Residents of Caurem, a tribal village, have always been at the forefront of anti-mining demonstrations. Now, they have formed a society comprising 300 members
The only school in Sonshi village is next to the road on which over 1,000 trucks ply, making six-seven trips a day, when mining activities are undertaken. Noise and air pollution dissuades students and teachers from coming to the school (Photo: Samruddha Ghadi Amonkar)
An eerie silence envelopes Sonshi village in North Goa district. This tiny tribal village is nestled in hills that are home to 13 iron ore mines, operated by mining giants such as Sesa Goa and VM Salgaocar. On August 13, the Goa bench of Bombay high court directed the state government to ensure that 12 of the 13 mines, whose licences were suspended by the state pollution control board four months ago, should be allowed to resume operation only after they comply with all pollution-control measures laid down by the Indian School of Mines. While this has brought relief to Sonshi’s 300-odd population, they say it would not be long before the mines return to their old ways. And their fear is not unfounded.
In 2012, the Supreme Court banned iron ore mining across Goa because of large -scale corruption and general mine mismanagement. A year earlier, a public accounts committee appointed by the state Assembly had found that nearly half the active iron ore mines in Goa were illegal. Though the court lifted the ban in 2014, it prescribed fresh clearances and approvals for all mines from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and state agencies, and capped the annual producti on for the state at 20 million tonnes (MT). But Sonshi residents allege that most companies operating around the village put aside the apex court orders while resuming operations in September 2016.
“An incessant rumble of machines and a thick layer of red dust would cover the air throughout the day. The 7 mhigh plastic barriers erected alongside the road to keep dust and pollution in check hardly served the purpose. People in the village are now suffering from tuberculosis and cancers,” says Mahesh Gawde, a village resident.
Stepping onto the road, the only route through the hills, became fraught with danger as about 1,000 trucks, each loaded with 10 tonnes of iron ore, would make six-seven trips daily, says Vaman Gowda, another resident. He was among the 45 people arrested in April during a road blockade to protest against pollution and to demand clean water, employment and health facilities. Before 2012, mining operations had contaminated all lakes and creeks, turning them red. Surface runoff, carrying waste soil and other debris left behind after digging the ore out, had made agriculture unviable. This forced people to work as labourers in distant towns. Now aquifers in the region are also running dry. Since March, tanker water provided by one of the mining companies is their only source of drinking water.
Though their protest triggered the shut down of 12 mines in May, residents say mining would recommence as soon as the monsoon draws to an end. After all, iron ore is the biggest revenue source for Goa, which has urged the Supreme Court to raise its annual output cap from 20 MT to 30 MT. Sonshi is not the only village in Goa trying to protect itself from the hazards of open-cast iron ore mining. Residents of another village in South Goa are trying to improve their lot by taking matters into their own hands.
Action in cooperation
Welcome to Caurem, a tribal village not far away from Quepem town. The village, surrounded by four open-cast iron ore mines, has historically been at the forefront of anti-mining demonstrations in Goa. Before 2012, at the peak of illegal mining in Goa, 15,000 trucks loaded with iron ore would ply the area, say Caurem residents. "Wastes from the mines had ruined agriculture. To top it all, these mining firms rarely provide any livelihood opportunity to the village residents,” says Kush Velip, a resident who used to rent out his two trucks to mining firms but has now stopped in solidarity with village residents.
This prompted the residents to make mining more sustainable and equitable by claiming a stake in it. “We started discuss ing the idea about five years ago,” recalls Ravindra Velip, tribal leader fighting against mining firms. The first step was to form a cooperative society and get it registered. “In April this year, after repeated requests, we finally obtained the registration for our cooperative, the Sadha na Multipurpose Cooperative Society Ltd (SMCSL). The society, with 300 members, is an attempt to create a sustainable mining environment where affected people are adequately compensated and damaged environment restored,” says Pravas Velip, another resident.
Analysts say there is a long way to go before SMCSL can achieve its dream. The first hurdle is that the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2015 does not have the provision for mining of notified minerals, such as iron ore, by cooperatives. Though cooperative mining has given people a greater voice, so far, it is limited to sand mining in Andhra Pradesh and stone quarrying in Rajasthan. “To allow cooperative mining of iron ore, the Union government has to first amend the mining Act,” says Prasanna Acharya, director of Goa’s Directorate of Mines and Geology.
Caurem residents believe other-wise. In 2012, the apex court passed a judgement that gives the state primary authority to decide on the fate of mining leases that are up for renewal. Besides, Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar in April had expressed support for mining through cooperative societies. "We hope the state government would grant SMCSL the rights to mine iron ore during the renewal of mining leases,” says Ravindra Velip.
The story has been taken from the 16-30 September, 2017 issue of Down To Earth magazine
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