Whatever slim hopes of the much-talked-about Benaulim bypass switching to stilts at the eleventh hour evaporated in thin air when an expert deputed by the Union Ministry of Surface Transport recommended against stilts in his report. The Central government deputed the expert after Goa Forward chief Vijai Sardesai called upon Nitin Gadkari in Delhi and requested to reconsider the bypass on stilts.
While the faint hope of stilts came crashing down, the Central expert made several recommendations, including desilting River Sal, widening culverts, and reviewing the stability of slopes in high embankment areas; at the same time, he outlined the causes of flooding. More importantly, the expert observed that even if the 650-metre stretch is built on stilts, because of habitation parallel to the proposed bypass in a length of about 220 metres, it will make the stilts portion in corresponding length inoperative and hence the investment will be infructuous.
True to his observations and the several other notings of past ministers and experts who have visited the site to get a first-hand view, the ground reality has remained constant -- that the area in question is low-lying and flood-prone and has been witnessing flooding over the years, flooding which the central expert calls "routine phenomenon".
Strangely, everyone who has visited the site has had a recommendation. A 10-member team appointed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to execute a plan for the 2.75 km stretch of the bypass had submitted in 2021 that an elevated structure of 0.98 km be constructed to partly avoid diversion of River Sal and filling of a water body. And successive ministers and experts who have visited the site have been only belting out additional suggestions ranging from canal pipe culverts, bigger box culverts, increasing the number of culverts, reducing the height, and even working on drainage systems.
The question here is that the project has not been seen in its totality since it was conceptualised years ago, and all that is seen are piecemeal troubleshooting attempts primarily aimed at containing the apprehensions of villagers. Every expert who has visited the contentious site has ended up giving some solution to help release water without considering the overall impact on the ecology of the flood-prone area. Goalposts are being shifted every time an official is visiting. This only amplifies the fact that the fear of flooding is genuine. There have been a series of changes from the initial plan for three culverts, and we now have around 11 more culverts. The bypass plans are under constant change, which prompted the environment minister to state that there won't be any alternations when he visited the site in July this year.
While it is increasingly clear that the huge cost of stilts is weighing against the proposal, there is no definite assurance that cultivable land will not be impacted. The flooding is there for everyone to see. Development has to happen, but that cannot be at the cost of farmlands or ecosystems. At a time when the government is propagating Swayampoorna Goa and bringing in legislation to protect agricultural properties, the decision on the Western bypass is not very convincing. Saving farmlands should be a priority, even at a price.