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Dust to dust in Goa

By Sunalini Kumar

9 January 2017

How mining in Goa has destroyed the environment and community life.
Mining Goa Flickr/Frederick Noronha

Mining Goa
Flickr/Frederick Noronha

Discussions on mining in India over the past 20 years are liable to produce fatigue. The names of places, companies, tribes, forests, states, regions, rivers and hills flit lazily and incoherently in and out of our ears including Jagdalpur, POSCO, Reddy brothers, Niyamgiri and Vedanta. The steady trickle of news about mining-afflicted areas – always remote, always misty, always in the ‘under-developed’ parts of the country – has both kept us saturated with factoids, and somehow also crushed our ability to connect, think straight and act. Everybody, that is, except those directly facing the prospect of seeing their farm, hill, house or river imploding into a cavernous mine pit below, and clouds of dust above. These are the Grimm’s fairy tales of contemporary India, with an added postmodern twist. They seem to have no beginning – we can’t seem to remember a time before mining; no clear middle – what is happening now, has it stopped or resumed?; and no clear end – aren’t the displaced communities going to be rehabilitated with the usual package of primary school-dispensary-jobs, and isn’t this enough?

Hartman de Souza’s Eat Dust: Greed and mining in Goa gives us the full context. He shows us how to see the story in the midst of the deafening hum of news bytes. It reminds us that ‘information’, reports and a couple of interviews from opposing sides of the mining ‘debate’ that are filtered through to Delhi or Bombay do not by themselves make a narrative. And this is not because there is no narrative. There is a beginning, there is a middle, and we are all living through the end. The end of a sustainable, non-polluting, non-exploitative way of living. A form of life that is as ‘natural’ as it is ‘human’, a life that does not need Goa holidays and spa resorts to counter its sophistry and meaninglessness.

A squalid triumvirate
De Souza pulls no punches. Of Goan-Kenyan descent, and possessed of a profound love for the little strip between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, he has engaged with the land and people in Goa in multiple ways over decades: as a theatre actor and director, teacher, art critic, farmer, writer and journalist. He is also somebody who saw a hill in front of his sister Cheryl’s farm in Goa disappear almost overnight, engulfed and decimated by a rapidly expanding circle of earth movers and rock blasters. With the stubbornness of a bulldog combined with the instincts of a bloodhound, over the years de Souza stuck to the edge of the mine, photographing, writing and just watching. He then did this with other mines in Goa, all across a mining belt that extends in what he calls a “squalid triumvirate” from Quepem in the south, Bicholim in the north, and Sanvordem in the southeast.

At the outset, the central achievement of the book: Never again will one who has carefully read this memoir be able to just “go to Goa!”. De Souza’s account carefully lays bare the dense history and culture that lies behind the wafer-thin touristic impression of Goa as simply beaches, sand and sea. While this may sound dispiriting, it isn’t. Beyond the beach shacks and curio shops is a much richer, infinitely more stunning Goa made up of hills, streams, farms and a rich culture replete with local traditions and deities. It is a Goa lovingly experienced by natives as their ‘mandkulem’ – a Konkani word that means a “baby crawling on the floor and beginning to discover the world”. In a metaphor reminiscent of the one used in another urgent, powerful book on the environment, Churning the Earth by Aseem Srivastava and Ashish Kothari (they speak of imbalanced growth in India as a “drunken, stunted dog”), de Souza describes this mandkulem now as being attacked by three “wolves”: a middle-aged one that goes by the names of Tourism, Real Estate and Infrastructure; an older, wiser wolf who “sits back until it’s time to eat”, namely,  the mining industry, made up of several blue-blooded old mining families; and finally a young, vicious wolf called Consumerism.

The pages begin with a bird’s eye view of Goa – a sweep of the gaze from north to south, from beaches to the Ghats and from city to village. You realise how size does not matter when it comes to state and federal politics countenancing the environment, because this is a strip of land that is actually small enough to not have to count. Yes, there is tourism, but how robust will the instinct to protect the wealth of natural beauty above land remain if the competitor is the ‘wealth’ of the ore below? We might see verdant hills but what of the mining lobby, with tentacles long enough to firmly grip New Delhi, which only sees what lies under the soil?

One of the most chilling descriptions in this book is of the way in which parts of the Western Ghats, approached from the sea, almost resemble a film set. On first glance the traveller sees a magnificent hill rising up from the coast. But if they were to skirt the hill all the way to the other side, it disappears to reveal a yawning gash many acres wide, and deep enough “to swallow a seven-storey building”. Such ‘hills’, almost a two-dimensional scaffolding for the mines behind them, now dot the entire stretch of this tiny state, as de Souza records with anguish.

What about ‘development’, you may already be asking, referring to the particular constellation of economic decisions taken by the movers and shakers at the top; decisions that shape all our lives. The popular ‘macho’ attitude is to liken uncompromisingly anti-mining positions like de Souza’s to ‘romanticising’ the past, or things that seem to belong there, such as nature, ecology, farming and village life. Of course, in this macho view, equating a motorbike with freedom is not romanticism at all. Saying that a pair of sunglasses, or jeans, or hair-gel will give you power over the object of your desire, is not romanticism. Insisting on the myth of ‘growth for all’ in the face of grinding and persistent poverty is not romanticism. Fending off questions about how long before everybody can share in the growth story with slogan-like statements about the beauty of economic enterprise and the power of human will is not romanticism.

But arguing for a way of life that gives food, water and shelter to an entire community without destroying the environment or making people dependent on the state or corporate sector for doles and jobs, now that’s romanticism! That like the other creatures on earth, humans too have found means to feed ourselves, bring up our children and protect ourselves without ‘churning the earth’– that’s romanticism. That there is already all the power and beauty you need in quiet, un-spectacular moments, in the hills and forests and streams, that’s romanticism. And most importantly, that certain communities continue to draw from this value system, who do not exist in ‘the past’ but are living, breathing, and changing presents and futures, that is also romanticism.

The beginning, middle and end
So, to the beginning. As de Souza documents, it was Japanese prospectors who discovered the first traces of iron and manganese ore in 1905.

A fledgling mining industry developed in the next forty years and today’s Goan magnates – supporting the fascist cause back then – exported as much as 100 tonnes of ore. By 1954, cashing in on the post-War boom, the same families shifted allegiance to the Allies and raised this to 1 million tonnes. Given their new nationality, things only got better. The figure rose to 10 million tonnes by 1971 and close to 15 million tonnes in the 1980s, ensuring the rapid growth of a hegemonic industry that – long before the dawn of the Bellary cowboys – was raising its own sun in Goa and getting set to pull the strings.

The middle. Interestingly, mining didn’t really take off for decades, due to the vagaries of global regimes of demand and supply. In the 1990s however, both price and tonnage rose steeply, and in the new century, they went through the roof. Not surprisingly, several well-placed families who had bought mining leases on the cheap now smelled blood. Papers were signed, politicians bribed, and earth-movers brought in. Barges chock-full of ore began to dominate the deep and navigable rivers of Goa, on their way to the sea and then on to China and elsewhere. Mining magnates emerged all over the tiny state, many of them politicians. By the 2000s, it was the all-too-familiar cocktail of power, corruption, money and politics across the “squalid” mining triangle of Goa. De Souza reports:

[A]t the end of February 2012, the National Election Watch – an arm of the non-profit Association for Democratic Reforms – released the findings of a study on thirty-five candidates contesting the elections the year before in Goa. They hit the nail on the head with their argument that the finances of Goa’s politicians had gone through the roof in the Age of Greed. They found that the average assets of Goa’s MLAs had grown by a whopping 200 percent in 2012.

The end. Mining has come to stay – as a way of relating to the land, as a much-vaunted form of wealth creation and, discursively, as a cherished part of the idea of ‘development’. Goan mines contribute as much as 55 percent of all iron ore exported from India. In 2010, following a rising wave of protest from local and national activists regarding the damage done by mining – especially after the intervention of the feisty Lokayukta (an anti-corruption ombudsman) of Karnataka, Justice Santosh Hegde, for whom de Souza reserves the highest praise – the government set up the Justice M B Shah Commission. The commission submitted its report in 2012, detailing violations such as mining without licence, mining outside lease area and transporting minerals illegally. Throughout this period however, quieter forms of illegal mining appear to have continued in fits and starts, and by late 2015, full-scale mining was all set to resume. De Souza questions the familiar distinction made between legal and illegal mining in Goa, showing how at the end of the paper trail, permissions and leases are prone to manipulation and corruption, and at the other end, mining by stealth or mining beyond the permissible limits is carried on even within putatively legal operations.

The distinction between safe and unsafe mining is one that the book completely rejects, taking as it does, a firmly anti-mining position for the long-term environmental and human costs that it involves. It quotes the report of the Centre for Science and Environment, which states unambiguously that if all the iron ore projects submitted for clearance since June 2007 are cleared, “55 million tonnes of waste will be generated every year”, an amount that is practically impossible to dispose of without causing significant damage to the farms, forests and hills, not to mention the water sources, whose alarming deterioration the book records.

Water and mining
The story of water in Goa in the time of mining bubbles through the book like a ‘silent spring’, to use the title of the pioneering 1962 book on environmental science by Rachel Carson. Perhaps these are the most agonising stories of all in the book – accounts of the damming of freshwater springs, the colossally wasteful pumping out of water from the mines when the bulldozers hit the water table, the drying up of ponds and creeks due to damming and diversions. One passage recounts the awe-inspiring force with which water gushed out of the earth when the mining equipment reached the source of a spring, becoming a terrifying spectacle – “Setting this particular long-dormant aquifer free was like watching a frightened leopard being chased into an open ground by poachers” – until it slowed down to a trickle, and finally stopped altogether a few days later.

De Souza captures the epic nature of this battle between mining and water. Water is the biggest enemy of miners, flooding shafts, slowing down the process and frustrating efforts for weeks on end. But this battle too, even without help from humans, will soon be won by the mining industry. We are given multiple examples of the irreparable loss to water sources in Goa. At the end of his work, de Souza recounts a trip with his children to a revered hill in 2009, one that they had climbed with delight decades earlier, and one that used to be awash with water fed by an underground aquifer:

Where the kids and I had halted, the water had stopped. There was no ribbon of water falling. The large rock that Zuri thought looked like a small elephant was just a big, hot and very sad rock – dry water marks running all the way down its sides to the bedrock, almost as if they were delicately painted tears. The pool that we dunked our heads in wasn’t even a foot deep… As if placed on one of the rocks for me to find was the splayed skeleton of a frog, the front bare and bleached, and the skin on its back dehydrated and crumpled. I dug among the stones and found nothing else. How do fish and frogs come this high anyway? What’s the terror like when they know they can’t get back to fresh water?

A dead frog. What meager argument for preservation, the developmentalists will say. De Souza’s work is only another example, however, of how the distance between the poor, exposed frog and the robust, insulated human is not that great. Thus this book about mining is also about politics, communities, wildlife, culture, and perhaps most unusually, about caste and tribe in Goa – about the inter-connectedness of these fields of life.

A section in the book delves into the Gavde tribal ancestry of the author, noting the hierarchies that persist within the Catholic community between the Gavde and non tribal Catholics. It details the ambiguities and bittersweet cultural legacy of the Gavdes; one which draws on their pre-Catholic spiritual practices through institutions like the mands, or community spaces, even after embracing Catholicism. The mands are described by a Gavde person:

When paddy was harvested, the women would gather at their respective mands and perform the kannar khell or moraile, or dance the dhalo, fugdi, intruz, intrumez and zagor… After the sugarcane harvest, sometime during February or March, Gavde men celebrated intruz on the mand, preparations for which would begin a week in advance. During that week, it was customary to hear the beautiful sounds of the dholl, taxem, kasali, ghumot and madhali – all instruments we learned to play at the mand.

On caste, de Souza doesn’t flinch when naming the complicity of the Saraswat Brahmin elites, including Christian converts, who have dominated Goa’s politics, culture and economy, including the mining economy from the time of Portuguese colonisation. There is a chapter on the mining families of Goa, the most prominent of whom are Dempo, Salgaocar, and Timblo (all Saraswat Brahmins). The book also indicts the Catholic Church in Goa for keeping its eyes half closed to these hierarchies in an earlier time, as it turns away from confronting the emergency of mining-related damage in this time.

Unfractured love
There are some irritants that mar an otherwise excellent volume. On the side of form, a couple of quibbles. The author’s sister Cheryl, quite central to the narrative in the latter half of the book, is mentioned at the beginning without a proper introduction, which keeps the reader guessing as to her identity well into the story. The blurb on the back cover is somewhat tackily written and doesn’t do justice to the soulful, hard-hitting power of the content. And on the question of politics, de Souza’s position requires further elaboration, since it is not substantiated in the book. There are scattered references through the narrative to what de Souza finds to be the well-meaning, but ultimately inadequate, interventions of Claude Alvares’ Goa Foundation and his associates. This position is not entirely convincing. Petitioning is often the platform on which more direct action like civil disobedience and sit-ins can be built. De Souza himself admits that the anti-mining petitions of the Goa Foundation (currently under a clearly politically-motivated scrutiny of its funds by the present BJP-led government) helped the Justice M B Shah Commission.

Despite these quibbles, this is a work that needs to be grabbed and read widely. Everybody who is interested in the question of ecology in Southasia must engage with it. There will be reviews that will fault the highly personalised nature of the narrative, saying that it doesn’t befit such a serious issue. But it is precisely the personal in this book that gives it its force. Above all, Eat Dust is an account of how much, how deeply and how steadfastly one can love one’s land and roots, and how far that love is from a readymade, bargain-basement patriotism organised around hate and chest-thumping. It is ultimately a hopeful story, because it gently leads us back to that place of unfractured love.

~ Sunalini Kumar teaches political science at LSR college, Delhi University and is currently visiting fellow at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

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