Gomantak Times, January 19, 2009
Lawyer, journalist, social activist and an agriculturist who ‘still ploughs’ his own fields, John Fernandes, speaks to Walter Menezes about mining problem in Quepem.
What led you and villagers of Ambaulim block the Ambaulim-Quepem road at Capelabhat on December 17?
There is a serious dust problem in our village due to transportation of mining ore and overloading of trucks. Road-widening work presently underway has only compounded matters. Our children who study in Pope John School (Quepem) are in constant danger. There are time restrictions for mining trucks. But who bothers? Trucks continue to ply between 1-2 in the afternoon. We made several complaints to the authorities. But nobody took any cognizance. In the end, we were constrained to come on the road.
A case under section 307 of IPC (attempt to murder) has been slapped against you. Did you, in the heat of the moment, pick up a spade and fling it on a policeman?
Please see the video recording of the agitation. You will come to know that I – or any of our agitators – have not used any weapon. It is the police who had used a weapon against us. During the corner meeting before the ‘rasta roko’, we clearly instructed our villagers to be peaceful and non-violent.
Even in the face of force by men in khaki?
Yes. Even in the face of force…
So you think this was done only to break your ‘spine and spirit’?
This was done to suppress our voice and our agitation. They want us to live like cattle. And not like lions and tigers! They don’t want us to fight for our rights.
In a letter addressed to the Editor of GT (31.12.2008), you have said that there is no administration in Quepem. Is the situation really that bad?
I am constrained to say so. RTO, Mamlatdar, Deputy Collector…these are the authorities who are supposed to take action. But they have no time to listen to our grievances. The way the mining transport is going on in Quepem, it seems that there are no laws.
Do you think mining will ultimately bleed Goa to death?
Certainly. If mining activity continues the way it is happening at present, a time will come when Goa will face a sever health and water problem. Cutting of mountains and forests will reduce rain and if there is no water, Goa will collapse. We are extracting excessive blood from our mountains and sending it to China. If a state starts oozing excessive blood, certainly that state will die in the years to come.
Directly and indirectly, thousands depend on the mining industry. It is always easy to preach. Do you have any solutions?
I agree. Mining is a part of Goa. But mining must be done in such a way that people’s economic zone – and those who are dependent on nature – should not be disturbed. Villagers and tribals residing in the hinterland also have a right to live.
Mining dust has invaded Quepem and the quality of air that we breath is poor. Do you feel we must insist upon water-tankers to spray the roads, as is done in Sanvordem?
I don’t think that is a solution. If the mining trucks only abide by the guidelines laid by the High Court and the 15/12/07 notification issued by the Directorate of Transport and the order passed by the then Deputy Collector, Sanjay Goel, dated 19.10.2006, spillage will totally reduce.
You once told me that the mining problem affecting Quepem and Sanguem can snowball into a major water crisis for South Goa, especially Salcete. Would you elaborate?
Due to mining activity in Quepem and Sanguem, if Salaulim Dam is silted, there will be shortage of water and in due course of time, our coastal belt will be affected. The topography of Goa is unique. Our mountains are recklessly destroyed, Goa will run short of fresh water. Kushavati in Kepem, the Zuari river…they will be affected. It is a vicious circle.
What then should be our approach to Environment?
Environment is my University and I am its student. All of us should be more concerned to develop human beings and not to develop things. Any activity that jeopardizes the very existence of human beings should not be promoted.
Is environment the only issue dear to your heart?
No. My village is Ambaulim is still backward. To educate the villagers about importance of education and to be away from Alcoholism are my other concerns.
Yes. In my village, some bars are open as early as 4 in the morning. In a personal survey and another conducted by Goa University in the jurisdiction of Ambaulim parish, we found that every 40 male adults, there is a bar in my village. And of the 100 villagers who died, 80% of them were below the age of 40!
A village where young women are widows?
Yes. The family is orphaned and neglected. And this in turn gives rise to many other social problems.
Is the Church (in Ambaulim) alarmed and concerned?
Church is not very serious about the issue.
You were born in Ambaulim. You grew up here. Can you tell us about your early days?
Life was very hard. There was alcoholism in my family too. But thanks to my teachers, I am what I am today.
Confronting the mining lobby and the administration is not as easy task. Do you feel frustrated? Or are you optimistic that reason, and truth, will ultimately prevail?
This is not about winning and losing. We want to give our 100% to the agitation. I am of the strong belief that till the time we are honest to ourselves and our cause, we will surely succeed.
One final question. In the film ‘A Mighty Heart’, where Angelina Jolie plays the wife of the slain US journalist Daniel Pearl, she is a picture of agony. How is your wife coping?
My wife understands and supports me. But my mother wants me to come out of all this and lead a quiet life. It was hard convincing her that I was only living my Christian faith. I told her that if I have to stop, then I would have to forsake Christianity!