No Environment Impact Assessment for highway expansion in Goa: Violations continue as new draft seeking further dilutions released for comments
In a case involving the diversion of forest land to expand a highway near Goa’s Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary, there is no EIA nor a study examining possible alternatives. A group of local residents from Canacona have filed a public interest litigation (PIL) to oppose this diversion.
While the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEF&CC) has released a new draft to dilute the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of 2006, efforts continue to dodge its existing provisions, which poses a threat in places, to endangered protected areas and wildlife habitats.
The latest draft EIA Notification 2020 reiterates doing away with individual environment clearances in industrial parks or estates and no public consultations in “all linear projects like highways, expressways or elevated roads, pipelines in border states”. Significantly, it also proposes dropping environment clearances for mining the earth for construction: “Extraction or sourcing or borrowing of ordinary earth for the linear projects such as roads, pipelines, etc.”
That will come as welcome news, if passed, for the legions of those engaged in illegal mining of the earth. Already, in a case involving the diversion of forest land to expand a highway near Goa’s Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary, there is no EIA nor a study examining possible alternatives. A group of local residents from Canacona have filed a public interest litigation (PIL) to oppose this diversion.
The proposed highway expansion project with a total length of 137.55 km in the state of Goa is a Category ‘A’ project under the EIA Notification, 2006 which mandates an EIA study and a prior environmental clearance from the MOEF&CC. However, the PIL contends that by fragmenting the project into five components, the Goa Public Works Department (PWD) is trying to circumvent the EIA Notification, 2006. Moreover, rule 7(4)(e)(iii) of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 handbook mandates that for all projects requiring forest land for non-forest purposes, the state government must first certify that all other alternatives have been considered and found not feasible, and the required area is the minimum space needed for the purpose.
The forest land is to be diverted for a proposed expansion of a two-lane (eight- metre) highway passing through the forested Western Ghats in the ecologically sensitive Karmal Ghat, to a six-lane (45 metre) road. It involves the diversion of 29.8 hectares of forest and felling 13,471 trees. Sreeja Chakraborty, advocate for Goenkar, the local group of residents at Canacona, said breaking down the original length of proposed roads was not unprecedented in Goa and elsewhere, to avoid the EIA specifications
The need to preserve this region and the Netravali sanctuary from changes in land use, stems from the fact that it is part of a protected area network which has a small tiger population in the Western Ghats, according to an investigation by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) on tiger deaths in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary in January, 2020. The report written by Rajendra Garawad, assistant inspector general of forests, NTCA regional office, Bengaluru, states, “In view of the significant gains contributed by tiger reserves, it is probably the right time for the State of Goa to take forward the State Board for Wildlife decision and submit proposals for declaration of not just for Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary but also Bhagwan Mahavir National Park, Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary, Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary and Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary as Tiger Reserves. This move will not only secure the habitat for mega carnivores and the associated floral and faunal diversity at the state level but also contribute towards conservation of Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot and a 'World Heritage Site'.” The NTCA report also cites a study (conducted by Verma et al, 2017), which found that the annual flow of benefits derived from tiger reserves range from 128 million to 271 million USD.
On 30 April, the Bombay High court at Goa, in Panjim, heard the public interest litigation (PIL) via video conferencing and has issued notices to the concerned departments, asking for a reply within two weeks in its order of 5 May. The PIL said the area was frequented by wild animals from the Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary which runs parallel to the current highway alignment at a distance of 15 km. It also points out that the site inspection report of the forest departments said critically endangered species such as leopards, mouse deer, spotted deer and bison are frequently seen along the highway.
This proposal to divert 29.8 ha falls in the south forest division to expand the National Highway-17 (now NH-66) from Patradevi to Pollem (475 km to 611 km). It is pending with the Regional Office of the MoEF &CC since 18 April 2020. Initially, a 1.45 km long tunnel running parallel to the existing Konkan Railway was suggested as an alternative which would avoid the diversion of 15.375 hectares of forest land. Even the draft feasibility report prepared by the Goa PWD, finds the tunnel option more feasible but for reasons best known to the government, it was dropped. Chakraborty said the proposed expansion through the existing alignment of Karmal Ghat will severely damage the ecology and environment, fragment the wildlife, cause loss of livelihood and services to the tribals who depend on the forests, apart from increased wildlife roadkills.
In 2016, work began on widening NH-17 from the Maharashtra-Goa border in the north to the Goa-Karnataka border in the south without an EIA. The PIL said it is absolutely inconceivable that such a monumental alteration of a region known to be ecologically sensitive can be allowed to go ahead without an EIA, a law meant specifically to understand the environmental impact of projects.
Changes in land use can have disastrous consequences unless they are understood in advance and steps are taken to reduce impacts. Kerala is a case in point, a state which wilfully ignored the recommendations of the Madhav Gadgil report on the Western Ghats. It is not only the fact that this region is a potential breeding and contiguous habitat for tigers, but also that it is part of a highly fragile ecosystem.
This needs to be kept in mind while expanding highways near protected areas and that it is done without an EIA, or even exploring alternatives, exposes the lack of a conscience and foresight in those who govern and seek more dilutions in existing laws, which are being flouted brazenly anyway.