The cynicism of ‘Goa’s ‘green brigade’ may have ebbed a bit after the Environment Minister swung into action without latency and with much urgency. First came the cognizance of the chronic hardships, suffered by the forest-dependent communities of Sattari; then came the suspension and review of all approved and draft ODPs, intended at weeding out irregularities and halting conversions in designated eco-sensitive zones.
Consolidating his ‘green charm’ further, this state functionary and executive custodian of our land resources and the overlying fragile forests surprised everyone with his inspection of a mangrove stretch close to the capital city of Panaji, and issuance of a stern caveat of punitive action for felling mangroves, and mud-filling this important habitat for other commercially lucrative conversions. Well done minister! May you be rewarded by this land and its people, who indefatigably protest breaching of its sanctity!
While skepticism looms large in the hearts and heads of those who love this land, and there could be more than what meets the eye, it is heartening to witness the enthusiasm and spate of suo motto instructions issued by the incumbent Forest Minister of the state well within the scope of his portfolios; and without any prejudice and suspicion of his motives, he must be lauded.
Vishvajeet Rane has ample experience in the administrative nuances of the health ministry, and in his previous stints has attempted to modernize the public health sector with new infrastructure and medical paraphernalia. Now, with the Forest and TCP in his kitty, it may not be wrong to expect him to resuscitate our last few patches of greenery, choking with intense urbanization and changing land use, and restore the health of Goa’s forest ecosystems to optimal standards.
The astute and ambitious politician, with emphatic clout in Valpoi and now Porye, seems determined to write a new chapter in his political career with his environment-friendly and pro-conservation posturing. If his drive is sincere and bereft of any political purpose, not only will he win the trust of Goa’s eco-distressed citizenry, but get catapulted higher on the pedestal of performance and accountability.
In fact, much of Goa’s environmental governance trajectory will depend on the functioning of its two key ministries, Forest and Environment. And, for the common good to manifest; the Rane and Cabral duo in charge of these crucial portfolios, must think ‘out of box’, and have mutual consultations on related tasks and synergize their efforts to save our Goa from the impending environmental catastrophe.
The ever expanding ‘green brigade’ must also introspect on its approach and purpose, while being transparent on its modus operandi. Those in authority must feel confident of these well intended voluntary custodians of Goa’s environment and not view them as stumbling blocks to progress. Simply snapping the vocal cords of a few courageous voices of genuine opposition using state apparatus is a sign of weak governance, and antithesis to the very spirit of democracy.
In the last one decade particularly, the state has embarked on a path of aggressive development, paying little heed to environmental repercussion and constant cautionary advisory of experts and protesting public. At times, decisions have been bulldozed in gross infringement of the eco-fragility of this land and voices of protest have been castigated, coerced into retraction and even intimidated using state machinery.
In a democratic machination, decisions have to be of, for and by the people through their elected representatives; and those mandated to rule cannot forsake the ones who elected them. So, if there is genuine opposition from the people, those empowered to decide must pause, reflect and review; rather than sermonize, demonize and dare. Unfortunately, those in power often regard demand for review of their decisions as demeaning. What follows thereafter is an ugly tug of war, marred by prolonged litigations, escalation in capital and operating costs and tensions.
If the government is serious about its mission to empower its ordinary faceless citizens, it must shed its ego of supremacy and change its constituents into comrades and confidants. Citizens must feel confident that the state is keen on their grievance-redressal and course correction. Chicanery can be peddled by luring and engaging with the morally weak and compromised, but the damage to this smallest state of the Indian union and its vulnerable natural resources shall be irreversible, just as the collective burden of guilt will be colossal.
The last few years have seen remorseless destruction of our natural capital, just in the name of development. Undeniably Goa needs progress, but no development, however lucrative, can be justified, if it displaces and destroys the earth capital, deprives locals of their rightful access to in situ resources, widens the gulf of inequities in society and leaves voids for the coming generations. On the contrary, soliciting the people’s participation in the state’s mandate of environment protection will tone down their hostility towards development and foster a balanced view of the situation.
Pragmatic solutions emerge through hand-holding between the government and the public, and energies are synergized for agreement and conflict resolution. The state must encourage, empower and engage with its people on matters of environmental governance; rather than ridicule the people’s collective wisdom and view their opposition as superfluous activism, fueled by vested interests. Of course, some people may well use such opportunities of discontent and restiveness as political launch pads for self; but there is also a community that has reasoning, ability to analyse situations rationally and that which genuinely seeks to avert an impending disaster.
One must be conscious that we are the smallest Indian state with the high spending capacity, intense developmental aspirations, as well as high stakes in environment. It is just within 3,702 km2 that we need to accommodate our public infrastructure; demarcate residential areas, install industrial and hospitality paraphernalia for investors and tourists, sustainably extract our natural resources and all these; while preserving our culture, climate and nature. This herculean task is possible only through cooperation of all, and not on a plank of antagonism.
While the government has the obligation to fulfill the development agenda, citizens also have the constitutional duty to protect their environment. Even ordinary citizens can affect a desirable change by practicing simple eco-ethics in their sphere of activity and day to day life. The triple whammy of climate change, species loss and pollution is real and requires realistic assessments and long term responses from all stakeholders. Governments cannot stand apart and high in their secured, cozy watchtowers, looking in the distance at the deteriorating landscapes and environmental quality, for it is the same environment that they also depend on. If by our collective acts of omission and commission, Goa’s air is fouled, rivers contaminated, soil laced with chemicals, forests denuded, wildlife displaced; the cumulative impacts shall spare none!
Personally, I was fortunate to have had ample opportunities to contribute to my state’s environmental governance and policy making in the last 34 years of my professional life, first of all, in my capacity as a teacher, by instilling in my students gratitude towards nature and giving them a sense of responsibility towards the earth and its resources. I have served on various statutory committees like State Biodiversity Board, State Wildlife Board, and State Expert Appraisal Committee for Environmental Impact Assessment. In the 90s, I also represented my state at the Ministry of Environment and Forests for the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan program, supported by the World Bank. Last year, my inputs were sought by the Biodiversity Board to draft rules for sustainable utilization, conservation and management of bio-resources in the state of Goa. Recently, I was also invited to be a part of a committee under the Collector North Goa to examine causes of last year’s landslides in Sattari and suggest restoration measures.
I feel I have liberally shared my domain expertise in a spirit of constitutional obligation as a citizen of Goa, and I shall continue to do that until my physical and cognitive capacities allow. In fact, all of us who have enjoyed the tranquil and natural bounty of this land must remember that our existence here is time-bound, and that it is our solemn duty to preserve and pass this on to the generation that will follow us.
Dr Manoj Sumati R Borkar is the first Goa State Teacher Awardee in Higher Education, Biologist and Columnist