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Environmentalists On The Rise

Is Their Activism Really Good For Goa?

Olivia Silveira is a simple woman. The middle-aged president of the St Estevao Tenants Association was taken aback when a group of villagers marched to a site where a government contractor was strengthening an embankment with mud.The villagers stopped the work and questioned Silveira, who had asked the government to repair the embankment to prevent salt water from entering farmers’ fields.

In a scene of growing frequency around Goa, the villagers cried “environmental destruction” and alleged the repair work would damage mangroves.Silveira found herself in the middle of a battle between farmers whose livelihoods were being threatened and activists who saw her as something of a government stooge. She, of course, was just doing her job.

It wasn’t always like this in Goa. Before, the government had little problem strengthening an embankment to protect crops from salt water, or building bridges over the Mandovi, Zuari or Chapora Rivers, or constructing wide roads all over the state.

Now, one would be hard pressed to find a single major project that does not face significant resistance from environmental activists, be it opposition to helicopter tourism from an existing helipad, the new Mandovi Bridge, a proposed golf course at Tiracol, or garbage treatment plans.

Some of these agitations, of course, are completely justified on environmental grounds. But we’re also seeing a reflexive, visceral response to every proposed project regardless of its merit and whether it’s actually hurting the countryside. Chalk it up to Goans’ growing distrust of government, which many see as increasingly distanced from the real interests of the people and the environment and too willing to sell out to the highest bidder.

Unfortunately, among the casualties of this distrust are projects that would actually contribute to Goa’s sustainable development. Finding the right balance between economic progress and environmental protection has never been an easy task. But intensifying vitriol, knee-jerk reactions and a growing reluctance to compromise don’t help the cause of accomplishing the goal.

Each new movement has its own non-governmental organisation backing it. Among them are Goans for Sustainable Development, the Federation of Rainbow Warriors, United Goans Foundation, Goans for Goa, the Green Brigade, and Generation Next, with members often overlapping from group to group.

While groups come and go depending on the project they are opposing, they have certain approaches in common. Any large project is sure to earn the wrath of environmentalists – government-initiated or otherwise. Nothing is spared, from embankment repairs to the construction of bridges and marinas to new hotel projects.

Environmentalism isn’t new to Goa, to be sure. Goa’s oldest and most famous NGO is the Goa Foundation, which set up shop in the State in 1986. In earlier times, well known agitations included opposition to what are now the Taj Holiday Village and Taj Fort Aguada resorts, the anti-DupontThapar Nylon 6,6 agitation (in which one person died when police opened fire), the anti-Konkan Railway agitation, the anti-Regional Plan 2011 agitation and the anti-Special Economic Zone agitation.

“The naturally well-endowed state of Goa occupies less than 1% of India’s landmass. Yet, the charm of the place and the hospitable nature of its local inhabitants now draw some 3-4 million people (annually) to enjoy its sheer beauty. The government of Goa, however, has remained unimpressed. Over the years, it has tried zealously not to build on those assets, but to grind them to dust. Not surprising, every single project conceived by government or by companies or compradors have chewed up some part of Goa or another,” said Goa Foundation head Claude Alvares.

Another thinker, Solano da Silva, argues that Goans have every right to question the development model being imposed on them by the government and suggest alternative models.

Yet as environmentalism grows, so do the voices of those in power who insist the activists are blocking development. One such voice is that ofthe BJP’s Panjim MLA Siddharth Kuncalienkar.

“When the government goes about doing something good, be it a garbage treatment plant, a new bridge to ease traffic congestion, these so-called NGOs choose to challenge them in courts. These same so-called environmentalists are nowhere in the picture when the government of Karnataka chooses to build a dam right in the Western Ghats,” he said.

His views are echoed by his mentor, current Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, who said the NGOs have an inherent “hypocrisy in their thinking process.”

“There has to be positive activism for a cleaner and better Goa,” the former chief minister of the state said.

The recent attempts by the government to collect opinions on the Regional Plan are an interesting case in point. While a majority of suggestions received calls for a ‘change of zone’ to switch one’s land from eco-sensitive to ‘settlement’ (where construction is permitted), those seeking to ‘save Goa’ submitted few suggestions.

When push came to shove, it seems, those who had the most to gain from a pro-development agenda showed more passion than the self-proclaimed keepers of the land.