Is it on the right track?

  • 30/10/1992

Is it on the right track? GEORGE Fernandes may have been looking for a short cut to lasting fame when he announced on July 19, 1990 the setting up of the Konkan Railway Corporation (KRC). To many, the prospect of a railway line along the west coast was the fulfillment of a dream. The idea was first conceived by the British government in 1894. But the project posed a challenge to contemporary engineering because of the difficult terrain it had to traverse. This, coupled with the expense entailed in such a proposition, ensured the idea never achieved fruition.

Today, the Konkan railway project envisages building a broad gauge line from Roha in Maharashtra, to Mangalore in Karnataka through the tiny state of Goa. The 760-km railway was to be completed by 1995, a deadline that has since been brought forward to October 1994.

Named after the linguistic region that it seeks to serve, the railway, according to the KRC, is intended to open up "the backward areas of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka" -- its length through the three states being 382 km, 105 km and 273 km respectively. Estimated to cost Rs 1,043 crore at 1988-89 prices, the figure has now been revised to about Rs 1,400 crore.

The railway will be India"s biggest track-laying exercise in the 20th century. While the broad gauge line from Cochin reached Mangalore in 1907, it was extended in two small additions to Udupi on the Mangalore-Bombay route.
Terrain options The terrain of the Konkanregion allows only two options while laying down a railway line: it could be either a hill line or a coastal one. The chain of hills that constitute the Western Ghats runs parallel to the west coast. The ghats descend sharply to the coastal region on the west, but merge in gentle slopes with the Deccan Plateau on the east. Because of high rainfall, the western slopes of the ghats are rich in evergreen and deciduous forests.

The Konkan coastal zone is generally narrow with a maximum width of 50 km, narrowing suddenly near Karwar, in Karnataka, where the ghats almost meet the sea.

While the project was received with public enthusiasm in Maharashtra and Karnataka, a strong and influential section of Goa"s population rose up in arms against the proposal and what they saw as "vandalisation of the west coast". It is not the Konkan railway they are opposing, but the route chosen. They want a realignment of the line which, according to the KRC blueprint, runs almost all the way close to the coast and at places like Majorda, in south Goa, is just about a kilometre from the seashore. Since human settlements in Goa are also concentrated along the coast, they are especially incensed by the fact the line passes through thickly populated areas, particularly in south Goa. The fact that the proposed route also traverses the catchment areas of many rivers in the region, rendering the land extremely fertile, is also a cause for concern.

The KRC"s claim that technical imperatives ascertained the alignment is generally dismissed with contempt. But what seems to rankle most is the impression that the railway will largely benefit non-Goans. "This railway line is not meant for Goa and the Goans. Goa is being used just as a corridor," says Wilfred D"Souza, deputy chief minister of Goa and a bitter critic of the present route of the Konkan railway. Divisions and lobbies
The realignment controversy has brought several groups together, including sworn adversaries such as the local environmentalists and the tourism lobby, both opposed to the present route. It has also created divisions. The Congress party itself is split, with chief minister Ravi Naik supporting the railway, but most of his party colleagues from south Goa, including D"Souza, opposing it. This has resulted in Naik being on the same side as his political opponents, the Maharashtravadi Gomantak Party (MGK).

But the most pitched opposition to the present route comes from various groups of environmentalists, who have come together under a federation called the Konkan Railway Realignment Committee (KRRAC). The KRRAC is agitating for the railway route to be shifted away from the coast towards the eastern hinterland which is less developed and where the density of population is less.

M K Jos, a KRRAC activist and local entrepreneur, contends, "Superfast trains travelling at a speed of 140 km an hour will have a tremendous ecological impact, destabilise buildings." Ralino de Sousa, chairperson of the Goa chapter of the Indian Architects Association, adds, "Goa"s villages and towns are thickly populated and the railway line will split many of them. It will certainly add to congestion and harass the people."

And, Matanhy Saldanha, another KRRAC leader and a veteran of many an environmental battle in Goa (see box), pointed out that the present route will "totally destroy" the extremely fertile khazan lands (see report on page 33) between Mayem and Cortalim. These agricultural lands not only provide livelihood to a large number of farmers, but are also critical for the breeding of brackish water fish and shrimp.

The khazan lands lie as much as three metres below the sea level along the estuaries of Goa"s rivers, which drain into the Arabian Sea, whose tides help to flush these lands with mildly brackish sea water. Environmental activists contend that the tidal flow will be impaired by the high railway embankments and this will result in the stagnation of water in the fields. While stagnant brackish water would affect the paddy crop, stagnant fresh water in the fields would lead to the growth of weeds; either would spell calamity for the small farmer.

Another serious environmental fall-out, the KRRAC fears, will be on Carambolim lake, a 72-ha wetland where migratory birds from all over the world come to nest in winter. The lake is also important for local agriculturists as it helps irrigate their fields when there are no rains and also helps recharge the water table. The present rail alignment requires a part of the lake to be filled up. Environmentalists fear this will not only alter the ecology of the area but the sound of the high speed trains will scare the birds away. Besides Carambolim, two smaller water bodies, Consua and Cuelim, will also be affected.

According to Urban Lobo, a civil engineer and a KRRAC activist, the railway line is bound to be a health hazard and "will cause epidemics of vast magnitude that can wipe out whole villages". In a report prepared for an expert committee set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests earlier this year, Lobo stated, "Mud embankments will reduce the tidal flow of sea water that flushes the khazan lands. It will cause variation in salinity level and stagnation of water." This, in turn, will make the water in the area polluted as there could be seepage into local village wells, he added. Lobo said in his report that the floating weeds and non-saline stagnant water in the khazan land would encourage the breeding of disease-bearing mosquitoes. Lobo also argued that the disruption of tidal flow in the khazan lands would be detrimental to the health of the fish population that spawn and breed there.

Other environmental activists are equally concerned about the impact the railway lines may have on Goa"s ecology. They contend a satisfactory environmental impact assessment was not done before the KRC started work. It was this apprehension that led veteran environmentalist and Goa Foundation secretary Claude Alvares to file a writ petition before the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court in April this year. The judges rejected the petition (see box).

Rigid position
The KRC has taken a rigid position on the environmental aspects of the Konkan railway. B Rajaram, chief engineer of the KRC, maintains, "The present route will have the least environmental impact." He argues that the alternative route being suggested by the KRRAC and some other groups passes through rich forests and mines and this would cause more severe environmental damage as it would destroy forests spread over 350 ha.

Meanwhile, a broad estimate prepared by environmentalists Sarto Almeida, Ralino de Sousa and Aruna Rodrigues, with the help of aerial photographs, and the town and country planning department of Panaji, suggest that the total forest area to be affected in the realignment route would be only 54 ha. Of this, heavy tree cover area would be less than one ha, while medium tree cover to be damaged would amount to 9.5 ha. The remaining forests that would be damaged have only light to sparse tree cover. The precise proportion of tree cover to be affected would be known only after the actual alignment is determined.

According to Rajaram, the present route was accepted after extensive surveys of the region and an environmental impact assessment (EIA) made by the Rail India Technical and Economic Services with which eminent experts like Madhav Gadgil and Ranjit Daniels of the school of ecological sciences of the Indian Institute of Sciences in Bangalore were involved. But the KRRAC refutes this by pointing out the two environment experts were told to assess the environmental impact in terms of only the flora and fauna of the region.

Heavy deforestation
Those opposing the present alignment also question the KRC claim that the alternative route will lead to heavy deforestation. Says Saldanha, "The route we propose goes through the mining area and the forests there are already getting degraded."

Rajaram, on the other hand, maintains that if the railway line were to pass through mining areas, the iron ore -- all of which is for export -- along the tracks cannot be extracted and this would mean a loss for the state exchequer.

According to the chief engineer, realigning the route will not only delay the project but also lead to considerable cost escalation as both the length of the tracks to be laid and the number of tunnels to be built will go up. It is for these reasons that Manuel Menezes, former chairperson of the Railway Board, had rejected the realignment proposal when asked by the railway ministry to examine it.

KRRAC activists, however, accuse Menezes of being guided by less than fair considerations because of his alleged links with Afcons, the construction company that got a contract worth about Rs 35 crore to build three major bridges on the present route. In response, KRC officials and the ministry officials in Delhi allege that those who are opposing the present alignment are guided either by petty political or personal considerations.

Goa"s politicians, with their quicksilver party and group affiliations, have found the Konkan railway a useful tool for their own machinations. Even the Union ministries of environment and railways have locked horns over the issue. In June, Union environment minister Kamal Nath set up an expert committee to examine the environmental and cultural implications of the present route. The railways and the state governments involved boycotted the committee headed by Kamla Chowdhry. According to official sources, the railways and the state governments decided "not to recognise" the committee because the environment ministry had "no business to set up the committee" without consulting the other government agencies involved. A senior railway official, who did not want to be named, said, "We cannot allow the environment ministry to arrogate superior status to itself."

Others question the credentials of the committee members, one of whom is mediaperson Usha Albuquerque whose nomination surprised both sides. The committee, which was to submit its report by September 3, also lost credibility because B N Desai, director of the prestigious National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), and Manohar Shetty, a local journalist, opted out of it. While railway sources impute motives to the nomination of V A Pai Panandikar, director of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, to the committee, KRRAC activists question the credentials of J B Sardesai, an ornithologist from Goa, who is said to have links with the state"s mine-owners. Even Kamla Chowdhry is under fire after her visit to Goa in August. KRRAC members allege that Chowdhry did not meet them and was "always in the company of those who are opposed to realignment for their own vested interests".

According to Mario Cabral e Sa, a local journalist who is also media advisor to the KRC, environmental threats are being brought up only to promote personal gains. He alleged real estate prices along the Goan coast were astronomical and "every single inch of land had already been negotiated by developers". A railway line close to the coast will certainly affect the "exclusivity" of this land and hence affect the prices.

One luxury hotelier admitted, "We do not want the railways so close to the coast. Besides the noise, they bring a lot of the rifraff who are simply a nuisance to our tourists."

Pressures and counter-pressures
Goa has not only one of the best road networks in the country, it also has a strong bus operators" lobby. According to director of transport K N S Nair, there are 512 authorised routes within Goa, on which 688 buses and 268 mini-buses ply, while another 198 buses run on 28 identified inter-state routes. The number of buses would be still higher if those registered outside the state were to be counted. About three-fourths of these are privately owned and a rail line close to the national highway is bound to affect business adversely.

KRRAC activists, on the other hand, contend that it is under pressure from the mine-owners, besides Afcons, that the line is not being shifted to the hinterland. Rajaram strongly contests this, arguing that it is not true to say local interests have not been considered while deciding the route. He pointed out that during the first survey carried out by the central railway in 1970-71, an alignment was chosen along the coast up to Madgaon and along the foothills north of Madgaon.

Subsequently, during the final location survey done by the Southern Railway in 1986-87, an alignment along the coast was chosen passing through Canacona, Madgaon, Panaji and Mapusa, and to which the Goa government did not object.

However, when the KRC started its land acquisition survey in 1990, the then state government objected to the alignment finalised by southern railways and the then chief minister L P Barbosa wanted it shifted away from Panaji and Mapusa. When this diversion was made, the state government endorsed the alignment on December 7, 1990. Later, when chief minister Ravi Naik assumed office, the alignment was reviewed once again at a meeting on March 25, 1991. According to Rajaram, only one MLA, Churchill Alemao, wanted some changes in the alignment near Majorda in south Goa, which were incorporated.

Rajaram argued that the KRC had also changed the location of some of the railway stations to satisfy local apprehensions. A case in point is the proposed main railway station at Old Goa, which had raised fears that old settlements, including historical monuments and places of worship, would be affected. "That is why we shifted the main station to Neura," said Rajaram.

MGP legislator and Assembly Opposition leader Radhakant Khalap, who was deputy chief minister in the Barbosa cabinet, has another story to tell. Khalap said before the Barbosa government cleared the line, a meeting of all the 40 MLAs of the state was called. "All the people who are now fighting over the alignment were sleeping then," he said.

Khalap feels that the environmentalists and politicians opposing the project are doing it for their own vested interests. According to him, the public representatives from South Goa, including Union minister of state for external affairs Eduardo Faleiro, did not take up the issue at all. "Now that Wilfred D"Souza and Churchill Alemao have a political score to settle against Ravi Naik, they are opposing the project," says Khalap. This was reflected in the June by-election in Goa when Radharao Gracius, an independent candidate supported by Alemao, won the election. While the environmentalists and the Alemao group claimed the victory as a mandate for realignment, those in favour of the present alignment argued it only reflected the bitter infighting within the Congress because if there was such a groundswell for realignment, the official candidate of KRRAC would have won.

That the ruling Congress party in Goa is riven with conflict is obvious. As D"Souza put it, "I am opposed to the alignment, but why should I do anything to get it changed? It was Eduardo Faleiro who made an election promise to this effect. Let him get it changed." Sources close to D"Souza also said he was happy the people in south Goa, which incidentally is a Congress stronghold, were agitated over the present alignment as it made his task of stepping into Naik"s shoes so much easier.

Naik, in order to bolster his own base, has taken a strong stand in favour of the present alignment. His bete noir, Churchill Alemao, has now joined hands with the deputy chief minister and is an active realignment supporter. This, in fact, is proving a bit uncomfortable for some KRRAC members because of Alemao"s reputation and the accusations of smuggling made against him by the customs authorities.

Social crisis
The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which have only a notional presence in the state, are not averse to pitching in favour of the present alignment. As a result of all this, the realignment demand, which started as an environmental issue, has begun to acquire communal overtones, although both sides hesitate to admit it. The Hindus, by and large, are in favour of the present alignment, while the Catholics are in favour of realignment.

At present, Goa seems to be going through a tremendous social crisis. Census figures reveal that over the last two decades, about 25 per cent of Goa"s population consists of immigrants, an overwhelming majority of whom are Hindus. About three lakhs of the state"s total population of about 12 lakhs are immigrants. Observes a lecturer in sociology in Goa University, "The Goan Catholics are getting increasingly afraid of their culture being swamped by Hindus."

And this fear is certainly not unfounded. Even before the minority community could come to terms with its minority status in India after the liberation of Goa in 1961, its role in various spheres of activity began to diminish. While immigrants have cornered a share of local business, local non-Brahmin Hindus, who were somewhat disadvantaged during Portuguese rule, have come to occupy lower and middle level positions in the government. The Catholic youth, in contrast, have tended to migrate out of the state to West Asia, Europe and Australia, in search of a higher standard of living.

Cabral e Sa explains, "The younger generation among the Catholics is just not interested in farming or village life. They all want white-collar jobs or to go abroad. As a result, labour in Goa is very expensive. Even an unskilled farm hand is paid as much as Rs 60 for a day"s work." Immigrant labour comes much cheaper, so most people prefer to employ them. Hammond Fernandez, a steward in a Panaji restaurant, minced no words saying, "These outsiders have spoilt everything. They sleep on the pavements, they are spoiling our beautiful state."

It is partly this fear that seems to have stirred up popular resentment against the present alignment in the south. It has conjured up visions of slums, noise, overcrowding and filth.

KRC in a hurry
The KRC is in a hurry to complete the project by October 1994, and has taken refuge under the special powers granted to it by an antiquated Railways Act. While the railways have done an environmental impact assessment of the present alignment, it is true that the alternative route was not assessed for its ecological strengths and weaknesses. Even the KRC claim that the alternative route will mean cutting 350 ha of forests seems to be a convenient figure. As Kishore Rao, conservator of forests in Goa, said, "I cannot comment on the forests involved unless I have the exact plan with a survey number of plots involved."

Similarly, the likely impact on the khazan lands is not clear. The KRC maintains that since most of the embankments will be perpendicular to the rivers they cross, they will not cut across these lands and, because of "adequate openings" in the embankments, there will be no effect on the tidal flushing of these lands. Rajaram also maintains that most of the embankments will be towards the higher side of the land slope and hence the tidal flow would not be affected elsewhere, although he agrees that "some land will be certainly affected because of the physical occupation of the railway tracks".

But railways officials such as Rajaram concede that their environmental assessment did not have a specific focus on wetlands and tidal movements. Similarly, while the KRC maintains that not much damage will be done to Carbolim lake and that only 5 per cent of the lake will be lost, environmental activists insist that 20 per cent of the lake area will be affected.

Then there is the fear that KRRAC has expressed concerning the vibrations from what it estimates will be more than 100 trains passing through the region at speeds of 140 to 160 kmph. But railway officials say not even the Chhotanagpur coal-belt route has such heavy traffic and it is difficult to conceive of 100 trains on the present single track. As for the argument that the boring of tunnels and the movement of trains will endanger the old historical monuments of the area, the KRC argues that the vibrations so generated will die out within 50 metres from the tracks and no historical structure is situated that close.

But one cardinal point does not seem to have received the attention it deserves: Does the KRC have the finances to complete the project? At current estimates, the project is likely to cost Rs 1,400 crore and even KRC officials admit it will escalate to at least Rs 1,800 crore by 1994. The KRC has to raise this sum from its own resources and if the response to its bonds is anything to go by, it will be an achievement if it is able to do this from the market. The work could be kept going this year because the ministry of railways gave the project Rs 100 crore. The KRC has also negotiated a loan of Rs 200 crore from the Unit Trust of India. The controversies surrounding the project could keep potential foreign donors at bay. Under the circumstances, the severe cash crunch may yet derail the Konkan railway project.

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