A controversy has been created by environmentalists and the media over Railway infrastructure projects in Goa. The infrastructure project is related to the double-lining of tracks between Hospet in Karnataka and Vasco da Gama in Goa. The project has already been sanctioned by the Union Ministry for Railways. Apart from NGOs, media outlets such as The Wire also claimed that the proposed infrastructure projects could fundamentally damage the environmental scene at Goa.
252 km of the 342 km between Hospet and Vasco has already been completed, 245 km of that was in Karnataka and 7 km in Goa. Of the remaining 90 km, 70 km lies in the state of Goa. It is the completion of this remaining portion that has now generated controversy. The need for the infrastructure projects was generated by the inability to introduce 24 coach length passenger trains due to the existing length of platforms and others concerns.
Improved railway connectivity is also expected to benefit the people of Goa as tourist footfall will increased. The introduction of new passenger trains will improve connectivity with Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and other parts of the country. Currently, a majority of stations in Goa lack suitable passenger amenities such as adequate length of platforms, platform shelters, water booths, foot over bridges, platform toilets, ramp for disabled passengers among other things.
Concerns that have been raised
Certain NGOs and village panchayats in recent times have raised certain objections seeking to stop the doubling of railway tracks in Goa. Village Panchayat, Sao Jose De Areal, Salcete, Goa has issued a notice to South Western Railway demanding an immediate stop to construction work near the Railway gate at Nessai and also at Railway station, Ralloi, Sao Jose De Areal in connection with the doubling of tracks.
The notice was issued under Section 64(j) of the Panchayat Act. Other Village Panchayats are also agitating for the stoppage of work relate to doubling of tracks. At Railway Gate, Nessai, around 200 people of Sao Jose De Areal gathered for stopping the work on 28th October, 2020. The concerns that have been raised can be broadly categorised as:
- Concerns of environment related to Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife sanctuary as well as in Mollem National Park
- Damages to heritage buildings
- Damage to the environment due to increased transportation of coal
- Stay granted by the High Court, Goa Bench against doubling in protected area
- Railway Board order dated 28.07.2020 for stopping the infrastructure work
- Railways has not sought approval from village panchayat for execution of doubling under section 64 (j) of the Goa Panchayat Act.
What does the Union Railway Ministry say?
Sources within the Railway Ministry with knowledge of the matter told us that the concerns that have been raised do not have a basis in fact and the local public is being misled by those with vested interests.
Concerns regarding wildlife sanctuary and national park
Sources told us that the existing single line track has been in existence for over a century. The construction of the track was started in 1882 and was completed in 1905. The railway track passes through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National park where the Railway is in possession of having only 0.869 square km of land as against 240 SqKm area of Bhagwan Mahaveer Wild Life Sanctuary. Thus, Railways occupies a negligible 0.36% of area of the Wildlife Sanctuary.
Furthermore, the Railway has already conducted an Environment Impact Assessment Survey through IISC, Bangalore, one of the most prestigious institutes in the country and it has been scrutinized by the Forest Department and Ministry of Environment as well. With a view towards permitting safe crossing for animals in the area, 5 new under passes and 3 new over passes are planned for construction along with doubling which are not currently available on the existing single line track.
Sources clarified that not a single heritage building will be dismantled in the process of doubling of tracks.
Sources informed that as a matter of policy, the Government of India is cutting down its dependence on imported coal.
High Court, Goa Bench
A public interest litigation was filed before the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court by the Goa Foundation in July, 2020. The Railways have filed a counter reply in response to it, however, the matter has not yet come up for hearing. Sources told us that there is no stay on the infrastructure work from the High Court.
There is no such order from the Railway Board instructing the doubling of tracks to be stopped.
Approval from Village Panchayat
Sources told us that as per the provisions of the Railway Act, 1989, the Railway Administration does not require approval from any local body or village panchayat given the fact that the infrastructure work is being conducted on land that belongs to the Railways. “The Railway administration is authorized to execute any modifications to existing structures or tracks or any kind or new structure constructions or tracks or any kind as and when required and for execution of works within Railway land, the Railway Administration is not bound to obtain permission from any local body or village panchayat,” sources said.
Sources also told us that according to Section 65 of the Goa Panchayat Raj Act 1994 and rules, jurisdiction of a Village Panchayat is restricted to village roads and building which are not under the control of another government organization or private. Since the Railway land is under the control of the Union Government, it is beyond the jurisdiction of a village Panchayat. Therefore, the section 65 of Goa Panchayat Raj Act 1994 is not applicable in the current scenario.
The path forward
Sources told us that there is no objection towards the completion of the remaining 20 km stretch in Karnataka and it will be completed in due course of time. We were also informed that abandoning a project sanctioned by the Ministry is now within the competency of the Zonal Railways. Moreover, the Railway administration insists that the local public is being misled by vested interests. Thus, it is extremely unlikely that the project will be abandoned henceforth.