Nirmala Sawant for many will always be remembered as a Congress woman in Goa, but politics isn’t her greatest achievement; environment is. This fact is evident from her 21-year-struggle through the Mhadei Bachao Abhiyan which appealed to the Supreme Court and got a favourable order in 2017. She talks to NT NETWORK about her long struggle to save the waters of Mhadei from being diverted and the impact of interfering with nature
Danuska Da Gama I NT NETWORK
Nirmala Sawant’s love for the environment was nurtured by her grand-mother while she was still a young girl. She was asked to pray before cutting banana leaves and say sorry to the tree; and not kill a snake when it entered the house –though this may have had a religious connotation – preserving the environment was very much instilled in her young mind.
Her affair with the environment was the reason she went forward, fought a giant – Karnataka Government – to halt the diversion of the Mhadei waters. As convenor of Mhadei Bachao Abhiyan (MBA) she left no stone unturned and with likeminded people fought right up to the Supreme Court. This task wasn’t easy and it involved a lot of resources, time, money and will. It wouldn’t have been possible without the backing of her husband Prabhakar an engineer by profession, more known as the business head of Mandovi Dry Docks and Mandovi River Cruises who spent the money on the trust and faith in MBA and dedication of its members. “It was for the sake of security of water and to preserve it. Once it is lost, it would be lost forever,” she says.
This love of hers thrived along with politics as part of the Congress. It was in 1996 after a letter from Ex- MLA of Khanapur Y V Chawhan came, when she was the president of Goa Pradesh Congress Committee, and she took the yoke of the battle of saving the waters of Mhadei. The letter stated that the Karnataka government proposed a dam at Khalsa-Bhandura in Kankhumbi and would divert 56 TMC feet (Thousand Million Cubic feet) or 214 MCM (Million Cubic Metres) water to Dharwad and Hubli. “While he wanted to safeguard the interests of his people and ensure that this project would not see the light of day, as the dam would mean that there would be no water for his people at Kankumbhi. He also cautioned that it would be detrimental to Goa. So we went to see for ourselves,” recalls Sawant.
Describing her first visit to ground zero in 1996 accompanied by several scribes with the dense green forests making it difficult for them to even walk through, she says: “The sanctuary is a habitat for many wild animals and endemic species. The scribes saw this and covered the issue extensively. The lush green forest is no more. What was seen and experienced then was all devastated. A century old tree is felled and it left me with a disgusting feeling. The temple area was parched, no trees seen around, the water body was lost. The topography has completely changed. While the temple sanctum (Garbhagriha) and antarala is there but the congregation hall was destroyed,” Sawant recalls.
The government back then was very laid back and complacent and thought that those were just baseless talks. On October 2, 2006 the foundation stone for the project was laid by the Karnataka Government and it then triggered some foreboding among the politicians, environmentalists and activists in Goa. Karnataka is in plans of constructing 12 dams on all tributaries to divert the water to the Malaprabha and Supa reservoirs. While initially Karnataka wanted it only for drinking water, Goa proved that the politicians have promised irrigation water to the people of Karnataka.
Besides drinking water and livelihood, Goan environmentalists and activists are concerned about the impact on the Mandovi’s ecosystem. “The region where the Mandovi enters Goa is one of the most pristine forests in the Western Ghats, which is itself a biodiversity hotspot. Without any consultation with the State, they (Karnataka) laid the foundation and started building canals. They have misguided the Central government time and again. Sometimes they would say 5 dams, sometimes 8, 10 and even now we know that they want to build twelve dams. They didn’t want to reveal the exact expenditure, as if they did and as the cost was more that 100 crore rupees, they would have to get the central government’s approval,” she explains.
In November, 2006 a petition was filed in the court by Goa Government. However, after the organisation was formed, the case filed in the court was different from what was petitioned by the government. “Many coaxed me to go to court; I was very hesitant as if something went wrong I wouldn’t be spared by Goans. When the government went to court, we weren’t very happy with what they had done –their focus was about the distribution of water and what the ground realities would be.
Mhadei Bachao Abhiyan was registered in 2006. “MBA was waiting for the government action. Our feeling was that it will not lead the desired result, so the lawyer advised us that individuals or NGO’s can approach the court for the protection of the forest but sharing the water is a state subject.” Realising that meetings and morchas would not lead to any positive result, the MBA then decided to approach the court. “We went to court in 2007 keeping in mind the impact on the environment – destruction of flora and fauna and that it should be protected under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980,” she says.
What conspired next was very positive, Nirmala had joined hands with Rajendra Kerkar and others but they would be discrete about the happenings as they were battling against a giant. The fight continued with the case hearings.
She saw the first ray of hope in 2009 as the CEC (Central Empowered Committee) submitted a report stating that that diversion of water from Mhadei would mean that 256 hectares of prime forests would be affected by the construction of dams. “And when the CEC report was taken onboard, the court looked at the case from a different perspective altogether, and told the Union government to discuss the matter with Karnataka to take appropriate decisions on the river with reference to environmental aspects,” she says.
The thought of future disputes for water was appalling enough for her to stay focused and not deter in this mission. Sawant is of the opinion that water should be used judiciously and be preserved for the future generation. “Nandkumar Kamat had done a scientific study and had the facts and figures of the implications if the water was diverted, besides, the common man in Sattari had concerns about water but, were helpless as they did not know what to do,” she says.
MBA then mobilised the masses and spread awareness about Mhadei. She recalls: “Likeminded people with concern for Goa and the future scarcity of water, like Nandkumar Kamat, Rejendra Kerker and many others came together but the Government did not show concern 20 years back. There were many meetings chaired by various NGOs, street plays by Rajendra Kerkar at various places, meetings in Kankumbi, Nerse and Belgaum and other places in Karnataka.”
She tells us that Rajendra Kerkar had the minutest details about the impact on the environment. Restless and panicky, Prakash Pariekar who lived close to river could not imagine life with the lifeless Mhadei, Prajal Sakhardande and Gopinath Gawas were worried about the heritage along with people like Nandakumar Bhagat, Avinash Bhosle, Satish Sonak and many others.
There wasn’t much progress post this, as in 2009 the court decided to take up cases in chronological order as a policy. From 2010 to 2016 the case was in doldrums and many thought it would not be heard. A tribunal was set up only in October 2010 after sustained efforts by the Government of Goa.
Ask her if she has faith in the tribunal and what she foresees on April 13 when the CEC report will be opened in the Supreme Court, she says that the tribunal will decide on the arguments forwarded by the Counsel of MWDT (Mhadei Water Dispute Tribunal). “If they have put the facts and figures and the implications effectively and efficiently then we will get expected share of the water. Again on the basis of order given by Judges to MBA, Karnataka cannot construct the dam and cannot divert their share of water. It should be utilised in the basin i.e. in Kankumbi and not for Dharwad and Hubli,” she states.
After six long years in 2017 within six months of things falling into space, the judgment was given on August 17, 2017 directing Karnataka not to carry out further construction work at Kankumbi on the canal to divert water from the Mhadei basin. Sawant says: “The order is binding on the Mhadei Water Disputes Tribunal and its final order on the dispute should be based on the directions of the top court. The river dispute should be resolved keeping the environmental aspects in mind.”
The MBA has played the role of the whistle-blower several times, exposing how Karanataka was flouting directives of the Supreme Court and continuing construction work. The counsel for the State of Karnataka said that no construction is operational in the area in question – Kalsa-Banduri project – and that no construction will be carried out. “In view of this, nothing further survives in these applications which are disposed of accepting the statement of counsel for the state of Karnataka. And if any further construction work is carried out MBA has the freedom to appeal to the Supreme Court,” Sawant states.
It was a day of celebration when the order was passed because the judges had respected the environment – judge Madan B Lokur, Justice Deepak Gupta and the advocate Bhavani Shankar Gadnis, “who did not fall prey to bribes and threats,” says Nirmala also crediting her husband for supporting the fight in New Delhi financially.
The rich forest of Mhadei is a UNESCO heritage site and its destruction would mean that our forests and wildlife reserves that lie in the 10 kilometre radius and its unique flora, fauna and animal species would be destroyed.
“We shouldn’t destroy it because UNESCO wants to preserve it, but because the future generations need it. If that forest is cut down – 14,000 trees for the construction of Khalsa canal project and an additional 30,000 trees for completion of the Banduri project – there will be no rain, so from where will Goa or Karanataka even get water. We have to preserve such natural heritage,” she says.
Throwing light on the adverse effects of no rainfall in the area, she says: “No rain at the source of the river Mhadei will result in less flow in the river, which won’t benefit Karnataka and thus also mean less flow of water westward i.e. into Goa, this will further affect the flora and fauna in Mhadei basin in Goa.” The salinity of the water in the river will increase and will affect marine life and vegetation; and increasing siltation in the river creating a problem for navigation and the implications will also have adverse effects on the cultivation and agriculture.
While the final arguments of the Tribunal will be held on August 21, Sawant is hopeful justice will prevail. “Since there is an order in our favour, very little is left to be done. We have faith in the Judiciary and we are law abiding citizens. If the law is not maintained by Karnataka then it’s a big question mark,” she says before adding that the order has to be properly presented in MWDT as Karnataka will still want to pursue the issue.
She believes that Goans at large could play a much bigger role in the agitation to create a larger impact, but aren’t bothered. “Goans are sussegad, and want others to work for them, maybe because they do not want to be in bad books with others. Complacence makes them behave so. Goans haven’t tasted the fury of nature. There are no storms, no floods, and no draughts in Goa. Once it happens everybody will be on their toes. God forbid,” she laments.
While Nirmala says that it was the then chief minister Digambar Kamat who approached the court for a tribunal in 2010, it appears that Mhadei River is being used for political benefit. Being a politician for over four decades, she knows that political will can destroy the environment and therefore says: “Both parties aren’t for Goa. They want Karnataka to get the water.” She cannot fathom why Karnataka is being so adamant. “Neither Karnataka nor the politicians at the top understand the gravity of the issue. One senior politician said: ‘We will give water if we get elected.’ I am not interested in politics, I am worried about the environment,” Sawant says.
After retiring from politics she actively works as the convener of MBA besides being involved in her family business and practicing meditation. Her activism is an inspiration and motivation for environmental activists to persevere in the right direction. As she concludes she tells us what activism for environment means to her. “…It is about protecting coconut trees from turning into grass, protecting rivers and the water bodies, planting trees, protection of sacred groves (Devrai), reducing consumerism and most importantly teaching children (our future generation) about the environment.”