Mopa airport risks animals and people's livelihoods in Goa

Ecological and social impacts apart, detractors have questioned the economic viability of the airport.

 |   Long-form |   19-08-2016
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We are at the Barazan plateau on the northern tip of Goa, more famous as the site of Mopa, the state's contentious, upcoming airport, peering with delight at lumpy mounds of defecation not unlike the gobar of the venerated cow. Yes, delight, because that particular turd belongs to the largest bovine in the world, the gaur, or the Indian bison as it is also called.

A herd of gaur had trampled the verdant grassland just preceding our arrival.

The gaur is listed as a Schedule I species - in other words, it is equally protected as the tiger - under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

Also read: Animals are not vermin, culling the wild is no answer

pic-1_081916041618.jpg Forest in Mopa (Photo credit: Harry Sagayara). 

Ordinarily, its presence would be a deterrent to diverting such wildlife-rich habitats for the airport, and other such development projects.

But there are ways around such hiccups. So in a separate move, the state sought to declare the gaur a "nuisance animal", for the damage it causes to crops, even though it had yet to assess and quantify the actual loss.

Also read: Murder! This is what happens when you run over a snake on the road

Goa forgot that the animal it identified as a pest was its state animal.

Also in our line of vision was a peacock, jauntily swaying its vibrant plumes, as the monsoon clouds rolled over the green, green plateau. This was another creature announced as vermin by Goa, though it had to retract when reminded that the peacock was the national bird.

pic-2_081916041654.jpg Gaur, or the Indian bison, in neighbouring Tillari (Photo credit: Girish Punjabi). 

It's the trend currently - the recasting of endangered animals as vermin by states across the country, purportedly to help farmers, though science shows such standalone measures have failed to stop crop damage. There is another likely agenda: to ensure rare animals are not hindrances to the development of wildlife-rich landscapes as airports and other mega projects.

Also read: Blame not the leopard if he enters the school

It merits thinking what the state would do about Vithal Kambli, a farmer himself, who is as much of this land as the gaur, and the peacock. It is he, and the other villagers gathered, who draw the analogy.

Vithal's land had been acquired, after declaring it public purpose land for acquisition under section 6 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 (it was before the new Land Acquisition Act, 2013).

pic-3_081916041746.jpg Tiger in Tillari (Photo credit: Maharashtra forest department). 

Vithal had no say in the matter: he indicated his protest by refusing to sign the notification, nor has he accepted any compensation: nothing, he says, can compensate what the land gives: paddy, millet, pulses, turmeric, sweet peas, okra, pepper, potatoes, jackfruit, cashew, papaya, tamarind... and much more.

It has fed and sheltered his family, educated his children. But it is the intangibles, that are of far more of value than the crop the land yields: it offers him dignity. His family is self-sufficient. He is no one’s slave, or master.  

The airport is to be built on a massive 82 lakh square metres, besides which land will also be acquired for the six-lane approach road from NH 17 to the top of the plateau.

Also read: Dudhwa is becoming a death trap for tigers

Vithal is part of the Mopa Vimantall Piditt Xetkari Samiti (Association of Farmers Aggrieved by the Mopa Project) spearheaded by Sandip Kambli who have moved the Supreme Court against the acquisition of land. With the state poised to start construction of the project after the expected arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September to lay the foundation stone, he, and other aggrieved farmers of the area, have a question for the prime minister: "Are we hurdles as well?"

pic-5_081916041851.jpg Sandip Kambli (left) and Vithal Kambli (P[hoto credit: Prerna Bindra). 

The question may not penetrate the security that surrounds the prime minister's visit, but the prime minister may be interested to know that the issue is far beyond a motley group of farmers rallying against the Rs 3,000-crore Mopa project. And that it threatens to snowball into a major issue in the 2017 Assembly elections.

Both former chief minister and current Union defence minister Manohar Parrikar, and current chief minister Lakshmikant Parsekar are strong votaries of the airport, stating that Goa needs another airport. The Navy-controlled Dabolim is ill-equipped to handle the escalating tourist numbers; and is handicapped by operating within a defence regime. Mopa is located in the Parnem taluka in north Goa - also Parsekar's constituency, bordering Maharashtra.

Unlike the north, south Goa has not traditionally been a BJP stronghold, but this distinction blurred in the 2012 Assembly elections when there was a strong anti-Congress wave.

Mopa has again accentuated the north-south divide, with apprehensions that the centre of economic gravity would concentrate in the north, and even towards Maharashtra, thus leaving southern Goa backward. It has also sharpened the development versus conservation debate that is rocking the coastal paradise, which has been ravaged by illegal mining and massive real estate development.

pic-4_081916041936.jpg Small-clawed otters in Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary (Photo credit: Atul Borker). 

Mopa is being promoted as an engine of growth with commercial and other ancillary development, and to cater to a higher volume of tourists. However, civil society groups claim that Goa's sagging infrastructure and fragile ecology can ill-afford yet more tourists, and say it is an environmental disaster.

The Mopa site-Barazan plateau is of ecological and cultural significance. During my whirlwind visit, besides the gaur poo, I caught a glimpse of a barking deer, saw a chestnut giant squirrel leap from tree-to-tree, and the great Indian hornbill take wing.

The hornbill was one among the 50-odd species of birds we met. A more systematic and scientific survey of the plateau yielded direct sightings of the leopard, gaur, otters, giant squirrel, sambar and the critically endangered pangolin, whose conservation is of global concern today. There are possibly two species of otters here, one of which - the small-clawed - is the tiniest otter in the world, and is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

pic-6_081916042027.jpg Stream in Barazan plateau (Photo credit: Prerna Bindra). 

Barazan also has the occasional tiger. Signs of breeding tigresses have been recorded in the adjoining forests of Tillari-Chandgad, recognised as an important habitat and eco-sensitive area by the Bombay High Court. This region is part of the larger Radhanagari-Sawantwadi-Dodamarg-Mhadei-Bhimgad-Kali tiger landscape, encompassing forest areas in the three states, including Karnataka.

In fact, the Maharashtra government is considering declaring the evergreen forests and grassy plateaus of Tillari a wildlife sanctuary. But the Tillari forests are too small, and to sustain it the health of abutting forests is crucial. A development of the scale of the airport will splinter the landscape, dooming the tiger and other wide-ranging large mammals.

The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report, on which the environmental clearance of the project is based, fails to record the tiger, or any wildlife for that matter.

The EIA categorically states that there are "no major wild animals in the study area", and corroborates its claim by listing the domestic dog, domestic cat, domestic cattle and common house mouse! The EIA ignores the many endemic species of plants of the region, fails to mention the critically endangered and endemic Dipcadi concanense, a wispy white flower found only on such laterite plateaus of the Konkan. It ineptly lists sandy dune vegetation which is typical of beaches.

pic-7_081916042121.jpg Green lateritic plateau (Photo credit: Harry Sagayara). 

The EIA ignores an ancient Buddhist cave, baldly stating that there are no sites of cultural importance. It also fails to mention the sacred groves that are protected zealously by the local people. I went to one - Barazan - from which the plateau gets its name; and was administered a stern telling to for sauntering in with my shoes. The grove is a living temple, venerated for generations - now counting its days as it stands on the runaway of the proposed airport.

Such shoddy anomalies aside, the biggest flaw in this report is that it fails to consider the fact that the airport and its ancillary development will be fatal to the water security of Goa.

The rocky plateaus of the region, locally called sadas, are also referred to as the region's water reservoirs. The porous laterite rocks and the grass soak up the monsoon water, which seeps into the ground, and is also released slowly into springs.

No less than 44 perennial streams flow from Barazan, feeding the people and fields downstream. According to a study by groundwater expert Himanshu Kulkarni, it recharges about two billion litres of water every year. The massive construction involved will choke the streams - the runaway itself will be built on three - causing havoc to the state's hydrological system.

The environment clearance has been challenged in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), seeking a stay on the project and revoking the shoddy, misleading EIA. The next hearing is slotted for August 23.

Ecological and social impacts apart, detractors have questioned the economic viability of the airport. Why else would the government lure bidders with an additional 15 lakh sq metres of land for commercial development? Another airport, Chipi, is coming up just 80km away from Mopa, adding to the uncertainty over Mopa's profitability. But does the region have the capacity to feed three airports?

Most serious of all are safety concerns raised by the then executive director of Airports Authority of India (AAI), RC Khurana, who also chaired the site selection committee for Mopa. He categorically stated that "Mopa is unsafe and inadequate as a location in Goa's future interest from an aviation point of view".

In an interview to The Goan in February 2013, he explained that three sides of the plateau had sharp drops which is not safe for landing aircrafts, even if the runway was adequate. He also found the site restrictive for future expansion.

What then fuels the development of Mopa?

It has long been alleged that Mopa is more about real estate development, with political and business interests making a killing on cheaply bought land investments. A quick Google search reveals that the real estate market in the region is hot, with a number of exclusive gated communities and vacation homes on the anvil.

But tourists and second homers escaping to Goa for their share of paradise may find that the paradise is already lost.

Writer

Prerna Bindra Prerna Bindra @prernabindra

Though a city-dweller, Prerna Singh Bindra is at home in the forests she is committed to protect. Her book, The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis, was released in June 2017.

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