15 Jan 2023  |   06:31am IST

Beyond double tracking: When Goan lives are derailed

The locals and social activists are up in arms as they feel that the double tracking project of the South Western Railways (SWR), which is being executed by the Rail Vikas Nigam Limited (RVNL), is invading into the private properties and lands of Goans. As a media organisation, Herald has been crusading against this issue relentlessly. The railway authorities need to explain to the people of Goa as to what gives them the entitlement to get into the private lands, under the garb of building embankments to raise the height of the land adjoining the proposed double tracking work, which is going on, especially through the thickly populated villages like Majorda and Cansaulim, amongst others. In the weekly Herald TV debate, SUJAY GUPTA explores the concerns surrounding the toll that is being taken on the lives of Goans by the double tracking project and its future implications as there seems to be an attempt for another round of land acquisition, this time illegally
Beyond double tracking: When Goan lives are derailed

On June 19, 2020, the Deputy Collector of Mormugao issued a notification intending to acquire land for the double tracking project. The intent to acquire 60,177 sqm of land, from Kulem to Margao and Margao to Vasco, came as a shock to many people as they felt that this was the beginning of the end, as far as their lives and livelihood in Goa was concerned.

The double tracking project has been justified under many points by the powers that be. What is a matter of concern is that there seems to be another round of land acquisition going on for this contentious project, which prima facie seems to be happening illegally. 

The current activities are happening in an area where the private land is not at all under the acquisition notification are being encroached upon. People are being allegedly harassed.

There was one lady who wanted to barricade her house to protect her land against encroachment. The trucks that were bringing in construction material were stopped. The Deputy Collector allegedly misbehaved with the locals and many other such issues are being reported from the land acquisition site.

The victims of this harassment have become accused in the eyes of the powers-that-be. This is a very shocking development. The tracks came after the houses did in many places. There are ancestral and traditional houses. There are houses as old as 1805. One such owner of an ancestral property where the tracks came later is Ashok Souza, who is very much part of the anti-double tracking movement. He is the sixth generation living in that house since 1805.

So, how can the authorities question why the houses are beside the tracks, when the fact is that the railway tracks came much later? It is not going to be easy for the authorities to acquire land because the people are not wrong here.

Alina Saldanha, former State minister and ex-MLA of Cortalim, said, “I think development in the true sense is always welcomed by the people. But if the same development is going to cause destruction, then people are forced to protest and come out on the streets. As far as the double tracking issue is concerned, people have been suffering for more than a century. My family and others have given their land as a pathway to lay the first track.”

Unfortunately, ever since, all these families residing along the pathway have been suffering and facing all kinds of problems like noise pollution. The degree of this noise pollution seems to be increasing with every passing day, Saldanha said.

“Sometimes, I have heard villagers saying the railways could be doing this on purpose. The honking at any time of the night, coal dust pollution leading to health problems are a cause of worry. We all know coal dust carries harmful metals which are toxic in nature and can cause serious diseases like asthma and cancer. Not only that, our houses undergo vibration every time with the passing of trains,” the former minister said.

She added that these vibrations have led to formation of cracks on the walls and floors of the houses.

“There is also risk to lives. Since there are no roads provided, the tracks have come in and everyone, including the senior citizens, school children – everybody who needs to go for the basic amenities – have to cross the tracks. The tracks were first laid more than 100 years ago. Surely the governments since then had enough time to set up certain infrastructure facilities to make their lives safer. The government could have installed Rail Overbridges, Rail Underbridges and Foot Overbridges for the safety of people,” she said.

But nothing has been done till date, showing no concern for the safety of the citizens.

“Children of middle-school studying in the fourth and fifth standard are crossing the tracks. It is so risky. Now the government wants to lay the second track. It is coming even nearer to our houses. In fact, we have been informed by the RVNL that to lay the second track, they need 14 m from the centre of the existing track. We did this marking when we invited Chief Minister Pramod Sawant on to the tracks along with the State Environment Minister, Nilesh Cabral. This is not development. It is destruction,” she said.

Orville Dourado, Founder, Goencho Ekvott, speaking on the current agitation against the double tracking of rail tracks said, “We first noticed some activity in our area, parallel to the existing track. Some portion of earth had been dug up. The area is located on the border of Cansaulim and Velsao. Initially, we thought it to be boundary wall related construction activity and hence continued with our work. On the fourth day, we saw an earth mover entering the area. When we probed further, we found that it was deployed by the Railways. This alarmed us.”

In the next 10-15 minutes, a crowd gathered and shooed away the labourers and warned them against entering the area because it was private property. Land acquisition is happening on the western side of the existing track. The digging work was happening on the eastern side, and there is no land acquisition happening in that area.

“We got alarmed with what was happening. The next day, there were some junior engineers visiting the area. When we confronted them, they did not have any answers. They just told us to speak to their seniors as these engineers were ‘merely following orders’ to build a wall, without specifying the nature of this wall,” Dourado said.

Later earth movers were brought in. Concrete was poured and that’s when Ashok Souza and a few other villagers along with activists accosted them and stopped the digging work.

“In the interim, they called the Verna Police Station and sought help. I want to mention that the police have to be law enforcers. But here we saw that somebody has encroached into our private land and instead of siding with the people, who are the victims, the encroachers were being protected by the police,” he said.

The police said that the digging work could not be stopped without getting a court order.

“The PI of Verna Police Station was threatening the public, who he was supposed to support. We were pointing out illegalities that were being done by someone, who was not part of the local village. When contacted, the owner of the property was shocked to hear the news. She lives in Goa, but not in Velsao village. She did not notice what happened three days earlier. Herald was first to break the news about illegalities going on in the eastern side,” the founder of Goencho Ekvott said.

 The owner arrived at the site next morning and accosted whoever was there. She said that it was her land and nobody was allowed to encroach upon it.

“It was shocking to see that despite the land owner being present physically at the site, the authorities, viz RVNL, assisted by the Goa police asked her to prove that this land belonged to her,” Dourado said.

Recently, there were major protests also in Arossim where the Cansaulim-Arossim-Cuelim Panchayat members had intervened, as concerns were raised about the heritage structure of St Lawrence Chapel and land adjoining it. The locals were upset over the manner in which the Railways contractor had executed underground cabling works through private, comunidade and Fabrica properties.

The locals had pointed to the destruction of century-old storm water drains, which flow towards water bodies on either side of the existing single railway track. In its place, concrete troughs have been laid purportedly to lay the cables.

Ella Mascarenhas, Secretary, Goencho Ekvott, speaking about the movement she and others are leading in Arossim, said, “From the beginning of this movement, we have been bringing to the notice of the authorities that St Lawrence Chapel in Arossim is our heritage. It belongs to our forefathers and it is shown in the map of the year 1610, which was drawn by the cartographer Emanuel Godinho. If it shows in 1610 and the railways came in the middle of 19th Century somewhere in 1888-89, how can they encroach on our heritage structure?”

According to Mascarenhas, first the RVNL started digging around the chapel, which was promptly stopped by the locals. Then one fine day, we saw truckloads of material being brought in and dumped at the site.

“I received some pictures from the neighbours and then we at Goencho Ekvott sent a message to the whole of Goa appealing to people to come and save the heritage structure. The next day everyone gathered. We also rang the bell and more villagers came. We were also joined by our former MLA Alina Saldanha, the village panchayat and everyone told them this was illegal and forced them to take away their material from the spot. We waited there till they took everything away,” she said.

But one fine day, the right of way to the Chapel was barricaded and again the police were called to remove the barricades.

“Time and again these people come and harass us. We have just one priest there. He doesn’t know what to do about it. Then we call the committee, which gets involved. They have all the papers. They know till where is their land,” the Secretary of Goencho Ekvott said.

She further said that there is no acquisition of that particular place in Arossim. This is being done completely by force.

“They just don’t bother about who the owners of the property and land are. Even near our house they have dug the storm water drains and put in cables. Tomorrow our village will flood. They don’t understand the topography of the villages at all,” Mascarenhas said.

The question now arises, how the RVNL and the SWR are going to justify this act. From their point-of-view, is there any justification that they can give?

Olencio Simoes, General Secretary, Goenchea Ramponkarancho Ekvott, said that there is no way they can justify these actions.

“The entire process of original land acquisition is completely illegal. The notification issued on June 19, 2020, states that the entire process of land acquisition should be completed within 12 months, which has lapsed. Then the land was acquired under three different Acts. Initially, in 2009, they started under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, which was put on hold. Then again on September 16, 2019, they started the process again as per the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. In fact the Right to Fair Compensation Act is in force now. Under this Act, it is mandatory to have the consent of the land owner,” Simoes said.

“Now, just because the consents were not given by the respective landowners in Cansaulim-Velsao-Pale-Issorcim, the government evoked the Railway Act 1989,” he said.

In the Right to Fair Compensation Act, there are several Acts that come under the ambit of this Act – the Railway Act, National Highway Act 1954, amongst others. There are 13 such Acts that fall under the ambit of Right to Fair Compensation Act. 

“Now, the acquisition is taking place as per the Railways Act, which is illegal. You can’t acquire land as per the Railways Act as it has to be done as per the Right to Fair Compensation Act, in consent with the landowners and the local body, like the panchayat,” the General Secretary, Goenchea Ramponkarancho Ekvott, said.

He said that the process itself is illegal. Now, because of the hindrance created by certain enlightened land owners and groups, they are desperate. They want to criminally trespass the properties and lay the tracks. 

“The Supreme Court on May 9 had cancelled the clearance given by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) to the doubling of the railway track between Tinaighat-Castle Rock in Karnataka and Kulem in Goa. This was because the railway line is proposed to pass through 120.8 hectares of protected area in the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa and 10.4 hectares in Karnataka’s Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary. The project would have caused heavy damage to the environment,” he said.

This entire project was to pass through the Western Ghats, which is spread across nine national tiger reserves, 20 national parks and eight wildlife sanctuaries. 

“So, why is the RVNL coming to this area? In fact the Railways were given an alternative to Krishnapatnam Port. There are two tracks which are underutilised. In Goa also the rakes are coming empty. It’s not in full capacity. The project has a high gradient. Already, the existing rail route is prone to landslides. Adding another track will cause more damage that will lead to a bigger disaster. So, the Supreme Court has categorically said that shift the project to Krishnapatnam, which is underutilised,” Simoes said.

He further mentioned that the MPT has already said that it is going to reduce the handling of coal. 

“In this scenario, who are you building the track for and why? Is the State government going to earn anything out of this project? The government is taking taxpayers’ money and building infrastructure for the corporate tycoons like Adani and Jindal. Even the Mhadei is being diverted precisely for the steel plants that are going to come up in north Karnataka. Ideally, government authorities should abide by the law. But here, there are the ones who are violating the law,” he said.

He lamented that the Mormugao Deputy Collector has remained silent on the irregularities happening under his watch all this while. 

“Initially we had filed complaints regarding tree-felling. The WRD and Forest department officials visited the site. But there was a reaction from the administration. It should be explained to the people of Goa why the Deputy Collector maintains silence,” Simoes said.

When Alina Saldanha was asked about what was going on in the government regarding this issue of double tracking when she was the Environment Minister in Manohar Parrikar’s government, she said at that point of time it was obvious that the people were not ready to accept this project.

“The previous government was insisting upon implementing this project. Then we formed a committee and it decided that the government representatives like the chief minister should come to the spot and see the ground situation. Chief Minister Pramod Sawant came to the site to review the situation. In fact, he requested that the visit to the track site should not be made public,” Saldanha said.

“We took him to all the crucial points. Before he reached the tracks, we had marked the spot where the double tracking was to happen.  He saw for himself that the second track was either passing through the compound walls or even on the veranda of the houses. Obviously, this can’t be called development. This was sheer destruction. And I could see it on his face that Dr Sawant was taken aback,” she said.

But when the CM was asked about his comments on what he had seen, he responded by saying he would let it be known later.

“The same way we took Nilesh Cabral all along the track. We showed him the same things that we showed to the honourable chief minister. Again, he too was blown by what he saw. But when we asked for his comments, he said it was a very serious matter and a separate meeting was needed to discuss the issue. But that meeting never happened. Because, they know what they are trying to do is totally anti-Goa and people of Goa are going to suffer,” she said. 

Informing about what she saw a couple of days ago where the land is being acquired, Saldanha said that the track is coming in front of a re-constructed house and another track is supposed to come behind the house. “Now tell me, where do the residents of this house go?” she asked.

“These are the reasons why I had to part with the BJP. The government was doing a lot of positive development in every village of my constituency. We all were happy. But, this (double tracking project) made everything else redundant and useless,” she said.

Orville Dourado, Founder, Goencho Ekvott speaking about the assurances given to the activists by the government, said that in 2020 when the agitation started, we understood the game that was being played. Every time we were meeting the deputy collector of Mormugao taluka, who was given the title of ‘competent authority’, under the directions of Collector, South. 

“At that point of time we had a discussion with him. We told him that whatever was happening was morally incorrect and against the ethos of social life in the villages because we were already suffering due to passing trains every day. The officer gave us a patient hearing. But we understood that he was not for us, because he was simply following orders. That was the time when we called the various other NGOs and everybody pulled in their resources,” he said. 

“We went across Goa and organized 84 meetings. Thereafter some divisive forces joined us to break our movement. But we are all getting together. Goencho Ekvott has 36 sister organizations under its umbrella. Now, more organizations have expressed their willingness to support us, irrespective of our ideology. We have only one agenda, that is love for Goa,” the founder of Goencho Ekvott said.

On her experiences of dealing with the authorities on the issue of double tracking and the assurances given to her, Ella Mascarenhas, Secretary, Goencho Ekvott said, “On July 7, 2020 we had the first get-together on the railway tracks. The Railways CRPF armed with firearms. We were unmoved. But we also decided to form our own organisation under which we could work. That’s when Goencho Ekvott came into force.”

It was the peak of Covid, but they did not give up the fight. The Goencho Ekvott members would remain awake beyond midnight to write the memorandums and get up again early in the morning and reach the MLAs’ houses before they left for work and present the memorandums. 

“We met most of the MLAs in the South and some in the North. We also met the South Goa MP Mr Francisco Sardinha. He told us that he would arrange a meeting with the CM. We all came to meet him in Panjim. The CM met us. We explained to them the issues revolving around double tracking, coal, and the Sagarmala project. After hearing us out, CM Dr Pramod Sawant assured us that he would get back to us in a month’s time. But he never got back,” she said.

She said till date the activists are dealing with the same issue, without any sight of redressal to their grievances.

Olencio Simoes said that his organisation had started the fight against the double tracking proposal in 2016, when there was an expansion plan of Mormugao port. 

“We had categorically said that this expansion was happening for coal handling. We remember speaking to late Manohar Parrikar, he had said that not to call our movement as ‘Goa against coal’, rather coin it as ‘Goa against pollution’.  He had also categorically mentioned in Cansaulim that he wouldn't allow double tracking. Soon after taking over as CM following Parrikar's demise, Pramod Sawant had asserted that he would follow the footsteps of Parrikar, but his actions are contrary to his remark,” he said.

“The central government has nationalised six rivers of Goa under the Inland Waterways Authority for transportation of coal. A new Major Port Authority Bill 2022 has been passed. Now the entire coast up to 12 nautical miles has been given to Adani to ferry coal from Indonesia and Australia.  And, the government is even selling off Mhadei. Double tracking is going to destroy Goa’s ecology. It has also brought the CRZ from 500 m to 50 m so that more jetties or berths across the coastline of Goa can be built. So, where are we heading? What is the government’s intention regarding Goa, especially South Goa?” the General Secretary of Goenchia Ramponkarancho Ekvott asked.

All these actions will convert South Goa into a coal hub to transport the mineral to north Karnataka and eastern Maharashtra.

“In Mormugao taluka during Covid, Vasco city had maximum cases because of the coal pollution. We want to say that we are not against development. Shift the coal to Karnataka and we will be happy,” Simoes said.

It is clearly evident that the issue of land acquisition for double tracking is turning into an inferno and the government must take corrective steps by paying heed to the activists and local people. Only then the fire will be doused. Otherwise, the situation could take a serious turn from here and could lead to an ugly faceoff between the people and the government. 


IDhar UDHAR

IDHAR UDHAR