Thursday, July 1, 2010

History of Abuse


GOANS once used the Konkani word “mandkulem” to refer to Goa, a word also used to denote a baby just beginning to discover the world. The tiny region, barely 100 kilometres in length and some 40 km at its widest, was full of promise when India freed it from the Portuguese on December 19, 1961. However, in the past 25 years their mineral-rich mandkulem, bordered by high ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west, has seen irreversible environmental damage.

It must be said that Goans themselves played a crucial part in spreading the myth that mining was the backbone of the State's economy. Over the years they invested in trucks and barges and shares in the mining industry, believing that Goa's forests and biodiversity would remain, like the infamous mining leases doled out by the Portuguese in the years before they left, “in perpetuity” – a “fact” Goa's first Chief Minister, a mine-owner, ensured when the State got its first elected government. Everyone, from mining magnate to Minister to road transport officer to police constable, with a stake in mining officiously proclaims that mining is their constitutional right. Senior Goans have not failed to see the vast degradation of the Western Ghats at the hands of the mining industry.

One mining pit in Maina in Quepem taluk in South Goa is barely 300 metres from the government secondary school. Rumour has it that the mining industry has offered to build a new school. That is nothing new: the schools in Adavpal and Sonshi in North Goa are already surrounded by mining operations, and petitions against them have resulted in legal wrangling over whether the mining is legal or not.

In the interiors of Collomb village, a new mining pit has opened, barely half a kilometre from the waterline of the Selaulim dam, which provides half of Goa with drinking water. In collusion with various complicit authorities, old dumps in sanctuaries have been reopened; the cases as usual are still to be heard.

One tract of mining, after Sanquelim, stretches for 12 km at the base of which is the infamous Sirgao pit. Some concerned citizens have now started taking Sunday morning tours of young Goans to this place so that they can see just how rapacious the mining industry is and what harm it has done to the Western Ghats. The Sirgao pit is about 37 metres below sea level, but functions even after being indicted by a National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) report.

Right through its long history of occupation and subservience, Goa has been there for others, to be used and abused. Referring to the Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar's determination to hold on to the territory, Jawaharlal Nehru is said to have famously referred to Goa as “a pimple on the face of India”. And, how much this has been squeezed!

The first traces of iron and manganese ore were discovered in Goa by Japanese prospectors in 1905, around the same time that the Belgians were digging the earth in Karnataka. In the next 40 years or so, a fledgling mining industry developed, and upwardly mobile Goan families, supporting the fascist war by venturing into the ore industry, exported 100 tonnes.

By 1954, cashing in on the post-War boom, the same families shifted allegiance to the Allies and raised this to one million tonnes. Given their new nationality, things got only better. This figure rose to 10 million tonnes by 1971 and close to 15 million tonnes in the 1980s, ensuring the wealth of a hegemonic industry that, well before the cowboys of Bellary, was raising its own sun in Goa and getting set to pull the strings. Today, thanks to Vedanta entering the race, that figure is in excess of 40 million tonnes and destined to grow bigger.

The larger picture is that growth rates and infrastructure mean more than any irreversible environmental decline. Knowing that 85 billion tonnes of mineral reserves lie waiting to be “exploited” in the ghats off both the shores, the pundits in New Delhi have set a target to increase foreign investment to $20 billion over the next few years.

Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh is adamant in not wanting “theology” to colour the debate on which trees must be cut and which water source must be wilfully destroyed. Why not, when his government preaches “pragmatism”, a view of the world where truth is defined by what “succeeds”. To the high priests of growth rates, the American-Indian Cree has a saying that bears repeating: “Only when the last tree has been cut; only when the last river has been poisoned; only when the last fish has been eaten; only then will you know that money cannot be eaten.”

When the infrastructure industry puts up the 16-odd energy projects planned in the Western Ghats; when the 300-odd permissions to extract ore awaiting clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests have been procured in Goa; when the word “activist” becomes a common term of abuse and concerned citizens are forced to seek recourse in a system of justice where they will be thrown in the long grass; when mobs of disgruntled “villagers” surround various politicians and government functionaries, all of whom will throw the ball to each other regardless of political ideologies and affiliations if it means making money, what will Goans be told before the troops are called out? “Go and drink bottled water”?

Hartman de Souza is a theatre director, teacher and writer who is now involved in the movement to save the Western Ghats.

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