Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Lament for Water

The mining industry has forgotten cultural memory and its lessons about working in consonance with nature, says HARTMAN DE SOUZA

In the thickly forested hills between the villages of Maina and Kawrem, south-east of Quepem town, a poignant story, once fortunate enough to have had a happy ending, is now destined to end sadly.

Eight hundred overloaded trucks groaning through the town throughout the day, barring a few hours respite to let schoolchildren in the area to scamper to and from school, is testament to this. It is this very same business – though ‘greed’ may be a better term – that is ‘legally’ destroying a myth of almost epic proportions, and with it, again ‘legally’, the water sources and waterbodies of the area.

Every morning since September, barring days when the local Gods punish them with rain that gives surviving trees and rich mud a few days of respite, one convoy after another, hauls mining waste from two mines that don’t yet have permission to dump in what is essentially forest land not yet discovered by the forest authorities. This mining waste is being hauled to the Ambaulim plateau, and dumped in government forest land, to prepare the ground for the new by-pass road, supposed to cost Rs28 crore. No matter that permissions and protocols for this soon-to-be bypass road have yet to be granted. One wonders how Rs28 crore for a state-of-the-art road to haul ore from Maina and Kawrem to barges waiting with open mouths in Sanguem compares with figures that the government has spent on agricultural and other subsides provided to the same two villages.

But one forgets. This is about mining. As everyone in Goa will tell you, mining is the backbone of the Goan economy. And what mining wants, mining gets. This is the story from when a colonial power in the region first found ore, and, along with friendly Goans, sold it to their Fascist comrades in Japan and Germany; and this is the story, whether one likes it or not, that we must believe.

In these hills the trees are being bulldozed with mechanical precision, and forklifts warm their engines at 6.15 in the morning. But the springs in these very hills have provided drinking water for centuries, and the Gods themselves participated in this happiness of water. Every Goan also has the right to know that this same area resonated with myths and legends pertaining to water.

As ministers and cronies invested in this land in a frenzy barely three years ago, how was the Velip community, sweet-talked into selling their lands, to know that mining companies would put down huge advance payments on the table and overnight turn able-bodied men into truck drivers hauling ore, their mouths covered with coloured bandanas to stave off the choking red dust?

The really sad story of course, is that the mining companies and those who support them legally, are not overly concerned with ‘cultural memory’ and what role this can play with influencing ways of life and working more in consonance with nature.

The ways things are going, it does appear that the Gods are on the side of those taking away our forests and water. The rich will drive even newer and more expensive cars, live their fantasies of owning more watches, sire sons who cut their hair in New Delhi and daughters who buy their underwear in Paris. They will be rich and famous and be ideal role models for young Goans in our high schools and colleges because they appear on Page 3. If they could spare the time from this mad race to see how fast they can get as much as they can from Goa while it lasts, they would know of a lovely story concerning Paik, a warrior deity venerated by the Velip community as their protector.

In his most basic avatar, he sits astride a horse, a quintessential tribal warrior, although even this may not have been his essential form.

Once upon a time, legend in the area has it, a lovely Velip girl from Maina was married into Kawrem. She was much loved in both villages and was soon blessed with child, a bright-eyed boy who, just like his mother, had love showered on him. While both villages received an abundance of rain, both were dependent on a spring with water so sweet it felt like it was touched with nectar. The spring was a good forty-minute walk for the young woman who fetched the water while her husband ploughed and tended the fields and livestock. One day, however, tragedy struck. She reached home with her pots full of water to find her baby covered with tiny black ants and his tender skin covered with bright red spots.

Both villages offered prayer to their Paikdev, but to no avail – the little boy never recovered. The young Velip girl was so heartbroken she too slowly drifted away in sadness. After months of both villages grieving at the loss of two cherished lives, the girl’s father, joined by elders from Maina, went to the spring barely a hundred yards away from their dwellings. The same spring that the girl from Maina had to reach struggling over two small hills. The father carried an empty mud pot. At the spring, berating Paikdev for not protecting his daughter and grandson, the old man smashed the mud pot.

From that day, as if shamed, Paikdev ensured that three quarters of the water would flow into Kawrem and only one quarter into Maina. In gratitude, the villagers of both villages began referring to the site of this miracle as ‘Paikeachi Zor’, ‘Paik’s Spring’.

All those who trek to this spring have been in awe of this huge rock embedded in a hill, a tree growing above it, its roots holding it in place and its leaves throwing a canopy of shade even on the hottest summer’s noon, exactly one quarter of water flowing from the mouth in Maina, and three quarters into Kawrem from a long arm stretched through the hills separating the two villages.

There are some 16 mining leases under process in the area. Two have been in operation for the last year; one has started barely three weeks ago. All have speeded up their operations lest public opinion goes against them. It is almost inevitable that the venerated spring will disappear in two years. They have already begun to attack the Kawrem hill leading to the forests and small waterfall. One of the leases, in a huge travesty of good taste, is actually titled ‘Paikeachi Zor’.

So be it! Paik, a tribal deity, a warrior who also recognises the value and importance of water, the source of all life, is not mean. He cannot be. He will offer blessings to those in the mad race for prosperity and plenty. But know this though: When the hills disappear and the rains get less and less, when wasted mud takes the place of trees, when the river that runs through Quepem town slows to a trickle to be replaced by garbage, when surrounding villages have their own slum areas and garages to repair trucks become as important as bars, when clean water in Margao may end up costing as much petrol and those investing in mining turn to water, then let those Goans who feign ignorance of the destruction wrought by mining know how important Paikdev was.

Herald, November 20, 2009 Panaji

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