A guest article by
Kenneth Bo Nielsen

When people think of the Indian state of Goa it is usually images of beautiful beaches and coconut palms gently swaying in the breeze that spring to mind. Once a compulsory stop on the original hippie trail, Goa has now become a favoured playground for domestic Indian tourists who come to relax and have a good time in a place where kuch bhi chalta hai – ‘everything is ok’. 

What is less commonly known is that this small state on the Indian west coast has also been home to numerous, intense struggles over land and nature in recent decades. Mass tourism, for instance, is far from uniformly popular as it takes its toll on the environment: The hotels and resorts along the coast line lay claim to scarce space, produce unmanageable amounts of waste, and disrupt important tidal flows. 

Further inland, polluting industries have been resisted on many occasions, as have the state government’s attempt at setting up so-called special economic zones, that is, exclusive industrial enclaves. And, in the parts of the state that are farthest from the coast and bordering the Western Ghats – a UNESCO world heritage site – rampant and often illegal open pit iron ore mining has destroyed vast tracts of land and many water bodies. While mass tourism, industrialisation, and mining provide employment to many people and a much needed source of revenue for the state, they are thus, because of their impact on land and nature, also highly controversial and contested issues. 

Since 2015 I have been following an evolving controversy over a large tract of land in north Goa. Here, more than 2,000 acres on and around a large, lateritic plateau have been acquired by the state government to set up a new international airport. The airport project is being promoted by its supporters as a real economic book for the state as it will sustain and increase mass tourism during the years ahead, and, more generally, act as an economic catalyst for the northernmost part of Goa which is generally considered among the more ‘backward’ parts of the state. 

Aerial shot of the plateau. Source: Catch News

In contrast, those fiercely opposed to the airport – which includes both many locals as well as the larger environmental movement in the state – see it as not only destructive of Goa’s fragile nature, but also as a scam that is intended to benefit only real estate developers, wealthy entrepreneurs, land brokers, and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. In the struggle over the land and the airport, both sides have relied on a vast array of arguments, both economic, political, and environmental, to argue their case and sway a larger public. Yet what struck me when listening to and studying these arguments was the radically different views the two sides had on the exact nature of land that was being acquired to make way for the airport, and what the impact of the airport would be. 

To the proponents of the airport, the plateau on which it would be located was little more than a rocky, barren patch of land without habitation, residents or permanent structures of any significance: ‘The land is largely non-cultivated due to an out cropping of lateritic soil and no residential and water bodies are found within the project location except few houses’, writes the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report that was prepared at the behest of the Government of Goa. It added that ‘vegetation and trees are sparse’. Eighty-five per cent of the acquired land was, it said, either ‘land with scrub’ (55 %), barren rocky/stony waste (22 %) or scrub forest (8 %). 

In its conclusion, the report found that the airport would have a ‘medium impact’ on the local biological environment; but in effect, this ‘impact’ mostly referred to a larger risk of animals being killed in the increased car traffic, or falling into open construction pits or trenches. Beyond that, and given the seemingly rocky, inhospitable and barren nature of the place, a new international airport would have very little impact on the local land, water and socio-economic environment.

The airport project’s opponents would beg to differ. At a controversial public hearing on the EIA report which took place on top of the plateau itself on 2 February 2015, they spent considerable time deconstructing this view of the plateau as barren wasteland. To the project’s opponents, the plateau’s location close to the Western Ghats made it an intrinsically eco-sensitive zone almost on par with the Western Ghats itself, second only to the Amazons in terms of biodiversity. 

Some wildlife of the plateau. Source: Catch News.

The plateau was claimed to be home to a plethora of wildlife – including endangered species – and flora and fauna, as well as more than 40 surrounding perennial springs; and it performed an indispensable function in terms of ground water percolation and recharge, acting as a giant sponge that stored and released water throughout the year. To prove this point, activists did their own environmental impact assessment of the plateau, concluding that whereas the official EIA report mentions only the presence of mice, cats and dogs, leopards and bison in fact roam. The plateau recharged over two billion litres of water every year, it was found, meaning that if the plateau was destroyed to make way for the airport, its crucial role in the wider regional hydrology would be disrupted, leading to repercussions far beyond the plateau itself. 

A wrecked hydrology would not only destroy cultivation on the slopes of the plateau, and on the nearby plains below, but also the fisheries in the nearby Chapora and Tiracol rivers. Moreover, in the surrounding area agriculture was practised, including extensive cashew plantations on the slopes that generated an annual turnover of as much as 500 million INR, and which enabled the production of the locally popular cashew-feni, a strong liquor produced from the cashew apple. 

Sacred groves would be lost if the airport came up, including the Barazan on the very top of the plateau, a grove comprised by 12 trees at which important rituals were carried out yearly. For the same reason, one activist group consistently referred to the plateau as the ‘Barazan’, and not the more commonly used Mopa plateau, so as to underscore its importance in an ancient cultural and socio-economic order that was now fast disappearing.

The first phase of airport construction is planned to commence from November this year. By the time we know more about which of the two sides to the controversy got their facts about the plateau ‘more right’, it may thus be too late to do anything about it.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bergen Department of Sociology.