. The youngsters are spreading the word on the impact of coal. Veterans like us are only extending support,” says Claude Alvares.
Social activist Cecille Rodrigues agrees. “Through social media the youth have connected with media influencers. There are prominent celebrities who are working behind the scenes to keep the protests going”. An accomplished dancer, Rodrigues helps the youngsters create innovative ways to reach the masses. “The lockdown has given youngsters plenty of time, and it's these children who want to spread the word. I am only helping them in making it engaging,” she explains.
Goa is a synonym for a good holiday and featured in the top ten searches by Indians during the pandemic. Keeping this brand unique and retaining its natural beauty while creating other growth avenues is indeed a herculean task.Smitha Vijay is a journalist based in Goa.