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A view of the Mollem National Park, which spills across 240 sq. km into the Western Ghats ( Photo: Alamy)
A view of the Mollem National Park, which spills across 240 sq. km into the Western Ghats ( Photo: Alamy)

Inside the race to save Mollem

  • Goa has been convulsed by a new age environmental movement. And it’s gaining attention beyond the state
  • An insurgent environmental movement led by young people is gaining attention by opposing these projects, which are set to come up in eco-sensitive areas, through innovate methods

On 7 April and again on 15 April, even as “the world’s strictest lockdown" shuttered India behind closed doors, the National Board for Wildlife proceeded with two highly consequential meetings via videoconferencing at the direction of the Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar (he also holds the seemingly contradictory portfolio for heavy industries).

This is how—while their fellow citizens were distracted by pandemic-related anxieties—the board’s standing committee, and then its expert appraisal committee, successively rubberstamped approvals for an astonishing 16 proposals impinging on ostensibly sacrosanct national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. They comprise an ominous litany of destruction: stone mining in Kota; railways through a tiger corridor in Telangana; roadworks in the Gangotri national park in Uttarakhand.

The biggest loser was India’s smallest state. Goa woke up to find that there were now three projects targeting its Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, which spills across 240 square kilometres into the Western Ghats. In December 2019, Javadekar’s board had accepted a proposal to double the existing railway track through the jungle. Now, it piled on an additional four-lane highway expansion, as well as a 400KV electricity transmission line.

The treble threat targets 250 hectares of old-growth forests, including some 60,000 trees, all of which are integral to one of only 36 surviving biodiversity hotspots in the world. They are home to tigers and gaur, and at least 70 other species of mammals, as well as 235 species of birds. This is the watershed of Goa as well as the ultimate guarantor of its food security. At a time when the entire world is paralyzed by a zoonotic virus, which passed from animals to humans due to habitat destruction, the move quickly galvanized resistance in Goa that has steadily mushroomed towards the national and international arenas.

“This is an extraordinary state in more ways than one" wrote justice Gautam Patel of the Bombay High Court’s bench in Panjim in 2017 in his landmark judgement against moving the western zone of the National Green Tribunal from Pune to New Delhi. He noted, “If the NGT has so very many cases from Goa, it is not because—or not just because—the people of Goa are litigious. It is because they perceive that there is something of value here to protect… For this is something none can deny: This is a land truly worth fighting for."

Protesters opposing projects which will cut across Mollem
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Protesters opposing projects which will cut across Mollem (Photo: Alamy)

It is certainly true that Goa has seen many strong environmental movements over recent decades: The rejection of Thapar DuPont’s Nylon 6.6 plant in the 1990s; the cancellation of special economic zones in 2007; and the scrapping of the 2011 regional plan. But what has happened in the case of Mollem—as covid-19 raged unabated in Goa—is nonetheless entirely unprecedented.

Millennial movement

Right through the height of the pandemic which kept most of their parents’ generation pre-occupied, an emergent wave of millennials put together an astonishingly agile and resilient campaign to raise awareness about what’s at stake, and directly combat the three Mollem projects. Over the past few weeks and months, protestors have held all-night vigils, art competitions and even blocked railway lines in an unfolding saga of new age environmental activism.

Their sheer vitality, and host of innovative strategies spanning the public sphere and social media, has thoroughly shaken the state government, and drawn huge attention.

“A campaign of this nature has been a long time coming," says 28-year-old Gabriella D’Cruz, one of the members of the core group of the #SaveMollem movement. She told me her decision to study biodiversity conservation and management at Oxford (where she completed her MA in 2018) had been motivated by her experiences in Goa, where “young people have grown up being witness to flawed policy decisions that have destroyed large sections of our precious natural heritage for many years."

D’Cruz said, “I used to feel an immense sense of helplessness when I heard about various environmentally destructive projects being passed by the government, and a lot of my friends felt the same way. The success of our campaign is that we are able to transform our collective feelings of helplessness and anger, along with our individual capacities, into a powerful force for good. I really believe this is the start of a series of youth-led movements that will come. As young people, we see this campaign as an investment of our time and energy in our collective future."

Save Mollem began its work soon after the monsoons started pounding in June. It included D’Cruz, the artists Svabhu Kohli and Trisha Dias Sabir, and 34-year-old Dr.Nandini Velho, one of India’s most distinguished young wildlife biologists, who has extensive experience overseeing Pakke Tiger Reserve and Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in the Himalayan foothills of Arunachal Pradesh.

From the group’s inception, they worked in unexpected ways: foregrounding art right alongside science, generating floods of memes for Twitter and Instagram, and building an enduring coalition with other young people across the subcontinent and the world.

Photo: Alamy
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Photo: Alamy

They distinguished themselves by enlisting support from an astonishingly wide range of constituent groups. On their behalf on 18 June, 18 scientists wrote to Javadekar that “when public sector decision makers overlook the connection between healthy ecosystems and the well-being of people, ecosystem service trade-offs are made. The enhancement of some services leads to the degradation of others. This can have unintended consequences for people who depend on degraded services. Should an economic evaluation of all these ecosystem services be conducted in detail, it would far outweigh the value and benefits of the three proposed projects".

427 medical and nursing students followed up on 9 July, saying, “such rampant forest clearances will disturb the fragile ecosystem balance, with consequences including the increase in our chances of being exposed to novel agents of many diseases that are present." On 28 July, it was the turn of 159 representatives from the tourism industry, who argued, “With these projects creating deforestation in the area, future development of hinterland tourism will be adversely affected, which directly opposes the state’s 25-year vision to revamp the economy. The current community-based tourism initiatives will also be destroyed, damaging the local economy and muting any opportunity to make Goa a global leader in sustainable tourism."

On 1 August, in poetic language, 249 artists further added their voice. “We have gathered in unprecedented numbers, across all ages, to voice our concerns as a single community and to speak against these destructive projects and for the protection of the innumerable species whose habitats and lives they threaten, as well as our own…Goa is a practicing zone for us, and to strike a blow to our natural heritage is to attack the wellspring of our creativity." They concluded, “The future of our home state is bleak if we don’t pay close attention to protection of the environment, its forests and rivers" and attached a set of paintings and drawings to further their case.

Administrative pushback

As might be expected, all this thoroughly confused and disoriented the state administration, which found itself comprehensively outmanoeuvred. Soon after the letters reached Javadekar, the chief minister Pramod Sawant began complaining. “The opposition to these projects is coming from Africa, England and Russia. Those who have not seen Goa and Mollem are now commenting about it from foreign countries," he said. His power minister Nilesh Cabral railed that the protestors should “first start using solar power".

But neither of them would come clean on what actually motivates their stubborn refusal to back off on cleaving Mollem for massively expanded roads, rails and power transmission, which is the fact these projects are intended to serve the interests of JSW Steel, Vedanta and the Adani Group. All three have an inexhaustible demand for coal for steel and power plants across the Deccan plateau, which are markedly cheaper to reach from Goa instead of Mangalore or any east coast option. This means that the young activists of Save Mollem aren’t just facing off against their small state’s hapless government. They’re actually contesting against the most powerful and influential special interests in India.

“They (young people) have done such an impressive job," says Prerna Singh Bindra, the acclaimed environmental journalist and author, who served on the National Board for Wildlife from 2010-13. She said, “It’s remarkable how they brought in so many different fields to underline how important our forests are to everyone. I have been blown away by the art. It inspires and tears you up, but right alongside is the excellent science; the lawyers speaking up about subversion of procedures; the tourism industry pointing out damage to their interests; farmers and fishermen worried about their livelihood; the students and the whole question of intergenerational equity. I am very, very inspired by this campaign. It gives me hope."

That message was reiterated by Norma Alvares, the Padma Shri award-winning advocate whose Goa Foundation has been the doughtiest fighter for Goa’s environment for over four decades. I contacted her after several of the young activists I was interviewing told me she was their role model, to which Alvares responded, “I am pleased beyond words that this movement is being led by young women activists—a splendid group who have fully dedicated themselves to the cause of protecting the forest and wildlife of Goa and have further extended the fight to preventing Goa from being blackened by coal."

Alvares said, “If the many years that I have given to fighting public causes have persuaded at least some of the next generation of women to stand up; to decide that it is absolutely imperative to give one’s time and effort if we want Goa to remain as beautiful as we know it to be, then that brings me true happiness. Causes will come and go. You may win some and be not so successful with others. But there is no greater sense of achievement for an activist than to know there are others who are ready to take the baton onward. Not just onward, but forward and higher than our generation could have dreamt of."

The 67-year-old added, “It’s an unprecedented reversal of roles. Usually, it’s the parents who guide their children, but in this case, the cause was first taken up by these youngsters, barely out of college—and they continue to lead the struggle with determination and with verve. No government can afford to ignore, at its own peril, such a powerful protest. Governments have devious ways of breaking up a movement and so our young friends must be ever vigilant and watchful [but] they can’t lose. This planet belongs to them. The future is already here."

The way forward

That conclusion seems to have filtered deep into the collective consciousness of the Save Mollem movement. When I asked D’Cruz what it would mean to her if the three projects wound up going ahead despite her team’s efforts, she told me, “Losing the battle would definitely not be a failure of the campaign, but instead just a clear indication that we are up against a very corrupt system. The strength of our team effort is that it is young, and, therefore, has tremendous promise for the future. We know that the fight for Mollem is an indicator of the larger fight we will continue to face, not of a development vs environment paradigm, but the need for good policy triumphing over bad."

D’Cruz told me of a recent transcendent experience, “a moment that gave me goosebumps, when I was protesting along with more than fifty other young people at the steps of the Panjim church. It felt like carnival, with dancing in the streets and cars honking in support. We ended by singing the national anthem. Traffic stopped, people stood still, and all one could hear was our collective voices. I was reminded that we are not anti-nationals, dissenters, rebels or outsiders. We are actually the ones that care deeply for our country, and are willing to put in the work to make sure we safeguard it."

Vivek Menezes is a Goa-based writer and photographer

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