A group of concerned lawyers from Goa and other states have written to the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) constituted by the Supreme Court, highlighting the “destructive, unlawful and unsustainable methods used by the Government” for clearing three infrastructural projects through Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, Goa.

In their letter dated July 22, addressed to the Member Secretary and Committee Members of the CEC, the group of legal professionals points out various illegalities and contradictions regarding the three linear infrastructure projects—which include expansion of the National Highway 4-A, double-tracking an existing railway line and laying a 400 KV transmission line. They also raised concerns about the manner in which these clearances were awarded.

“It would be perverse to the principle of natural justice, if we collectively did not display our discomfort and distress to the highly insensitive and unjust decisions taken at the cost of our natural wealth, of which each of us are stakeholders. It is even more distressing that such clearances are granted by the very authorities appointed to protect our environment and wildlife,” they wrote.

The Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park are spread across 240 sq. kms., comprising the largest protected area in Goa. They form part of a vast contiguous forest that extends into Karnataka and Maharashtra, and are home to Schedule-I and Schedule-II species such as the tiger, dhole, mouse deer, gaur and Indian Pangolin. Other vulnerable species like the small-clawed otter and four-horned antelope can also be found in the project area.

The Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), in its meeting held on April 7, 2020, approved the use of 85.50 hectares of land for laying a power transmission line and cleared 32.085 ha for four-laning the existing NH4-A. Due to the lockdown, the meeting was held over video conference and decisions were made virtually.

Earlier, in December 2019, the NBWL had cleared 16.514 ha for the Kulem-Madgaon Railway doubling project. These three projects will together require diversion of over 250 ha of forest land and involve felling over 59,000 trees. According to reports, the alleged objective of these projects is to set up infrastructure for a coal transportation corridor that will cut across the state, from Mormugao Port Trust to industrial centres in Karnataka.

Regarding the April 2020 NBWL meeting, the lawyers wrote: “That such a meeting was convened in the midst of an international pandemic and a national lockdown is downrightly unacceptable and a complete mockery of the legal processes. It is also pertinent to mention that the clearances and recommendations were granted in the month of April, when the statutory right to appeal was suspended due to the pandemic, thereby making it challenging for aggrieved citizens and civil society to exercise their legal right to appeal before the appropriate forum.”

The environment ministry reportedly cleared or discussed 30 projects during the lockdown, all via virtual meetings and at a time when site inspections were impossible to conduct due to the pandemic.

“It is now becoming increasingly apparent that the Government is out to sell our highly protected and Eco-Sensitive areas lock, stock and barrel, to the highest bidder,” stated Goa-based Advocate Malisa Simoes, who is also a signatory to the letter.

“It is expected for a democratic and transparent Government to work in the interest of sustainable development and its people. These hastily approved linear projects were unnecessary, is not in the larger interest of the people and bypasses and violates many procedures laid down by law. This ruthless misbehaviour displayed by the Government and MoEF&CC is being watched very closely and rest assured that such brazen destruction will be fought tooth and nail,” she said.

The group of advocates claim that the forest diversion for all three projects has been bifurcated into seven separate proposals, and that the clearances granted till now have violated a number of statutory provisions, including the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

The group, along with many conservationists and researchers who have been continuously raising their voices against these clearances, hold that the cumulative impacts of these projects have not been adequately studied. As a result, it has led to an underestimation of the devastating effects these projects will have on the protected area in question.

The signatories highlighted a number of legal issues with each of the three projects in detail.

The widening of the national highway has been divided into two proposals in Goa and Karnataka “to perhaps circumvent the provisions of the EIA Notification, 2006.” 13 km of the highway through the Anshi Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, Karnataka has been excluded from the widening project. However, the same has been allowed through the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa.

Further, the lawyers state that while the 32.085 ha required for the project has been cleared by the Standing Committee of the NBWL, prior approval of the Supreme Court is still required, which has not been sought as yet. Neither has a proposal been submitted for wildlife clearances in areas that fall within notified eco-sensitive zones of the wildlife sanctuary.

Regarding the laying of the transmission line, the advocates state that “there has been no scrutiny of this proposal by either Boards as it was approved at the very first instance by the State and National Wildlife Boards.” There also seems to be no clarity regarding the number of trees to be felled.

The railway project comprises two proposals for wildlife clearances, which have been approved. The first proposal for the railway track from Castlerock to Kulem was approved by the State Wildlife Board in 2017. The lawyers allege that the second however, for the railway track from Kulem to Madgaon, was mentioned in the State Board’s minutes only in 2019, even though the NBWL’s minutes claim that it was approved by the State Board in 2017 itself. “This cannot be, as the EIA report for the second proposal itself is dated March, 2018,” reads the letter.

The advocates and legal professionals are not the first to oppose these clearances. Earlier, 149 scientists, conservationists, academicians, artists, allied professionals and concerned citizens wrote to the Union Environment Minister and members of the NBWL, raising concerns regarding the ecological, social and economic security of the region where the projects have been proposed. 224 local business owners, chefs, architects and publishers have also written to the Environment Ministry while 150 tourism stakeholders highlighted potential issues with the clearances in a letter to the CEC.

These projects are set to cause widespread damage to a region that is “a treasure trove of flora and fauna”. The proposed project area is home to over 721 plant species, 235 bird species, 219 butterfly species, 80 odonate species, 70 mammal species, 75 ant species, 45 reptile species, 44 fish species, 43 fungi species, 27 amphibian species, 24 orchid species, and 18 species of lichens.

The “irreplaceable” forests have fresh water streams that feed main rivers, including Goa’s River Mandovi—the lifeline of the state. Apart from being a foremost source of drinking water, Mandovi provides irrigation facilities, aids in transportation of people and goods, produces biotic and mineral resources and is also used for tourism activities, which is the backbone of Goan economy.

The Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park also form a crucial tiger corridor between Goa and the adjoining Kali Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. The lawyers pointed out the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s (NTCA) report on January 2020 tiger deaths in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary—in which the NTCA recommended declaring the whole of the protected area in Goa as ‘Tiger Reserves’.

According to the previous letter by scientists and researchers, apart from habitat fragmentation, water scarcity can also be added to the long list of issues that would arise if these planned projects come to fruition. Added to the severe destruction that will be caused to the region’s rich biodiversity, are the adverse effects on the livelihoods of people.

Besides, the lawyers cited a June 11 order by the High Court of Manipur that directly linked the spread of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19, to deforestation and destruction of wildlife habitat. The order added that if steps were not taken to restore India’s depleting forest cover, more such zoonotic diseases will follow.

Signatories to the letter urged the CEC to take all facts placed before them into consideration and recommended withdrawing the three projects in toto.

Delhi-based environmental lawyer Sharan Balakrishna, who endorsed the letter stated, “Contrary to what the actions of the Standing Committee show, the statutory purpose of the NBWL is not to siphon off protected areas. As per the Wild Life Protection Act from where the NBWL derives its authority, the NBWL can only carry out measures to promote the conservation and development of wildlife and forests. These decisions clearly do not satisfy that requirement and are a devastating blow to the environmental rule of law in the country.”