Witness to opposition

Every chair of the community hall of the Shree Shantadurga temple in South Goa’s Quepem taluka was taken. In a few minutes, the public hearing for Shakti bauxite mines was to begin. Then there arose a whisper: the temple had objected to the hearing being held in their premises; it was being called off. It was the second time the hearing was convened and this time, too, the villagers told us, the 30-day notice rule had been violated. The panchayats were informed just two days ago that people should state their objections, if any, to the expansion plan of the bauxite mine—an increase in production from 0.1 million tonnes per year to 1 million tonnes, requiring an increase in mining area from 26 ha to 826 ha—in this forest-paddy region of Goa’s hinterland.

From the open window I could see a large police battalion gathering. The whisper grew to a shout. Hefty transporters—owners of trucks to carry the bauxite—were shouting the expansion must be cleared. Within minutes, villagers responded. The voices became more strident; both sides were close to a fight. Things settled only when the local mla insisted with district officials that the hearing be held as scheduled.

The hearing began. The company was requested to explain its project—a Powerpoint presentation in English was simultaneously translated into Konkani. A lot of fluff and technical verbiage followed: the geology of the region; the drilling techniques to be used; how bauxite was critical to the country’s development; how all clearances had been granted for extension of the mining lease; and how the company would ensure that environmental damage was mitigated at all costs.

Listening to the presentation, everything seemed taken care of. The company would stabilize waste dumps by planting trees, backfilling the pits so that rejects were minimized; it would not breach the groundwater table and, to top it all, it would set aside money for environmental management.

But this was before the residents—from politicians to villagers to church representatives—got up to speak (see pp 32-33). They ripped through the environmental impact assessment report prepared by an unknown consultant. They explained the company had got the number of people living in the area, and even the existing land use, completely wrong. The company claimed most of the land it would mine was ‘wasteland’. This, people explained, was a lie because the company was eyeing communidade land (common land) they intensively used for agriculture or grazing livestock. Thus, mining here would massively harm them, a fact completely neglected in the environmental impact assessment.

As speaker after speaker rose, it became awfully clear that even though the mine was coming up in the backyard of these people, the statutory environmental impact assessment could simply gloss over what would happen to people’s land, forests, water or livelihood. I then checked the report. There was not even a map that identified for me habitations or agricultural fields. The report said, rather glibly, there were no surface waterbodies in the vicinity of the project. It then concluded the project’s use of water, for spraying on roads and pits, would have no impact on availability for people. The river Sal, some distance away, was discussed for environmental impacts; even the Arabian Sea. But the numerous village streams, which flow from the hills and irrigate the fields found no mention.

At the hearing, villagers counted the streams. The area used to be extremely water-scarce. But the government spent substantial money under the national watershed programme to build check dams, plant trees and increase water recharge. As a result there was now enough water for good harvests. Villagers wanted to know why the same government, which had first invested in improving their water security, was now hell-bent on pushing an activity that would destroy their lives.

I wasn’t surprising when all those gathered agreed unanimously that the mines must not be allowed under any circumstance. The people said the regulatory clearances—the mine closure plan, the mine management plan—were worthless or even fraudulent. The company, already mining in the area on much smaller land, had flouted every existing condition, broken every trust. Life, they said, was already a living hell because of this small mine; what would happen if it expanded? More land taken, more streams destroyed, more rejects piled high for rains to turn into silt?

The questions we must ask are: how could the regulatory institutions even consider giving clearances for an expanded mine area without first checking the company’s compliance record? Does this not speak of the weak and non-existent capacities of our regulators to manage the mines so that local or regional environmental damage is minimized? Does this not suggest that people who live in these areas are doomed, because once clearance is given there is nobody to check if the stipulated conditions are met? Should I be surprised I was witness to complete opposition by people to the project?

What next? My colleague Chandra Bhushan tells me the rest is fairly predictable. The minutes of this public hearing will be sent to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Its expert committee will deliberate, or sit, on the matter for a few months (as it is controversial). Then it will call the company to explain how it will take into account the issues raised by the people. An improved Powerpoint presentation will be made by another consultant; more deliberations will follow; new conditions will be laid down. With these conditions the expanded mine will be cleared, people’s opposition be damned.

I hope he is wrong. Let’s track this one. The future might be different.

Sunita Narain