Goa’s Shifting Greens and Its Long History of Environmentalism

Moving the National Green Tribunal from Pune to New Delhi, for Goa, would have had severe implications for reshaping the reality of who could seek redressal over environmental concerns in Goa, at what cost, and how frequently. 

Goa has built up a reputation for being a small state whose citizens tend to care big time for the environment. But, the state’s governments, regardless of which party is in power in Panjim (Panaji), have taken on stands which have made many to doubt their motives. 

The latest controversy began in August-October 2017, when news reached here that Goa had been detached from the jurisdiction of the Pune bench (Western Zone) of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), and instead brought under Delhi.

What seemed like a minor technical shift actually had implications for reshaping the reality of who could seek redressal over environmental concerns in Goa, at what cost, and how frequently. Already, Goa repeatedly approaches the NGT, something which the industry often rues and politicians fear, except when they are in the opposition. Just before mid-October, the Goa Bench of the Bombay High Court bench struck down the central government notification tranferring Goa-related matters from Pune to Delhi. It underlined the importance of "access to justice". While environmental campaigners have sometimes complained bitterly about the difficulty in getting justice, the distance would only make it that much tougher.

Set up under the National Green Tribunal Act 2010 passed by the Parliament, the NGT is a special tribunal meant to expeditiously dispose of environmental issues. India takes pride in the fact that it was only the third country–after Australia and New Zealand–to have such a system in place. It came about in the aftermath of the United Nations (UN) Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 held at Rio de Janeiro. The NGT is mandated to endeavour to dispose of applications or appeals within six months of filing. It has been set up at five places: New Delhi (principal place of sitting), Bhopal, Pune, Kolkata and Chennai.

The move to shift Goa's environmental concerns from Pune to Delhi came through the central government's Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (renamed in May 2014 from its earlier Ministry of Environment and Forests). But the fact that both the centre and Panjim are Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled, and the party's perceived lack of empathy for environmental issues, made the move suspect in the eyes of the many affected.

Differing History

Behind this seemingly simple issue of logistics–both the Goa government and green litigants had strong opinions on which venue suited them better–were many other issues affecting a small but affluent state and which seldom gets discussed with the attention it deserves.

Environmentalism took root in Goa in the early to mid-1970s, even before that term became fashionable globally. Campaigners like the late Matanhy Saldanha (an anti-pollution activist-politician, who later led the prolonged struggle of threatened traditional fishermen, before joining the BJP just before his untimely death in 2012) often made this point.

Some reasons for this lie in the paradoxes of history.

Goa, for much of its 451-year-old status as a Portuguese colony, and the centre of Lisbon's empire in the East, was a non-industrialised region (mining begun by the Portuguese rulers in the 20th century was an exception). Portugal, unlike Britain, reached its peak in the 16th and 17th century, too early to be part of the European industrial revolutions, which in any case did not sweep even the metropole's shores in any major way.

In addition, Lisbon's early colonial model in Asia differed from the British in some significant ways. It preserved a form of communal ownership of land, which stayed in Goa till perhaps just over a century ago. Village resources in parts of Goa stayed intact, even if it led to a significant out-migration. This made it an easy target for the later capture of resources by new elites and influential players, sometimes ironically enough after the end of Portuguese colonial rule in 1961.

In the 1970s, a contradictory combination of forces reached Goa. On the one hand was the Indian bourgeoisie, with the captains of the industry setting up a significant presence in Goa (for instance, the Birlas in fertilisers which soon got caught up in pollution issues and protests, the Tatas in the luxury beach resort sector leading to protests in the 1980s, and other major realtors or mining ventures following). On the other hand were the first seeds for a tiny but sometimes agenda-setting environment movement, in part comprising a handful of (then) young campaigners fleeing the concrete jungles of Mumbai (then Bombay) and resettling here.

Over the years, some of the latter groups have branched out into environmental law. Many decades later, the benefit of a strategy which places so much faith in the courts might be debated, and the weariness shows. But undoubtedly the work of people like green advocate Norma Alvares and Claude Alvares, besides a string of other state and local campaigners, has influenced many others to take up battles to safeguard their environment. Some of the issues taken up involve individual concerns but outflow from a sense of public spirit.

‘More than 60 per cent’

Politicians in Goa, regardless of which party they represent, have played a questionable role where the environment is concerned. This has been documented in reports such as “Fish, Curry and Rice: A Citizen's Report On the Environment” (Ecoforum 1993).

Atmaram Barve, Goa BJP's legal cell coordinator, told the media that "more than 60 percent of the matters that Pune’s NGT bench handles come from Goa" (The Print 2017). The Pune bench actually covers Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra, besides Goa.

In the 1960s, fertiliser factory pollution led to mass fish mortality. The “trawler-isation” of fishing with Scandinavian assistance impoverished traditional fishermen and depleted rich coastal fish resources. Goa played a crucial role in the formation and battles of groups like the National Fishermen's Forum.

Along the way came a series of environmental controversies ranging from silica mining (of coastal sand dunes), to siting of mega-projects, damaging local khazans (low-lying coastal reclaimed lands), the rampant growth of tourist resorts, and tourism promotion with no regard to the local carrying capacity, or the row over the route of the Konkan Railway through what were seen by some as fragile coastal areas. Recently, questions have also hit the growing number of casino ships operating “offshore” (just off the banks of the River Mandovi, outside Panjim) and their environmental, and other, impacts.  

Real estate speculation, often based on strategies of politicians from cities like Mumbai, have changed the skyline, leading along with other effects to a sense of loss among many who have lived in Goa for long and also among some recent settlers who are at the forefront of the eco-campaigns.

Controversies

Meanwhile, bizarre controversies over removing the almost omnipresent-in-Goa coconut tree from the list of trees (Times of India 2015) show the relationship between politics, the environment, lobbies and tokens. (Following the intense criticism over this issue, and the unexpected anti-BJP electoral result in the March 2017 election results, the coconut was recently restored on the trees list (Kamat 2017), and also made the state tree!)

More recently, state policies on mining have seen many politicians directly get involved with the sector, sometimes as “equipment suppliers” or having other direct vested interests. While in the opposition, the BJP featured in the media for protesting over these issues, but then, once in power, showed signs of facilitating the return to mining. However, the latter was hit by a complex cocktail of rising costs and international competition, villagers' protests, demands from truckers over better payments, and signs of the industry wanting to keep the ore extracted within the domestic market while local private mine-owners apparently find it more lucrative to export.

The field of green campaigning has been a fast changing one. Social media has changed the way these campaigns get played out; ironically, these tools were first effectively used by the very politicians who are now in power. Environmental campaigners can be both united or divided at times. But sections of organised labour and the Left trade unions have been suspicious of their cause, making a potential red-green alliance a virtual non-starter. Their critics have encouraged whisper campaigns against the motives of green campaigners–which may or may not be grounded in truth. There are other ironies: one litigant at the green tribunal is the government engineer Kashinath Shetye, whose RTIs and court cases drew enough anger in the Goa assembly leading to a discussion on his actions against his very own political bosses (Khan 2017).

Given all this background, litigants seeking justice over green issues did not accept the official argument that the limited number of Goa-Pune air flights made it tough for the government and its lawyers to take up court issues there. There have been calls and suggestions for having a green tribunal bench in Goa itself. 

References 

Ecoforum 1993, “Fish, Curry and Rice: A Citizen's Report On the Environment,” Ecoforum, University of Michigan.

Kamat, Prakash, 2017, “Coconut palm declared State tree of Goa,” The Hindu, 2 August, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/coconut-palm-declared...

Khan, Nida 2017, “Parrikar orders probe against whistleblower Kashinath Shetye, a govt engineer,” Hindustan Times, 6 August, http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/manohar-parrikar-orders-probe-a...

The Print, 2017, “Talk Point: What Will Be the Impact of Shifting Goa Cases from NGT’s Pune Bench to Delhi?” The Print (blog), 15 September, https://theprint.in/2017/09/15/talk-point-will-impact-shifting-goa-cases....

Times of India, 2015, “Coconut Tree Loses Tree Status in Goa,” Times of India, 19 December, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/goa/Coconut-tree-loses-tree-sta....

 

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Sumaira Abdulali (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0].

 

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