High court grants round one to railways

High court grants round one to railways ON APRIL 21, 1992, an angry mob on Devar Island in Goa destroyed a bulldozer owned by the Konkan Railway Corporation Ltd (KRC). On the same day, Claude Alvares, a noted Goan journalist, along with other members of the Goa Foundation, a voluntary organisation, moved the Maharashtra high court to get a stay on the controversial Konkan railway project, which will cut across the state on its way from Maharashtra in the north to Karnataka in the south. But the court rejected the case in favour of the KRC, much to the discontent of those who did not want to see a railway line butcher the cultural fabric of Goa.

The legal battle which was fought on the basis of the Environment Protection Act (EPA), 1986, lost to clause 11 of the Railways Act which says, "Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law, the railway ministry may for the purpose of constructing or maintaining a railway, construct in or upon, across, under or over lands or any street, hills, valleys, roads, streams or other waters, rivers as it thinks proper." Even coastal regulations failed to help as the railways did not have the requisite industrial status. "If the government of India has a ministry to protect environment interests, then why is another ministry empowered to smash all its efforts?" asks Aruna Rodriguez, a management consultant from Goa, who represents the groups opposing the coastal route of the Konkan railway. They want the railways to take a mountainous route.

In fact, the intervention of the ministry of environment and forests (MEF) to demand an environment management plan from the KRC under the EPA became controversial. KRC claims immunity from such laws. By the general purport of the act, the ministry can ask for an environment impact assessment report and an environment management plan even though the Act does not categorically include railways. But says S V Salelkar, engineer-in-chief, KRC, "If a railway line runs through a forest area, we apply for clearance under the Forest Conservation Act. But environmental protection is not mandatory as far as railways are concerned."

"The funny thing is," says Rodriguez, "that the hinterland alignment of the original proposed plan put forward in 1972 was modified in 1984 in favour of the present alignment mainly to avoid delays under the Forest Conservation Act as larger forest areas were involved in the original plan. But now, can the EPA help Goa from this disastrous new alignment?"

A feeble attempt was made in court, on the basis of the MEF draft notification to restrict all development activities within a specified radius of forest areas, sanctuaries and national parks, "to suggest that the ministry of environment and forests has issued a draft notification which intends to prescribe that environment clearance from the Central government is required for providing a railway line." But it did not carry weight in court. The judgement says, "It has no legal existence till objections are examined and the final notification is issued."

Why the MEF chose to act under the EPA when the railways is not categorically covered by the Act is not clear. The personal ministerial initiative in this matter is evident from the letter of the minister for environment, Kamal Nath, to the railways minister, C K Jaffer Sharief, stating that the initiative was being taken in response to pressure from prominent Goan citizens. The letter dated February 26, 1992 states, "In this connection, Eduardo Faleiro wrote to me soon after I assumed charge. Separately, our high commissioner in London, L M Singhvi, also brought the matter to my attention since it had agitated a large section of the non-resident Indian (NRI) population in the UK."

It further states, "My ministry is convinced that the present alignment would prove inimical to the small forest areas of Goa, including wildlife, not to speak of several settlement and architectural and cultural buildings." Yet, during the hearing of the case, the ministry made it clear through its counsel "that the ministry is fully conscious of the mitigative steps taken by the corporation to see that the ecology and the environment of the places from where the alignment passes is not disturbed." Thus, local apprehensions about sensitive ecological spaces like the Carambolim lake and estuaries (called khazans) and others remain unresolved.

But the credibility of the environment management plan of the KRC, on the basis of which the ministry took its decision, is being questioned. The plan, which was prepared under the guidance of Madhav Gadgil of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, for the KRC has lost much of its credibility because it is allegedly based on distorted facts provided by the KRC. In fact, a letter dated October 29, 1991, from one of the team-members, Ranjit Daniels, to Urbano Lobo, a chartered engineer and a member of the Konkan Railway Realignment Committee, who brought the anomalies to the notice of the team, says, "M D Subhash and I have done much of the EIA survey for this railway line between Roha and Udipi. I have, however, failed to locate the villages you have mentioned in your report, both in the toposheets available with us and those provided by the Rail India Technical and Economic Services. If you can kindly mark them on a map, along with the proposed alignment that you suggest, we can take this up as a case if it would really help the local people." This statement is seen as a serious indictment of the KRC engineers for suppression of even the Survey of India topographical sheets.

Fisherfolk and farmers are worried as their estuaries and paddy fields are being threatened by the proposed alignment. It will destroy a large part of khazan land, a peculiar land feature in Goa, which has been reclaimed and developed over the last 4,000 years in the estuaries of the rivers Zuari and Mandovi. In these lands, the local people have developed an intricate irrigation system which regulates the flow of tidal sea water for pisciculture and, during the rains, flushes out the saline water and retains rain water for paddy cultivation. Any construction activity in the area can seriously impair this intricate channel system.

It is feared that the construction of a railway line would disrupt the flood openings and the backwater channels, the main regulatory system of the khazan lands. But S V Salelkar of KRC claims that, out of 1,800 ha of khazan land, only 30 ha will be used by the corporation. "And even this miniscule area would be utilised with the help of a careful bridge system so that waterways are not disrupted," he adds. But railways do not have any past experience of crossing khazan lands and engineering solutions to the khazan problem are not readily available, says Lobo in his critique of the report prepared by the one-person committee of M Menezes, ex-chairperson of the Railway Board, set up by the KRC to review the realignment question. Almost 80,000 fishermen are dependent on these estuaries and the Goan economy earns substantially from fish exports.

The pro-realignment group is opposing the project even on development grounds. The Konkan railways has about 106 km of railway lines running through Goa. Of this, the controversial section is the 55 km between Mayam and Balli in south Goa, the most developed part of the state. "It is ironical," says V A Pai Panandiker, a noted economist from the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and also a Goan, "that the railway line should run through the most developed part of the state when the central objective of this project was to extend its network to backward areas."

Says Aruna Rodriguez, "Medium-grade iron ore is the mainstay of the Goan economy and a large part of it is exported to Japan. But the Japanese market is shifting to steel grade iron. Now, only the domestic market can absorb Goan iron and, hence, the eastern hinterlands rich in iron deposit should be linked with a through railway." Officials in the railway ministry, however, argue that the track is being laid to cater to passenger traffic. "If the line is taken away to the hinterlands it will defeat the purpose," says K P T Unni, officer on special duty, KRC, in New Delhi.

Political divides
There has been considerable political mobilisation on this issue. The state government, headed by Ravi Naik, wants to see it through as it is convinced of the "shortest and cheapest" theory propagated by the KRC to meet the October 1994 deadline for completion of the project. The well-entrenched contractors' lobby is reportedly playing its part to keep the alignment. The mining lobby is very keen on keeping the alignment out of the hinterland where most of the iron deposits are located.

The political divide cuts across party lines. It is mostly the South Goa MLAs who are opposing the alignment. Eduardo Faleiro, Union minister of state for foreign affairs, who represents the South Goa constituency, is not in favour of the alignment, but says diplomatically, "I do not want this issue to be politicised. We must respect what people want." What people in South Goa want is clear from the human chain of protest that was formed in April this year. In response, Naik offered to reduce the area to be acquired by the KRC, but this was rejected as "cosmetic" by the Konkan Railway Realignment Committee.

The near unanimous protest by the Christian-dominated South Goan community has been interpreted as communal in some quarters. The church in Goa is also very critical of the project. South Goa is the hub of the Christians where all the architectural remnants of the past stand.

"We don't want the dead body of a rich civilisation," says Panandiker, reacting to the undemocratic attitude of the railway ministry in pushing what he considers to be one of the most damaging railway projects in the country. A key issue is whether local communities have the right to refuse a development project.