Tension in India over plan to turn Goa into coal hub

The projects affect an area recognized by Unesco as one of the world’s eight “hottest hotspots” of biological diversity, which includes the Dudhsagar falls— a major tourist draw. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Indian environmentalists and politicians in Goa, known globally for its beaches and dense forests, are opposing a plan by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to turn the southwestern coastal state into a coal transportation hub.

Protests against the initiative began last year, when New Delhi unveiled three infrastructure projects to increase coking coal handling at the state-run Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) in Goa. The proposed developments include the expansion of a highway, railway and a power transmission network, which locals claim would cut through ecologically sensitive areas, such as the Mollem national park.

India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar cleared the projects over video conference in March, barely two weeks after the country had gone into a coronavirus lockdown.

“People are asking, ‘What’s in it for us?’” lawyer Savio Correa, who lives near the Mormugao port, told Financial Times. He added the plan, particularly the railway track expansion, would affect thousands of people, “destroy the environment” and “make it impossible to live” due to “noise and coal dust pollution.”

“You want to carry coal, but are Goans benefiting, or are we sacrificing our health and our economy for the benefit of somebody else?,” Correa said.

The park and the adjoining Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary, covering a protected area of 240 sq km, is set to be splintered and partially deforested by the invasive projects, activist Claude Alvares, director of the Goa Foundation, told local media last year.

Biodiversity at stake

The area in question has been recognized by Unesco as one of the world’s eight “hottest hotspots” of biological diversity. It is also the site of a 12th Century Hindu temple, tropical forests and waterfalls, including Dudhsagar — a major tourist draw.

Goa’s government has said the projects have nothing to do with coal. They say the new power line will provide the state much-needed electricity, the highway will meet the demands of growing traffic and the extra railway line will allow more goods and passenger trains to run.

MPT currently handles around nine million tons of imported coal bound via road and rail mainly for steel plants in neighbouring states.

Reports suggest that MPT aims to import 51.6 million tonnes by 2030 to transport it through Goa to other states for companies such as the Adani Group, JSW Group and Vedanta.

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