In the sleepy seaside town of Cansaulim in Goa, Angelo Fernandes and his neighbors stand guard outside their 236-year-old church, watching a contractor take away building materials.
Hours earlier, local residents had been locked in a dead end with railway workers sent to lay a new track to transport coal through the community.
The confrontation ended when local politicians stepped in, work was suspended, and the contractor vowed to remove building materials. Mr. Fernandes was there to make sure the contractor kept his word.
“Now we wear masks because of the corona[virus], but if the smut comes, we’ll have to wear them forever, ”he said.
The fiery encounter reflects growth anger in goa against a government plan to turn the coastal state into a hub for transporting coal through seaside villages and dense forests en route to large steel and power plants inland.
Companies such as JSW steel and the Adani Group use the port of Mormugao in Goa to import around 10 million tonnes of coal from Australia and South Africa for heavy industries in the neighboring state of Karnataka.
But Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party government is pushing for a massive expansion of the port’s coal-handling capacity to at least 41 million tonnes per year by 2035.
To transport this huge amount of coal from the port to industrial sites, authorities want to widen a motorway and lay another track along the 153-year-old Portuguese railway line. The trail passes through sensitive wildlife areas in the Western Ghats, mountains that have been recognized as important biodiversity hotspots.
The existing line climbs steeply through Bhagwan Mahaveer Shrine and Mollem National Park, past the spectacular 320m Dudhsagar Falls of the Mandovi River.
The Goans are now rallying to resist a project that they believe will both expose local communities to large amounts of highly polluting coal dust and shatter an important wildlife corridor that is home to panthers, leopards and others. endangered species.
Angry flashmobs have forced the suspension of double-tracking work in several locations over the past few months.
“People ask, ‘What is it for us? ”Said lawyer Savio Correa, who lives near the port of Mormugao. He added that residents were already plagued by coal dust. “You want to haul coal, but are the Goans benefiting from it, or are we sacrificing our health and economy for someone else’s benefit?”
Past discussions of double-tracking the railway line have been stifled by politicians at the state level. In 2013, Goa’s top forestry official described the wildlife sanctuary, adjacent to Mollem National Park, as a haven for “highly native and endangered species.” . . which will be completely disrupted ”by adding an additional track.
But the government of Mr. Modi has redoubled its efforts since 2016 as part of a national industrial development campaign “carried by the ports”.
Contentious environmental authorizations for the heavy infrastructure of the wildlife reserve were granted in a virtual meeting in early April, when Indians were still confined to their homes during a coronavirus lockdown. About 80 hectares of premium forest will now be destroyed.
Claude Alvares, director of the Goa Foundation, an environmental campaign group that has taken legal action against the project, said New Delhi appeared to be acting at the behest of powerful corporations.
“Goa is the darling of the country because it is the greenest place that remains,” Alvares said. “This is the place with an invaluable air. You’re not running a program to fatally damage that air for the next 100 to 200 years. “
He added: “They say it’s in the national interest. Our problem is that the protection of wildlife is also in the national interest. We are constitutionally bound to ensure that wildlife is protected. “
Adani said he had “no plans to further expand operations” at the port of Mormugao, adding that the facility still has spare coal handling capacity.
“Existing infrastructure only meets existential needs,” Adani said. “These allegations of pressure on the government are unfounded.” JSW did not respond to requests for comment.
The fury puts pressure on Pramod Sawant, Goa’s chief minister, caught between an angry audience and the BJP’s national leadership development campaign. After being criticized at a public rally, he fiercely promised that the handling of coal in Mormugao would be cut in half.
But the Goans remain wary. In the village of Kullem on the outskirts of Bhagwan Mahaveer shrine, Manish Lambor, the local chief, said many locals depended on tourism for their livelihood and feared their “world-class waterfall” would be destroyed. “If they disturb the waterfall, what will tourists see?” He asked.
Restaurateur Tribolo Souza, who lives just outside Mollem National Park, where authorities plan to build a four-lane highway, is furious. “The government of the day does not care about Goa,” he said. “They all want to sell Goa.”