Why Thousands Of Goans Are Braving A Pandemic To Stop Coal Trains

23 Nov 2020 10 min read  Share

As Goa prepares to expand highways, railways, jetties and ports to double coal transport by 2030, thousands of angry Goans are invoking a history of resistance and taking to the streets to resist the proposed destruction of forests, rivers and villages.

Protests in Chandor/CHEVON RODRIGUES

Panaji: Under the gabled roof of a 17th-century church in South Goa, two hours before midnight on 1 November 2020, thousands of people, armed with candles, mobile phones and masks, came to protest the building of a new railway track.

Volunteers guided incoming protestors to parking spots, speakers on trolleys were rolled into the crowd and a tea stall served the thirsty in Chandor, 40 km south of the capital of India’s smallest state.

On the pulpit, as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the state, a band of activists took turns speaking. “Our demands, we will never compromise. Our demands are not negotiable," a man boomed into the microphone. “We want our Goa. We don’t want coal.” He paused to catch his breath. The crowd roared.

Roughly every other hour, a goods train loaded with coal, creaks out of Goa’s Mormugao Port Trust on a 120-year-old railway line built by its former Portugese administrators, rumbles south and then east, past villages and railway gates—blocking impatient locals from going home, to church, to work, to school.

The wagons rattle past rice fields, coconut groves and cashew farms, barrel over rivers, through a lush wildlife sanctuary, past an iconic 1,000-foot waterfall and huff up the steep Western Ghats, before rustling through a dry open plateau to coal-fired power plants and steel factories in Karnataka, dispersing layers of fine coal dust from tarpaulin-covered wagons over 350 km.

Among other cargo, the Mormugao Port handles iron-ore, steel coils, fertilizers, and phosphoric acid, but coal is by far its biggest shipment—coal volumes shot up after iron-ore exports plummeted by 99% in three years—following a 2012 iron-ore mining ban in Goa.

The Centre and the Goa government want a second track to run, for most of the way, parallel to its predecessor. The new line will help carry more cargo and more tourists, the Railways say. The public protests started when the Railways began work in some of Goa’s villages, including Chandor, without environmental clearances to double the line through the Western Ghats.

By 2030, according to official projections, Mormugao seaport could more than double coal imports, from 24.7 million tonnes in 2020 to 51 million tonnes, brought in by three companies: JSW Group, Adani Group and Vedanta to supply coal-fired power and steel plants in Karnataka and Maharashtra.

Due to storage and space constraints at the Mormugao port, even when the double track is built, freight trains can only handle 30 million tonnes each year, a little over half of the proposed 51 million tonnes of coal.

To fill the gap, a slew of infrastructure projects, over Goa’s rivers, seas, villages and protected forests are in the pipeline. These locals fear, will pollute fields, blacken lungs, soil homes, demolish hillsides, fragment protected forests, kill wildlife and sicken children.

The Railway Line That Was Never Approved

The railway line connects Vasco da Gama in central Goa to Hospet in Karnataka, passing through the railway stations of Kulem in Goa and Castlerock and Tinaighat in Karnataka. The most disputed sections of the line fall between Kulem and Tinaighat, cutting a swathe through the Western Ghats, a UNESCO world heritage site, and fragment wildlife habitats in the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa and the Dandeli-Anashi Tiger Reserve in Karnataka.

In November 2013, Richard D’Souza, Goa’s chief wildlife warden rejected a proposal from the Railways to double the railway line between Kulem and Castlerock, most of it falling within the Bhagwan Mahavir National Park in Goa.

“This National Park has highly indigenous and endangered species like the Black panther, Leopard, Gaur, and a host of other fauna which will be completely disturbed, if doubling of the railway line is done,” noted D’Souza, in a Goa Forest Department dossier, accessed by Article 14. The Chief Wildlife Warden’s dissent was signed by the then Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, who said the Goa government did not agree to the doubling of the railway line.

In 2016, the railways returned to the state government with a revised proposal for the second track, drawn parallel to the existing line. In September that year, the Chief Minister of Goa, Laxmikant Parsekar cleared the line. The chief secretary, who also signed off on the proposal, said that the railway line has assumed “national significance”, and “to improve the overall economy and efficiency into the system, the project has already been approved by the Government of India”. The Chief Minister, in his assent, did not leave notes.

“Once the Chief Wildlife Warden rejects the railway proposal on the grounds that the second track would do damage to the wildlife, then the certificate cannot be easily overruled”, because it is a certificate issued under section 29 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, said Claude Alvares, director at the Goa Foundation, a nonprofit.

Under section 29, diversions in a wildlife sanctuary may be permitted by the Chief Wildlife Warden, only if they “are necessary for the improvement and better management of wildlife”. The opinion of D’Souza’s successors, Alvares said, have not concluded how the railway line is in the interest of wildlife or their habitats.

In December 2019, the Kulem-Castlerock section was approved by the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife, noting that Goa’s chief wildlife warden had recommended the proposal. The standing committee also said the track had been recommended by the State Board for Wildlife earlier that month. But six members of the Goa State Wildlife Board told The Indian Express in July 2020 that the railway line had not been approved by the Board, and they had only been informed of the meeting’s agenda at the venue.

During the discussion, participants raised concerns about the project's disregard of the rich biodiversity of the Western Ghats and said the mitigation measures proposed were not scientific. At the end of the meeting, dissenting wildlife board members said, there was no consensus on whether or not the projects had been cleared, and they had not recommended it.

The Tinaighat–Castlerock section of the railway has not been approved yet by the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife. In October 2020, the standing committee requested the Wildlife Institute of India to study and suggest mitigation measures, after a recommendation from the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

Taking The Message To The People

“Real democracy is when information goes to the people, and the decision comes from the people,” said Abhijit Prabhudesai, an activist and a leader of Goyant Kollso Naka (No To Coal For Goa), one of the main protest groups.

Prabhudesai said he felt like he was putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle for locals so they could make an informed choice. “These are all government documents,” he said, scrolling through an 83-slide presentation that Goyant Kollso Naka uses in public meetings in Goa’s villages.

The powerpoint consists of graphs, maps, port documents, excerpts from government-commissioned studies, copies of environment clearances, government notices, names of ministers and politicians, together making a claim that in policy and practice, Goa is planning mega infrastructure projects to enable coal transport from the port for industry outside the state.

Last Tuesday, in a playground that bordered a field in Borda, Margao, Goencho Ekvott (Goa’s Unity), another protest group, organised a public meeting. About 200 people came. Magdalena Rodrigues, a 59-year-old grandmother, was one of them. Ekvott organizers were campaigning door-to-door, she said and came to her home to ask if she would join the meeting.

A public meeting organised by Goencho Ekvott in Borda Margao/NIKHIL EAPEN

“I have lived my life bindaas (without care),” she said. “But when I die, I don’t want my children and grandchildren to be sick.”

Peter Fernandes, 30, who works on a cruise liner in Italy, returned to Goa, after the pandemic put him out of work. The protests against coal, Fernandes said, are discussed, at the dinner table, in the newspaper, on Whatsapp and on Instagram. He pointed to his friends, seated in chairs, across the ground from us and said: “We have been talking about how coal in Goa will increase day by day.”

As the night kicked off, a group of teenagers danced to the South African hit, Jerusalema. Behind masks, the crowd sitting on plastic chairs 4-feet apart, watched quietly; some tapped to the beat. When the song ended, the crowd looked refreshed. One of the dancers took the microphone. She asked: “Do you want your kids to face the brunt of coal?” The crowd muttered, “No”.

“I can’t hear you,” she said.

“No!" he crowd roared.

Next on stage was a priest, Fr. Bolmax Pereira, who told the audience that years from now, future generations will ask of their role in stopping the coal projects.

They will ask, he said, “Rasode mein kon tha? (Who was in the kitchen?)” He stumbled with the phrases in Hindi. But most people at the gathering seemed to know the reference from a television soap. Many laughed.

Elsewhere, over 2020, artists, scientists, lawyers, students, teachers—many of whom put their lives and jobs on hold—teamed up to engage others on the rich wildlife at peril in Mollem’s sanctuaries from three infrastructure projects: the 345-km Vasco-Hospet railway line, the four-laning of the 150-km NH-4A highway between Panaji, Goa, and Belagavi, Karnataka, and a 400-Kv power transmission project.

They formed Amche Mollem (Our Mollem), a volunteer-run campaign, which kicked off in May, using art, organised signature petitions, street protests and coordinated submissions to India’s environment minister to showcase biodiversity loss. In recent months, they made new music and films on Mollem, set up art competitions, and roused television anchors and social media influencers to their cause.

Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant tried to pacify protestors, claiming the government would cap coal imports. More than once, the chief minister blamed “foreign forces” for trying to undermine his government.

On 19 November, he said: “Many people are concerned about Mollem and Mhadei (river). They feel we are not worried about it at all. People comment about Mollem from London or other places. We are also worried about Mollem."

A Goan Tradition Of Protest

Goans have a history of defending their environment and culture. In the 1990s, locals clashed with police to shut down Thapar DuPont Limited, a nylon factory on a plateau in east Goa. It was polluting streams, depleting groundwater and releasing toxic fumes. Protests also closed Meta Strips, a metal scrapyard company and blocked special economic zones in the state. In the 1980s, Goa saw violent, bloody protests to recognise Konkani as an official language.

As a child, Lumina Almeida, now 66, would run out to the railway track in front of her village in Seraulim, South Goa, to wave at travellers, when she heard a train thunder past.

“It was a sleepy railway then,” she said. In her thirties, when the Konkan railway was being built, connecting Mangalore to Bombay, Lumina and her husband Rodney were at the forefront of the Konkan railway realignment protests, demanding that sections of the proposed line be pushed deeper into Goa’s hinterlands, to prevent it from destroying saline flood plains (khazans), estuaries, lakes, wetlands, homes and churches.

In 1993, at the height of the agitation, Lumina went on a fast-to-death at the Azad Maidan grounds in Panaji, the state’s capital. Rodney her husband, now 70, who was convenor of the South Goa campaign, wrote letters, delivered speeches went door-to-door, village after village to gather people for the cause.

On 27 October 2020, Rodney and Lumina were at a Goyant Kollso Naka rally for villagers from Seraulim and Betalbatim. His thin mask hanging off his face, Rodney told a reporter: “We have all learned the side effects of how coal is going to affect us individually. “It has been affecting me because I am an asthmatic patient, ever since this coal has come. We have to stop the coal at all costs.”

What It Will Take To Win

On 23 October, based on a tip off from Fidelis Fredy Travasso, a Goyant Kollso Naka member, the sarpanch or head of the village panchayat of Sao Jose de Areal wrote to the project manager of the South Western Railway directing them to stop work on a power room that it had built near the Nessai railway gate, until it could provide evidence that it owned the land.

Fidelis Fredy Travasso/NIKHIL EAPEN

Fredy is a real-estate manager. For ten years until 2008, he was a tailor in Dubai. When he returned to Goa, he formed the Sao Jose de Areal Villagers Union and became its president.

Earlier this month, E. Vijaya, the deputy general manager of the South Western Railway in an interview with The Goan Everyday, a local newspaper, said that the doubling of the railway line was being done on railway-owned land.

Doubling of the railway line in South Goa/NIKHIL EAPEN

“This is panchayat land. The railways don’t own the land for this room,” Fredy said. “But they have gone ahead and built it anyway.” Fredy keeps watch, rides his scooter to the railway gate every day. If he finds labourers working, he quarrels, forces them to stop work. “Let them [the railways] show us papers that they own the land,” he said.

Protestors like Fredy regularly survey the tracks, check for bulldozers, speak to contractors and labourers and stop railway construction in Goa’s villages. On 8 November, protestors patrolled another railway gate in Davorlim, a South Goa village, from 3 pm to 2 amto ensure the railways did not lay a second track at the crossing.

On 20 November, Fredy mobilised villagers to the Nessai railway gate after the railways resumed work under police protection. The locals objected and work was suspended until the 23 November, when the railways and the Sao Jose de Areal village panchayat agreed to resurvey the disputed land.

At 11.30 pm, that night in Chandor, the protestors walked in silence to the railway tracks and camped there until the early hours of Monday. A 28-year-old member from Amche Mollem felt moved as she stood on the railway line and witnessed what they had been trying to stop for months. It was a “crazy thing”, she said, seeing this track that all of us had been protesting, requesting anonymity to not divert attention from the movement. “I felt like it needed 8,000 people to stand on the tracks to prevent the work from going ahead.”

But she was worried. “Even though there were so many people, and everyone was proud and grateful of each other, I personally felt like we were losing, seeing the track there,” she said “No matter how much work we had done to try and get an audience with the government, I felt that they [the government] are so capable of going out and doing the work anyway.”

A couple of days after the Chandor protests, the Goa police filed a first information report (FIR) against the convenors of Goyant Kollso Naka and Goencho Ekvott, charging them with unlawful assembly and wrongful restraint.

Lumina and Rodney Almeida in their nursery in South Goa/NIKHIL EAPEN

A few days after the protest, I sat with Rodney in his garden. Rodney and Lumina did not go to Chandor. They find it difficult to drive at night. I asked him what he thought it might take to stop the rail line.

“All of us have to come together,” he said “We should all be there, to succeed, we should be prepared to go to jail. Let them take the coal over our bodies.”

(Nikhil Eapen is a freelance journalist and a researcher atEquidem, a labour-rights organisation.)