Forest clearance was given to the contentious Goa railway project in the Western Ghats
Under the Forest Conservation Act, the Union Ministry of Climate, Forest and Environmental change has granted the approval of nearly 140 hectares of protected Western Ghats Forest land. The permission has been granted for contentious double tracking of the railway line between the Castlerock Railway Station and the Margao Railway station in South Goa. The state is to lose 50,000 trees for the task. In a communication with the forest secretary, the MoEF has informed that the consent is being granted based on Goa’s request subject to certain conditions.
The letter of consent was issued on January 27 by Deputy Inspector General of forests M K Shambhu after the regional empowered committee ‘carefully examined’ the proposal and decided to grant an in-principle stage-I approval. The diversion of the forest land subject to conditions including transferring of money equal to the net present value of the forest land being diverted to the CAMPA funds for raising, maintaining the compensatory afforestation for the degraded forest land.
Curiously, despite the trees being felled in Goa on the windward side of the Western Ghats, the compensatory afforestation for these projects is being done in Sutagatti, Iddalahonda, Ramadurg, Kakati, Suldal, and Shigeholi villages of Gokak and Karkati taluks in Karnataka.
The doubling of the railway line along the existing alignment is being opposed in Goa by some. The line will cut across the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park – the two are Goa’s oldest wildlife sanctuaries fearing that besides ecological damage, new construction will destabilize the vulnerable slopes of the Western Ghats mountain range and lead to landslides and other unforeseen consequences.
In 2010, the Ministry of Railways sanctioned the doubling of the existing 342 kilometers long Hospet-Tinai ghat-Vasco railway line in the states of Karnataka and Goa. The first phase between Hospet and Tinai ghat involved easier terrain atop that has already been completed. It’s the second phase between Tinai ghat and Vasco da Gama that involves crossing the steep slopes, raging rivers and the thick forest of the Western Ghats as well as densely populated areas of coastal Goa.
The railways have said there is no alternative to locating the project in forest land as the alignment invariably has to pass through the protected area. The authorities also announced mitigation measures in the form of four underpasses to allow for wildlife crossing for the railway project and an elevated viaduct at 13 locations for the highway. The railways have also claimed that it is not being done solely to transport coal but for the general ‘development’ of the region.
Prashant Kumar Mishra, the additional general manager of South Western Railways which is tasked with the project, had said last year, “It has been misconstrued that the railway line double-tracking is being done solely for the purpose of coal transport. Across the world, the focus is increasingly on non-conventional sources of energy.”
“In the year 2015-16 the South Western Railway carried 12 million metric tons of coal (per year) while in the year 2019-20 we have carried 9 metric tons of coal which is a reduction of 25%.”
Despite the clearances, the project is likely to encounter further legal hurdles on account of the staunch opposition before work begins.