Alexandre Moniz Barbosa
The coming months will see a couple of major infrastructure works in the State getting completed and being thrown open. The greenfield Mopa airport, scheduled for commissioning on August 15 this year, is now 78 per cent complete and the new target date for the inauguration could well be met. Similarly, sometime this year at least one lane of the new cable stayed bridge over the River Zuari could be thrown open as ongoing work on this stretch also appears to be reaching a degree of completion. For both projects these will be part openings, as in the case of the airport there are three more phases to be completed and in the case of the bridge, the other lane could take longer to be laid and opened for traffic. The moot point is whether Goa and Goans are prepared for the changes that these projects, even when opened in phases, will bring about.
For most Goans, the cable suspended bridge will shorten the travel time between North and South Goa, resulting in a tremendous boon to commuters who on an average currently take about an hour to cover the 30-odd kilometres from Panjim to Margao when not caught in traffic jams. Any congestion on the stretch, lengthens the travel time. It will also ensure that residents of North Goa will reach the airport at Dabolim quicker, resulting in less missed flights or avoiding early departures from home to make it on time for the flight. That, however, is too myopic a view to take of the benefits of the new bridge, for this won’t be a mere bridge over a river or a highway from point A to point B. This will be a highway – perhaps even a freeway – to development, the kind that will transform the face of Goa. It would be naive to believe that the highway will only reduce travel time.
Just like the airport at Mopa will bring about a makeover of Pernem taluka and from that beginning will expand its change to the rest of the State, the two projects – airport and highway expansion – will together revolutionise the State, perhaps changing the face of the Goa we know today. Hence the question of whether Goa is prepared for this. An earlier column (Herald, March 20) discussed how the Mopa airport will spin off a major change in the State. The column had discussed that while the airport would contribute enormously to growth, there was no clarity of what that growth would entail and in what manner it would affect industry and more importantly transform Goan society. When the two infrastructure projects are clubbed together, that grey area, in the absence of data, turns a shade darker as the vision gets blurred, with only hazy predictions of what can happen.
Highways, besides their main role in connecting various points, are known to mainstream populations by bridging the gap between the rural and the urban areas, giving people in the hinterland access to the towns and cities, thereby transforming lives and livelihoods. Goa is already a very rurban State. It has a good network of roads – though the conditions of their surfaces may not get the same endorsement from motorists – so besides giving Goans a quicker and smoother ride, the highway expansion and the bridges will convert Goa into a link between Maharashtra and Karnataka. This can perhaps even be seen as a missing link of approximately 100 km between the two larger neighbouring States that finally connects the coastal Konkan areas, much like the Konkan Railway did two decades ago. Essentially, this could be a corridor, one that was required and couldn’t be avoided, had been conceived but had not been built.
To appreciate how the transformation can change Goa, there is need of a little perspective of area and population. We do know that the State is just 3704 square kilometres in size and has a population of approximately 1.5 million. This population does appear low, but when one looks at the population density figure, Goa has 394 persons per square kilometre, a little higher than the national average of 382. These are not the most recent of figures as the pandemic has delayed the decennial census, so population and density will actually be higher than this. The key takeaway here is that the population density of Goa is already higher than the national average, with migration not slowing down. The question: how much larger a population can Goa sustain without putting a strain on its resources? There has been no sustainability study ever conducted to answer this query. It can only be answered by vague guesstimates that could go hopelessly wrong.
As Goa rides on the infrastructure and development highway there definitely appears the mirage of economic growth in the distance. However, will it remain a mirage that disappears when approached or will it solidify into tangible economic gains? If it’s the former it should be avoided. Unless we know what we have today, the future cannot be planned. It is therefore essential to document, as was proposed by the Goa Golden Jubilee Development Council, the ‘biodiversity using scientific and traditional knowledge and processes; develop people’s biodiversity registers, create a centralised repository where this documentation can be stored for easy retrieval’.
In various debates, discussions, conversations, the topic is maintaining the balance between development and the environment. What Goa urgently requires is a sustainable development model that established this equilibrium and then draws the precise roadmap for the future. In the absence of such a plan in the State the term sustainable development has no meaning in planning for Goa. In the light of the infrastructure projects that are coming up, this term must incorporate a process that integrates economic activity with environmental integrity, social concerns, and effective government systems. Without such a well established blueprint, the State just hurtles towards an unplanned future that could result in disastrous consequences. Infrastructure is the key to development and change, it cannot be viewed from the sole perspective of a building, a road, an airport, a port. All these have corresponding consequences and reactions which have to be visualised so that the State and the people are equipped for what will come. It’s a law of physics. Transparent planning should be non-negotiable.