Sunday, June 29, 2008

Quepem by the kilo

By Hartman de Souza

This morning, as you read this, I ask you to mourn the rape and murder of half a dozen steep, thickly forested hills barely 12 kilometres from Quepem town. These form an integral link of the magnificent Western Ghats that surround Goa, and as any schoolchild studying the environment will tell you, they play a crucial role in providing Goa its ecological wellbeing.

And yet, in blatant contravention of wisdom we purport to impart to children, hundreds of forests are being cut down around Quepem even as I write this. The denuded land turned inside out so fast, a hill can disappear in three months, leaving behind suppurating wounds that go down so deep the giant tipper trucks at the bottom look like the harmless toys little boys plays with.

It is nothing short of criminal if one considers the wealth of the bio-diversity wantonly destroyed and the refugees thrown up. Spotted leopard, wild boar, bison as big as three-ton trucks, otters and mongoose, male hare as big as village dogs, wild boar, magnificent hornbills, birds of so many shapes and sizes the venerable Salim Ali would smile for a full month, precious flora and fauna that fill up a whole volume. This does not include the human life that has prospered in the midst of this pristine environment. The communities within this area, landless agricultural workers and smallholders, who have tended terraced fields yielding two crops a year for a good century at least and nurtured thick orchards of traditionally grown fruit trees. Nor the hundreds of mountain springs, streams, and ponds that are filled with water throughout the year.

From where I write this, all that remains are the graves, if, that is, one can refer to these grim pictures of death and devastation as ‘graves’ at all. In recent Goan memory will be images of a young, beautiful, vivacious girl with her smile frozen in time, raped and murdered just like the hills here, for no conceivable reason other than greed and avarice. One would need to have a fifteen year old girl in every single village and hamlet in Goa, all raped and murdered at the exact same moment. Perhaps only then, would one comprehend the enormity of the crime committed in Quepem, even as this is being written.

There has been no ceremony for their passing, and one doubts, given the callousness and skulduggery of our political elite, that there will ever be. They died in anonymity, uselessly, senselessly butchered for petty gain.

To reach here one needs to travel far. One leaves Quepem Town on the road towards Bali, where, at Ambaulim itself the first signs of mining greed surface.

In barely two weeks, armed with outdated mining leases issued by the erstwhile Portuguese regime, a new site has been opened in flagrant violation of our own laws protecting the environment. It is these outdated mining leases issued by the Portuguese that a new crop of miners wave in their hands, No one seems to be asking how Goans, in many cases those elected to office by the people with the promise that they would work for Goa’s wellbeing, can wantonly desecrate the environment like the Portuguese did. As Ambaulim plateaus into the embrace of the hills, nearby are the scars left behind from the mining of laterite blocks, although these are friendly compared to what the miners will do with their mechanical shovels.

This road from Ambaulim heading south easterly will eventually end at Neturlem where it falls in obeisance to the imposing Mother Ghats at our borders, home to the majestic Kushawati River that, thanks to the illegal mining, may soon be no more. At Neturlem itself armed with the same outdated colonial leases, rogue miners were finally stopped by laws governing respect for the environment. There at least, for the moment the Kushawati continues to be blessed, her waters protected from the arsenic the mining industry uses to process for ‘purity’ of ore, and, as investigations reveal have already created havoc in the mid-stream waters of the Zuari and Mandovi.

Downstream the news is anything but good. At Sulcorna, is the Don Bosco complex, where the Salesians have steadfastly protected her for the thirty-five years. They operate a prosperous agricultural enterprise that subsidises their other socially useful activities…a school, industrial training centres, and, from this year, a diploma training in agriculture. What few know is that for the last ten years if not more, the Salesians have been waging a lonely war to keep patently illegal mining operations from claiming their land as its own!

At the Don Bosco complex, the Kushawati is close to the prettiest picture she can give us of herself. Downstream further, where she meets her younger sibling, the Corca, she proceeds to Rivona. At Collomb, residents like Rama Velip and his associates, now backed by several other groups are deeply concerned about Goa’s environmental destruction. They have moved the courts and governmental agencies to prevent short-sighted business interests from killing the Kushawati with the dregs thrown up by mining and desperately need public support.

The Kushawati’s younger sister, the Corca, fares even worse. If public awareness does not come to the rescue and laws governing the environment are not brought to bear, she will be non-existent in barely a year. As Rama Velip and his associates point out, the Corca is surrounded by thickly forested hills with hundreds of year-long springs that provide her the sweetness of her water. A patently absurd mining lease, colonial to boot, now determines that we can murder her.

Adjacent to the Corca are two villages, Kawrem and Maina, home to hills with thousands of trees, springs, streams and ponds that have provided fresh water for a few centuries at least, and are teeming with rich wildlife that have borne witness to this magnificence of green cover.

At root in this crisis, is a pettiness of profit motive so crass, it defies description. The real tragedy is that there are Goans capable of turning whole hills inside out to extract, by whatever means, land and all life that goes with it, at 2500 – 4000$ per metric ton.

The forest and foothills around Quepem currently being razed for ore are to be exported to China. They have never been accessible easily and this is exactly why mining interests in the area have got away with environmental murder. It is as if succeeding governments and industry, knowing full well the mineral potential of the area, deliberately kept aid and development at a level just good enough to get by before they got down to the nitty-gritty of exploiting it for what it was worth.

Given the magnificent strides made by Karnataka and Kerala to develop bio-diversity reserves as commercial propositions, With the right kind of people at the helm, not Goans just fuelled by lust, could make this an internationally acclaimed ecologically-inspired destination. Instead what we are left with are these poor mockeries of graves, bright to deep orange depending on the time of day, and too easily reminiscent of open wounds.

If those responsible for these environmental atrocities taking place really cared for the area, there could be many options to improvement. One does not have to be overly imaginative to have the hearts of people in mind. For instance – a state of the art agricultural college with forty per cent of the seats reserved for Goans and the rest offered nationally and internationally. Perhaps a nursing school run on the same lines but attached to a state of the art health care facility; the upgrading of the already excellent primary health care facilities in the area; a school for dairy management and science, maybe even a good veterinary college; an institute to strengthen the management of village cooperatives. All these can come up without stripping the earth of her clothes and requiring nothing more than the genuineness of our elected representatives.

However, even as this is being written, a government school in the area is under threat. Barely 500 metres in the line of the giant excavators, the school is being bought with grandiose promises and the children are being gifted new school bags, umbrellas, water bottles and pencils and pens. Rumour has it that the school will be relocated.

But then such absurdities are commonplace: Mining leases cover temples that the mining companies renovate and rebuild to show the residents their concern: however archaeologically protected sites are in danger of being razed with no concern from the companies. The Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment and Management Plan Reports submitted by the mining contractors to show compliance with stringent Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) norms are prepared by an organization in Hyderabad, and would be laughable if not for the sheer deceit involved.

A good two months after they have raped a hill, one of the mining companies is now hurriedly planting a decorative row of Australian acacia at its entrance. Nearby at least ten springs have been destroyed. Activists in the area expect their RTI investigations on this to unearth a can of very smelly worms indeed and inside, as the papers will show, is a company involving elected representatives. It is patently obvious that palms have been greased all the way down the line. The reports pledging compliance with norms appear callously fabricated by assessment panels in the employ of mining interests.


While this is being written, the Don Bosco complex at Sulcorna battles on, pleading with the law to overturn the legitimacy of colonial leases drafted to export as much of Goa’s land as is mechanically possible. At Collomb where the mines have been sullying the Kushawati’s waters the past few years, residents have shown the same spirit of battle. The local authorities have been pressured and complaints registered, and there is breathing space till the rains last. What will transpire come September when more money gets circulated and the law, circumvented, is anyone’s guess.

This is a battle that begs for public outrage and outcry immediately and those interested in joining forces can do no better than visit to be updated on blatant violations of the law even as they happen. At work behind the scenes are the Goans we can be truly proud of. Seby Rodrigues, a young man from Siolim working on his Ph.D on land issues and mining; Rama Velip from Collomb and his fellow committed residents; Joao Fernandes, a young lawyer from Quepem who brings his legal skills to bear; and Ramesh Gawas, this year’s National Award-winning teacher, who coordinates the group’s complaints to local authorities.

The lands most recently under threat are situated in Maina, where a few days earlier, trees were being illegally felled. Rama Velip and residents of the area alerted the forest authorities. As of writing this forestry range officers have photographed the area and are in the process of lodging an FIR and conducting a panchnama.

This land under threat is barely a hundred metres from the Corca, the sparkling younger sister of the Kushawati. Farms in the area, nurtured and developed with the active support of the forestry and agricultural departments, are ringed and bordered on their south side by a bend in the Corca, and across from this, thickly forested, protected land teeming with bio-diversity may well be non-existent in other parts of our state today.

On the south easterly side of these same properties is a mountain spring tapped by the Panchayat for the last decade at least. Its water is carried by a canal built at a cost of four crore rupees, to villages downstream throughout the year. There is no lack of concerned citizens in the area. A few years ago, with the active assistance of local, committed forestry officials, at least two residents put an end to illegal stone quarrying from the river and the poaching and killing of wild life. The mining will damage the spring irreparably, and wilfully murder groundwater resources.

Even as many in the area shed tears, the Goan mining barons in the area have their eyes set on a few other young families of hills, and come September, forests protected by law to be a wealth held for the future, will disappear. Those who bought this land to rape it, once hired machinery to the mining industry and would know just how rapidly a hill can be turned inside out. Forests that once took gangs of labourers a full month to clear can now be done in barely an hour, and Quepem’s earth sent to China by the kilo.

No comments: