Goa's mining problems

We were standing between a massive mine and a stunning water reservoir. Local activists were explaining to me that this iron ore mine was located in the catchment of the Salaulim water reservoir, the only water source for south Goa. Suddenly, as I started clicking with my camera, we were surrounded by a jeepload of men. They said they were from the mine management and wanted us off the property. We explained that we had come on a public path and that there were no signs to indicate that we were trespassing. But they were not in a mood to listen. They snatched the keys of our jeep, picked up stones to hit us and got abusive. Before things got totally out of hand, we decided to leave. They followed us till they saw that we left the area and most importantly, could not stop and take more photographs.

I was completely baffled at these developments. After all, this was Goa, known for its sandy beaches, lush green mountains and, most of all, its peace and calm. This was also the place where industrialists—the Dempos, the Salgaocars, the Timblos with mineral interests—play key roles in education, in culture and in promoting the ethics of good corporate governance. Why would they allow mining to take place next to what is clearly the most important water source for the state? Why were there no signboards with names of owners, near or around the mine? Why would state regulators allow this to happen? What was happening in this paradise to unleash this violence and simmering tension? I got my answers soon.

In the next village, Colomba, I was surrounded once again: not by goons of mining company, but by women of the village. We were standing on top of the hill, overlooking the village nestled between coconut and cashewnut trees. But where we were, bulldozers, mechanised shovels and trucks were hard at work. They were breaking the hill, shovelling its mud, dumping the rejects and then taking away the ore. The mine had just started operations, said the agitated women, but their streams were already drying up. The sight of the red waste on the green lands presented a stark contrast.

They dragged me down into the village, where they showed me their wasted fields. They then showed me how the mining waste—and there are tonnes of this red mud—was being dumped into their streams. They walked me to a home where the walls had been badly damaged, they said, because of the blasting in the mines. The house owner, Devki Katu Velip, told me that when she complained to the miners, the supervisor told her they would destroy her house completely if she dared protest again.

Understandably, the villagers had just one demand: close down the mines. I asked how permission had been given without their consent. Who were these companies and whose land were they mining? I learnt that in this literate state these mining operations were shrouded in secrecy. It was assumed that conditional environmental clearance had been taken to operate the mine located mostly on comunidade land—originally under local community control and only to be leased out for agriculture. But as the concessions had been granted by the Portuguese government and later converted into leases by the Indian government, these restrictions did not seem to apply. Or, at least, did not matter.

The ownership status was also unclear, explained the villagers. One Hiralal Khodidas had the lease, but the mine was operated by Sociedade Formento (one of Goa’s biggest mining companies) through an agent, Raisu Naik, who had in turn sub-contracted it to Gurudas Naik, the ex- sarpanch of the village. This is why, I guess, the mines did not have company signboards. It did not suit them to reveal their identity.

In the next village, Quinamol, the scene was more or less the same. The miners were rowdy; the villagers angry. The only difference was that the mine was older—first mined for manganese and now being excavated for iron ore. It generated more mining waste, covering open fields and filling water bodies. The tension was palpable. In this case, the mine was leased to politician Chandrakant Naik but was being operated by one Bhandari. Nobody could give me more details about him.

The women told me that they had complained but nobody was listening. I learnt later—the day after my visit—that villagers had stopped a truck loading the material and beaten the driver. A case has now been registered against them. But is it only their fault?

This was the scene in all the villages we passed. What made the situation poignant, and ironical, was the fact that these villages are not destitute, desperate for livelihoods and money. These are prosperous areas, where agricultural productivity is the basis of economic wealth. It is this well-being that is being destroyed, bit by bit. I understood then what the demand of ore from China, which had raised prices of the mineral to a new high, was doing to patterns of local economies.

It was in Vichundrem village, however, that I saw the future. Here our vehicle could not proceed up to the hill. It was blocked by a massive boulder. This was the simple but effective blockade put up by the village. It was their way to keep the miners out of the government forest land that surrounded their fields and provided it spring water for irrigation. The fields were gleaming green in the sun.

The images had been burned into my mind. When I returned to town that evening I saw on tv the violence in Nandigram, West Bengal, over the government’s plan to acquire land. I had just seen a million Nandigram mutinies in the making. Where are we headed I wonder.

— Sunita Narain