Published: 30th August 2020
A miracle in Mollem: How Goans are galvanising the young and upbeat with art and activism to save their habitat
Students, researchers, scientists, musicians and artists in Goa have launched a widespread movement that hopes to save the protected Mollem National Park from three developmental projects
From a tiny little scorpion to a flycatcher which is blue
From a majestic gaur to a keelback or two
This is all going to die, we’ll never get them back
And all this for what? Some stupid railway track!
What 14-year-old Panjim resident Vikram D’Silva wrote in four lines has come to represent a sentiment boiling in the veins of thousands of Goans. In April, many citizens of the coastal state woke up to the news that three proposed developmental plans had been passed: Widening the existing national highway 4A into 4 lanes, double-tracking of a railway line, and the construction of a power transmission line. These would encroach upon over 170 hectares of land within Mollem National Park and Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary. The projects were announced on April 7 during a virtual meeting held by the National Board for Wildlife.
Nandini Velho is a wildlife biologist and conservationist who got tangled up in the movement through a combination of professional and personal interests. “I am Goan by passion!” she laughs, “The park and sanctuary were places that I had visited on camps multiple times. When environment minister Prakash Javadekar tweeted that they were fast-tracking these projects, I took notice like any other concerned citizen.”
UNITED FRONT: A citizen's bridge formed on August 25
Goa’s concerned citizenry was not one to sit idle. Perhaps in an effort to remind those in power about who Mollem belonged to, a citizen’s movement called Amche Mollem (meaning Our Mollem in Konkani) was born. They began by capturing the nation’s attention with a change.org petition that was signed by more than 70,000 people, many of them students and youth who cared deeply for the land around them. This brought together Goans from every walk of life, social circles and industries to demand that the projects be questioned.
The project would encroach upon 377 hectares of land, out of which 187 fall within the park and sanctuary premises. Nandini says, “We needed to be very critical of these proposals because the effects they could have are irreversible. For those who live here, Mollem and the iconic places around it are something we learn about in school. The authorities like to say that we are just scientists or artists coming together in anger. In all honesty, we are just a group of appalled citizens. How can you call an action ‘public interest’ when half of the public is unaware of it and the other half is up in arms about it?"
Amche Mollem works in small, focused groups, with only 10 members working actively at a given point of time. Most of the members are young students and enraged artists demanding due process. In July, the environmental action group Goa Foundation filed a Public Interest Litigation concerning the three projects to the High Court and the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC). On August 15, as a symbol of their threatened independence, citizens created a human bridge over the protected area where the railway line is expected to be built as a sign of protest.
ALL IN: Participants came from every walk of life
Different interest groups including legal groups, doctors, the tourism industry, political leaders and scientists had come together to affect change from their respective industries. Lorraine D’Silva, a Mollem resident, discovered the movement through art. Artists from around the state had come together to create artwork that would stir up anyone’s interest through social media. When we spoke, Lorraine was still fatigued from an intense month of work.
She says, “The people of Goa have responded to many things as a collective but this is the first youth-driven movement and that means a lot. These projects were passed under the guise of citizen’s interest and the citizens are just not interested! All three of these projects would mostly just benefit the coal industry as would make it easier for companies to transport coal. Any such major project within a protected area needs to go through a robust scientific process. There need to be afforestation plans, the transmission line had no Environment Impact Assessment draft at all and so much more due process that is standard to any such case.”
From the very beginning, the movement has been led strongly by a legal team that has come together to protect the areas. By August 2, the state government submitted a response to the CEC who would analyse the responses. Currently, the team is expecting this advisory board of the supreme court to offer their official response to the demands. What will be the future of this movement? “We are prepared for the likelihood that our demands are not met. But whatever happens, this movement will always remind us that the citizens of Goa were not willing to take it lying down.”
Letters of Law
Sreeja Chakraborty, Lawyer
I was part of a team of 20 lawyers who drafted a letter to the CEC. The Goa Foundation has already filed litigation to this commission questioning the manner in which the wildlife clearances have been granted. Since we were aware of the positive interventions that the CEC has made in similar cases in Kaziranga National Park and the Hubli-Ankola railway line, we thought reaching out to them would help. So we drafted a letter in favour of the Foundation’s claims highlighting the gross illegalities they need to look into.
The CEC does its own interrogations and side inspections after which they will send their recommendations to the apex court. After this the Goa Foundation filed a challenge before the Goa High Court on the wildlife clearance aspect. The entire that will be used for these projects are approximately 377 hectares. Out of this, 187 is inside the park boundaries. These two litigations that Foundation has filed is with regards to the area inside the park for which you need wildlife and forest clearance. So we are also constantly engaging with the authorities for the area outside it as well because the communities living there will be affected.
For these three projects, the government has sought three forest clearances. All three of them are interstate projects between Goa and Karnataka. They have fragmented the two states and submitted different wildlife clearances separately for Karnataka and Goa. In Goa alone, there are 10 proposals for just these three projects, which is completely illegal. So we are also engaging with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, which has the authority to grant these clearances. In a nutshell, it’s a huge legal mess.
BEAK SPEAK: Nishant's painting of the Flame-throated bulbul
The caged bird sings
Nishant Saldanha, Artist
My first contribution to the movement was a painting of the Yellow-throated Bulbul, Goa’s state bird. It is only found in the Western Ghats. And my work was trying to highlight the irony of having these state-sanctioned symbols of rare animals when you are destroying the only home it has in the world. Recently, I led 249 artists from the state to write a letter to the CEC.
I grew up in Chennai for most of my life and moved back two years ago. In Goa, you really know how important the relationship for a person to the landscape they belong to is, it really effects your way of living. Being set in this unique environment where cities, villages, forests and rivers converge, it puts the state in this unique position of being rural and urban at the same time. It’s something you don’t get int he big cities and you really feel the need to protect that.
Here, I’ve noticed that the artist community really comes together as opposed to working in their distinct corners. This was a movement fueled by art and we all came together very organically. Any movement needs visibility and I think images have the power to travel more than press releases. In some sense, losing control of these images on social media and finding it shared on various platforms has been a really good thing. I work with an art crew with four other artists and an architect. I helped get the word out because it was that important to do so.
Artwork by Danica Da Silva
Building a movement
Rhea D’Souza, Architect
I work with river mapping. I got around 100 architects from around Goa to sign a letter to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change regarding the draft EIA. As architects, we were pointing out how projects like these are not as per planning standards. As per planning principles, you have to contact all the stakeholders, not sneak up during lockdowns and roll-out projects and ignore the implications of it.
We wanted to know who these projects were for. Were any of the locals going to benefit from it? And even if a project of this scale has to be implemented, where is the study for it or the accountability. They are taking out precious forest land. And as compensation, they claim that they will plant monoculture plantations. In light of this, they need to understand what the principles of rewilding really are. And it has to happen at the same time, not once the project is completed.
If the railway track is going to happen, what will happen to the area it is intended to be built on? It will be encroaching on a river, there is no explanation about where the water will be diverted to. We had written to the CEC and the governor in an attempt to understand the exact implication.
Excerpts from the letter
As architects, our profession bridges the gap between the environment, and development, through design. Additionally, architects — lie at the junction between legislation and concrete action. An individual building project requires basic knowledge of numerous laws, codes and regulations — architects need to be aware of the practical application of Town Planning, Health, Fire, Municipal and other laws in the design of built space.
It is understood that the State of Goa, is a candidate for rapid infrastructure development. It is also understood that over 70 Lakh tourists visit the state every year. It is in this context that we must stress the importance of our pristine beaches and lush eco-tourism sites, in tandem with our unique architectural heritage — which are key guiding factors that influence tourist’s choice to visit our state. These factors in mind, it is understandable that the Central Government wants to provide mobility and infrastructure, to ensure that the state is more accessible, and connected with the rest of the nation.
We wish to bring to your notice, through this letter - the secretive, rushed and the allegedly unplanned manner in which these projects have been rolled out. We express with grave concern that an overzealous and hasty push for development projects of this scale has the potential to lead to the state’s deterioration, instead of development.
A matter of words
Francesca Cotta, Writer and researcher
I’ve been involved with climate activism for a year now. Because of this, I have been aware of how badly managed our nature is in general. The mismanagement of our ecosystems is no secret, but people are growing more aware these days. As I have been known to write about sustainability, I was asked to help with some of the initial work like creating content for social media and help manage some of our other content-related work.
What made me feel for this cause is the fact that these are forests that most young people in Goa have been to at some point or the other. It is a part of everyone’s childhood and even our adulthood because the waterfalls and temples are legendary and people visit every year. To know that a place such as this, which is familiar to many of us, would potentially no longer exist because of something so badly planned was heartbreaking.
To get to know the urgency and realise that we could do something about it was a blessing. There was no other way about it. This made me want to get involved to the full extent and I think many young people were roped in for the same exact reason.