Deepa George; café@herald-goa.comThe ‘Save Mollem’ movement has slowly been gaining ground since the lockdown. What started as an artistic expression to save these forests from being felled has soon snowballed into a citizens’ initiative that seeks to garner public opinion and get the attention of our government. Is the government paying heed or are they being dismissive, viewing this as yet another instance of environmental activism? Is there hope to challenge the central and state governments? People involved share their views and count on solid research and expansive outreach to make their case. One of the biggest challenges that the pandemic has posed is in snipping the wings of protest, what with social distancing norms making it difficult to rally together in open spaces to amplify dissent and make the voices of people heard. Perhaps, that is what the government was banking on as well. They didn’t realise that the citizens of Goa - artists, children, students, ecologists, lawyers, business owners, architects, parents would galvanise together and take this protest virtually and storm social media to build public opinion. Svabhu Kohli, an artist residing in Goa was one of the first few to ‘echo the voice of a forest’ and soon had the support of many other artists who expressed their concern through art by depicting the beauty of this biodiversity and the endemic species that exist here while highlighting the looming danger to its survival. “This has been a collective movement with no singular leader leading it. Art involves and engages people and through collaboration with artists we were able to build a space for people to express their personal connection with nature.” Through Facebook and Instagram, they successfully created a platform that helped garner support for Mollem. He continues, “I have lived in Delhi and Bengaluru before my move to Goa and have witnessed similar development plans that ruined those places and it’s ecology. Development is important for every state but protected wildlife spaces are crucial for synergistic effects on livelihood, ecology and water supply. Only 4% of our land mass falls under a ‘protected’ zone. The rest 96% is available for development. If we start infiltrating this protected space, can you imagine how devastating the ecological impact will be?” The Save Mollem movement has gained traction in building public opinion by registering nearly 80,000 signatures and 23,000 signatures imploring the intervention of the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) constituted by the Supreme Court. But do these online petitions really cut it? Kohli points out, “It’s our job to raise our voices. We’ve now got 7 MLAs who have objected to this project and hope to continue this momentum. MLAs have received letters from students and artworks from artists. The momentum will continue from online to the physical, offline space as well.” If petitions don’t have a strong holding in the legal domain, the citizens of Goa can always count on Goa Foundation and Claude Alvares to take on the legal fight through a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that has given the movement a shot in the arm. Claude treads on hope. “There has been a fantastic mobilisation for the campaign on the ground with a combined representation to the government.” Rebutting the notion that the state government is helpless under the centre’s directive, he points out, “The Chief Wildlife Warden of the State can stop such activities but Goa government chooses to be subservient to the Centre. It is apparent that the Chief Wildlife Warden has bent backwards against the interests of the forests - the space he is supposed to protect. The petitions raised have made the CEC issue notices and till the case is argued and queries clarified, the government cannot go ahead with these projects.” “Public opinion is important for politicians,” avers ecologist, Parag Ragnekar. He continues, “The bigger issue that worries me more is the dilution of the process. There should be a dialogue and discussion that involves all stakeholders. We are not against development but there should be a transparent process backed by good science, sound information and assessment detailing the ecological impact. Economy is a subset of ecology - it’s as simple as that and cannot be pitted against each other.” At a time when tourism - one of the key revenue earners in Goa has taken a hit and the much-touted focus on hinterland tourism pays only lip service, it is imperative to step back and define what Goa truly stands for. The protected areas of Mollem and Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the 36 biodiversity hotspots in the world - a fact that should be proudly revered. Atish Fernandes, Member of the Managing Committee - Travel & Tourism Association of Goa pertinently adds, “While Goa is known for its beaches, we are increasingly seeing discerning visitors visiting Bhagwan Mahavir sanctuary and other parts in Mollem with the Western Ghats and its reputation as one of the biodiversity hotspots gaining traction. Goa is one of the best places in India for bird watchers and nature lovers. These triple infrastructure projects that have been sneakily passed will damage the environment and harm business to the area.” Trisha Sabir, who is one among many, in the young team that manages the social media campaign for Save Mollem agrees, “It was heartening to see children respond with poems, letters of appeal and artwork. It shows their connection to Goa and the place they live in.” She wistfully adds, “Our campaign celebrated the wonder of the forest and the beauty of this place which made it relevant.” Among the many calibrated lessons that the Covid-19 virus has taught us, arguably the most appropriate is the importance of protecting our biodiversity. Biodiversity protects ecosystems against infectious diseases. Studies suggest that the loss of species from an environment could have dangerous consequences for the spread and incidence of infection, including those that affect humans. “We disrupt nature and nature gives it back a million times over,” warns Dr Oscar Rebello. He adds, “The economic and environmental cost is going to be catastrophic for us. We need every child to be little Greta Thurnbergs and challenge and question adults and authorities.” Dismissing those in power, he states with characteristic humour, “We, in Goa and India seem condemned to repeat our mistakes. We never seem to learn.”Let’s hope better sense prevails. After all, hope has a plan.