Sunday, May 1, 2016
Goa: Stripping the land By Raj Chengappa
A one-time 'Rome of the Orient' with its azure skies and its golden, palm fringed beaches, Goa's ecological charms are being systematically deflowered. The magnificent forest canopy which once covered half its area has, in the past 20 years, shrunk to a quarter of its original size.
The constant discharge of oil from its busy shipping lanes has desecrated its virgin beaches. And with the urbanisation rate escalating rapidly from 26 per cent to 32 per cent in the last decade, the Goan houses with their ornate porticos and old-world charm are fast being replaced by concrete high-rise monsters. Said the soft-spoken Chief Secretary of Goa K.C. Johorey: "It's a serious problem and if we don't take steps to prevent it, nothing may be left."
A concerned Central Government asked the Planning Commission to set up a task force to chart out an eco-development plan for Goa in May last year. Headed by eminent scientist and former member of the Planning Commission, Dr M.S. Swaminathan, the force submitted its report recently and urged speedy action on several recommendations like conservation of ecology, habitat planning and development of tourism which deserved "urgent attention".
With a total area of 3,701 sq km, the Union Territory of Goa is hardly a thumbprint on the vast Malabar coastline. Of its population of 10.03 lakh, about 60 per cent are concentrated in the four coastal talukas of Tiswadi, Bardez, Salcete and Mormugao. In contrast, the hilly and forest talukas of Sanguem, Satari and Canacona have sustained both the lowest population density and the most merciless deforestation.
Within two decades about 900 sq km of forest stands denuded and the once lush green rolling hills are now barren and rocky. An estimated 1,030 sq km have been affected by severe soil erosion and need urgent soil conservation treatment, and uncultivable wastelands have gone up from 13,228 hectares to 28,736 hectares. Said the portly Minister for Tourism Wilfred De Souza: "Goa is becoming barren. At this rate there's going to be nothing left for the tourists to see."
Heavy Mining: The main reason for this massive deforestation has been Goa's mining industry which netted Rs 176.3 crore as foreign exchange in 1980 and is the backbone of its economy. Goa accounts for 32 per cent of the country's iron ore production and 55 per cent of its exports. The other important minerals it produces are manganese ore, bauxite, industrial clay and silica sand. Beginning in the early '40s, mineral production in Goa peaked after Japan installed a sizeable sintering capacity for iron ore here. The '50s were a boom decade under the Portuguese, with people acquiring mining concessions which gave them proprietary rights over the land for an unlimited period. Currently 500 sq km of land is covered by mining concessions and 70 per cent of these encompass forests.
With mining being done by the open casting method, apart from chopping trees in the area, the indiscriminate dumping of an estimated 300 million tonnes of rejects resulting from the extraction of 200 million tonnes of ore, has been disastrous. Since the mines are in hilly areas, the debris is washed down.destroying the agricultural lands below and polluting all the rivers.
In some areas, mining has reached well below the water-table and pumping of water from these mines has affected the flow of water in streams and springs. With a view to ending the devastation, the Centre has ordered the Union Territory Government to issue notices terminating the leases from 1983 onwards, and make its prior sanction for the cutting of forest produce mandatory. Warned P.P. Malhotra, conservator of forests: "If mine owners do not take necessary precautions, we may have to stop mining before long, even if it means loss of foreign exchange."
Moreover, one-third or 259 sq km of the total forest area is privately owned or comes under the system of communidades which were institutions recognised by the Portuguese for the welfare of village communities. Because of over exploitation, most of these have been degraded and in many instances reduced to sheet rock. In addition, the Forest Department has had no control over private forests, except to give formal permission to cut trees.
Official Initiative: Consequently the Goa Government is likely to pass a Tree (Preservation) Bill soon, which will establish tree authorities all over the state to regulate the felling of forests. Apart from this, about 26 km of communidade land has been acquired by the Forest Department which is planting cashew trees on it.
Even the beaches have been denuded of their casuarina cover by the mining of silica sand, and a government move to cancel the leases was quashed in court by the owners. Mining has thus continued unabated, despite the task force's warning that the 73.3 km of sandy beaches would be damaged unless the Mining Act was amended.
The cumulative effect of all these factors has been to severely strain Goa's ecological balance. Even the normal yardsticks of progress - per capita income and rate of industrialisation - have not spared this sunny union territory their side-effects. Goa enjoys a galloping rate of urbanisation and a per capita income of Rs 2,675 - the highest in the country. Industrialisation too has grown apace, from a meagre 66 units in 1964 to 2,374 units today, 95 per cent of which are located in coastal talukas.
However, unplanned construction activity has spoiled some of the best residential areas. The task force has observed that: "The new construction is ruining the architectural harmony and distinct character of Goan settlements." Multi-storeyed buildings are sprouting all over, especially near the waterfronts in an "unbecoming manner". As an ecologist angrily remarked: "Goa is fast becoming a mini-Bombay."