Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Men who will stop the water... vignettes from Goa's mining heartland

We skirt Paikdev's temple for Paikdev Zor, where this tribal snake deity bathes. The story goes that the village of Maina in Quepem Taluka once received all the water from the 'zor' or 'spring', and people from adjoining Kawrem, none. Then after a terrible tragedy, an angry father from Maina, grieving for his inconsolable daughter whom he had given intomarriage at Kawrem, forced Paikdev to send water, through the hill, to that village too.

I glance back. Seeing how the mining company 'renovate' Paikdev's temple, I feel a chill of sadness, only heightened by the fine spray of a dying drizzle.

Some years back, Paikdev's temporal abode was a labour oflove crafted in laterite, mud-plaster and whitewash, nestling in a small clearing, surrounded by hundreds of trees. Now, as if in a mockery of archaeological surveys, contempt for"tribal" beliefs, it seems manufactured in a factory. Paikdev in concrete; garishly painted into dissonance; in return for this paucity, the absence of his hills, trees and water.

After an hour and a half, unlike my motley colleagues, I attempted to sit. Aki, all of eight, eagerly bunking school,skips ahead like a sprite; Zaeen, fifteen, playing truant toidentify birds, looks like he would rather not go back toschool; and to Pauto, in his mid sixties, and Shantaram, inhis thirties, this is home. It's July, the traditional paths covered with thick grass and shrubs well over Aki's head;creepers and vines form a thick web, through which we stumble and pick our way.

I mutter a loud prayer to Paikdev and ask him to ensure I do not put my foot on a snake's head.

"Not all snakes are poisonous," Zaeen says

"Yeah, sure. I just don't want to find out which is which."

Shantaram points to an old mine, abandoned in Portuguese times. It takes thirty years for the earth to recover frommining, so, apart from a sudden incline and overhang in thedistance, and a deep bowl, the forest has returned invengeance, the mud road all but disappeared, although one canspot recent wheel tracks. The earth regenerating itself could have made a nice story if we didn't know the ending.

"This is where they intend mining," I say.

"What will happen then?" Aki asks me.

"This hill will disappear," I tell her. Her frown says shecan't comprehend the scale of destruction, or may be she's trying to figure out how anyone could be stupid enough to make a hill just disappear.

We climb clumps of grass wedged between ancient laterite burnt a deep brown. At the summit we look out at a morning clear enough to plot the rain. In the distance, cloud-misted hills stretch towards Sulcorna to join the taller ghats, hometo the Kushawati; directly below, sprawling to our right, thefour hills we have trudged over.

To our left, across the Maina-Kawrem road, barely 500 metresfrom the Government High School at Maina, is the rogue miningoperation that dug out two hills in barely six months, leaving behind a bottomless cavern. "This is what will happenhere?" Aki asks. "They're stupid people."

No, I want to say, just very greedy and very, very dangerous,the kind who will murder for ore. Zaeen's just read the Goa Foundation's Goa, Sweet Land of Mine. "How do they get'environment clearances'? he asks.

"There's a laboratory in Hyderabad that fabricates reportssaying there's nothing on these hills except ore."

"That's it"

"It's worse."

I tell him what Joao, a lawyer from Quepem, says: that the mining operations have already begun without 'environmentclearances'. Zaeen snorts in disgust. He's figured out thatback in school, they'll tell him he must respect the law!

We pass full grown cashew trees, bhendi, teak, and mango, planted some twenty years back by the Forest Department, who will watch silently as they arehacked down. I see pots to distil feni, and as weskirt the last hill, plantations of areca, tinyterraced fields of rice, and lean-tos of thatch left over from the summer months when shepherds watch over cattle grazing.

The shrine leaves Zaeen, usually on constant alert, inrepose. Pauto says Paikdev takes the form of a snake. To me,his face is a giant rock darkened with age, buried in the hill, and festooned with bright-green ferns and lichens, tiny sprigs of wild flower, grasses, creepers and vines; his eyes glow rich with the blackness of ore. Around his forehead are entwined the thick roots of an ancient kusum, its trunk apillar to the sky, its canopy of leaves welcoming the clouds.

From Paikdev's mouth, along the furrow of his pursed tongue,water courses out.

Before his great-great grandfather's time Pautotells us, the water only flowed to Maina, where lived a man who gave his daughter in marriage toKawrem. Blessed with beautiful child, one day she came to fill her pots at the spring only returning to find her infant lifeless, his tiny body covered with tiny black ants. The father grieved a fullyear, then, carrying a big stick, walked to the zor with nine men, berating Paikdev for not giving water to Kawrem and hitting the rock. From that daythree-quarters of the water flowed to Kawrem.

Returning, we descend 45 degrees from Paikdev Zor. Zaeen trekked the Himalayas this summer, so he looks at mewitheringly, Aki readily following suit. Naturally stepped bywater, the path down twines between plants growing high oneither side, as if planted by a divine farmer and we get thehang of going down, grabbing a handful of the plants as ifthey were ropes.

"You're way too slow," Zaeen tells me, pushing past with Aki.

We are touched by the succour of Paikdev Zor, the legend resonating as we cross a mountain stream four times, awed by the magnificence of flowing water. With innumerable brooks,this stream joins the Curca, a tributary of the Kushawati. Itis difficult not to believe, as Pauto does, that these watersare not part of a divine force.

We come back full circle, to the canal built at acost of Rs. 4 crore (Rs 40 million) to carry waterfrom Paikdev Zor downstream. Villagers here know contractors and politicians made money from the canal, but, they add cynically, at least they gaveus Paikdev's water. On the other side, Kawrem isstill blessed with its abundance, both villages touched by the munificence of a tribal deity towards a grieving father.

"That's dumb," Zaeen tells me as we trudge the last hundred yards to a hot shower and change of clothes. His teeth are chattering. "Her father hit a rock to give water, now theses wine will hit that rock to stop the water -- that's dumb."

Hartman de Souza
Circulated on Goanet on 15th September 2008

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