RAPE: Rapid Assessment Pauperised Environment

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Published: Mon, 04/05/2010 - 10:15 Updated: Thu, 04/22/2010 - 12:42

So why are they ravaging the pristine landscape of fruits, crops, springs and waterfalls in the Western Ghats, violating every law of the land? And who will smash this perverse nexus of politicians, administrators and mining companies?
Hartman de Souza Asniye (Maharashtra) and Margao (Goa)

While a ridiculous debate - whether mining in Goa is legal or not - continues, and mining magnates and their close friends in the government and administration bulldoze Goans into believing that destroying forests, water and selling the mud beneath to China is in their best interest, spare a thought for 14 villages just across the border in neighbouring Maharashtra.

Darpi, Phukeri, Kunshi, Tambolim, Kesri, Otawane, Bawlat, Danoli, Bilawada, Zolambe, Talkat, Dongorpal, Asniye and Kalne. These are their names and you must remember them because soon, say another three years after the government of India has gifted them to Goan-based mining companies, and their surrounding hills and forests have disappeared in a huge cloud of red dust, they will return to haunt you in the form of summers that turn hotter by the year, air-conditioners that don't work because of power cuts, expensive 'designer' taps attached to pipes that have run dry, tankers which bring in water to wash your limousines and fill your swimming pools and spray your golf courses. They may even come back in the form of armed guards standing watch over sources of drinking water. 
Pay even closer attention to the last three-named hillside hamlets on the list above, namely, Asniye, Dongorpal and Kalne. Why these three you ask? 

Because the future seems over for these three villages if the ministry of environment and forests in New Delhi accepts 14 farcical permissions to mine that await clearance. The gigantic hill that once sheltered Kalne from the fierce post-noon heat just after Holi has already fallen to a mining company. The giant bulldozers and shovels, the mammoth trucks with double sets of rear wheels, look like ants, such is the height at which this ecocide is taking place; the more famous orange-painted Tata dumpers look like aphids scurrying around. 

This is destruction in progress. Kalne has just begun operations and what is taking place before one's eyes could be referred to as 'preparing the ground'. Chronicling this is not easy if you have a soft heart.

The forest on the hill is first bulldozed and the trees disposed of. There are many ways to do this, some ingenious enough to involve pliant forest authorities in their sale and some as crude as just burying them under truckloads of mud. This too is not difficult. One merely shoves the trees, roots and stumps and all into the plain or foot of the valley, and covers them with a few thousand truckloads of the topsoil beneath, then cover this too with the laterite scree well below that, as truck by truck, a waste dump is created and the mining engineers get at the dark, almost black lode of ore. 

Unfortunately, for the 14 villages in this area, this is also where are to be found the area's traditional orchards of mango, jackfruit, cashew, guava, and chikoo, and where, thanks to an abundance of water, local inhabitants have been traditionally growing two crops of rice a year for a few centuries, using the surplus created by agricultural produce to live, have children, own houses and land, be able to trade and even have aspirations. More importantly though, by their own admission, inhabitants here are contented, and at peace with their ways of life and the unmeasured pace that accompanies this. 

It is villages and dwellings such as these, in a huge tract of land that passes down the eastern side of the Western Ghats in Goa and, now, into 14 villages in Maharashtra, where hills and forests and water have been and will be, legally appropriated, to leave behind dumps of dead mud adjacent to pits that in some instances go below the sea level, and where sources of water that seep there are pumped out to either wash trucks or filled in tankers to water roads to keep the dust levels down; where everyday life itself is and will be, covered in a thick sheen of fine, clogging red dust. 

What is conveniently ignored is that Goan mining companies seeking permission to mine in the Western Ghats, wish to do so in areas where human settlements have existed for a few centuries. The waste dumps created can be anything from 500 metres to a kilometre or so away from where the pit will be created. The creation of the pit itself is a mockery at two levels. 

The first, of course, heinous in the extreme, is the fact that in the name of 'economic progress and industrial development', heavy machinery can be used to make suppurating wounds on the face of the earth, that, as compelling evidence clearly shows, have never been healed. The other is that in doing this, the mining operation crudely mimics the methodology of a farmer who terraces the slopes of a hill to create fields and orchards, who, in doing so, reveres water and works with this element so that it remains in abundance, if not grows. 

The extremely converse is true in a mining pit where terraces are made so that two dumper trucks can pass each other, where the pit lures water only to pump it out so that the ground below is dry enough to get at the ore. Wags in Goan bars - and there are quite a few of them in the mining areas, both wags and bars - have their own take on just how deep mining pits can go. They should just keep digging, they say, in between sips, then soon the pit will be deep enough for them to come straight out in China!

In Kalne right now the ground has been prepared so well, we are actually watching the slaughter as if the hill there was just the neck of a goat. The trucks leaving the mine, moving towards Banda and then, to Bicholim in Goa and onto a platform where the ore will be tipped into barges, are few in number right now because the pit is only just being opened. The trucks have no permission to haul the ore through Goa. So powerful is the greed to be a mining magnate and own your own helicopter that one can afford to ignore all public complaints and protests from people affected by mining.

Just before the rains arrive in another two months, rest assured that there will be convoys of trucks going into the mine, all the way to the bottom, and climbing out on carefully moulded terraces. All mining pits are progressively widened and made deeper. In the first year of operation, in a mine like Kalne for instance in Sawantwadi Taluka, or Cavorem in Quepem Taluka, trucks drive up the hill from the main road below; in the third year of operation, the hill long gone, trucks on the same road, drive down into the mine. 

What links the 14 villages in this area is the range of hills within which and on whose steep slopes they exist. Driving into Asniye, Dongorpal and Kalne, for instance, coming in from the plain on which Banda sits, is no indication at all for the almost magical discovery of these hamlets, where the people revere the existence of water with such belief that they seem blessed with knowing they are content. In perfect consonance with each other, with local legislation that is village-centred and far from acrimonious, they have traditionally 'recycled' the hills where cashew, mango and jackfruit orchards have not been already planted in recent years. 

It is a time-honoured tradition, clearing and burning undergrowth and cutting some trees for produce, to plant cash crops, then, after some years, leaving that to regenerate for some years and moving to another part of the hill to cultivate. They may cut a few hundred trees, but in ten years, such is the presence of water and fertility of the soil, the trees are back, sprouted from the same root and the villagers are already planting elsewhere. Each of the 14 hamlets is at the foot of a valley, on the sides of the gentler slopes,
 surrounded on either side by this immaculate range of hills that threads them. As one enters Asniye, for instance, one skirts a hill high enough to shield you from the village itself. From the top of this hill, going down in third gear, is a slope steep enough and bending left that forces you to change down to second gear and brake cautiously, and not without the sense that some mystery lies ahead. 

You enter a valley where the light itself, even though coming to mid morning, is gentle enough to make you catch your breath. The bright, almost luminescent green of rice ripening in the hot sun either side of the road, is tempered with the lushness and shade of areca nut plantations dense enough to block out the sun, and between them, beyond them, other fruit trees -  wide fronds of breadfruit leaves; the small, juicy, glistening ones of kokum - and between these the villagers of Asniye calmly announcing themselves with the tiled roofs of their simple but spacious dwellings, each awash with the red and pink of hibiscus, the fierce orange of marigold. 

If you stop at the tea shop at the entrance to Asniye, at the base of the hill that will climb right through the village, facing the valley and hills that fence off the horizon and keep in time, you feel water around you. You can feel it in the air, sense it, smell it, and even taste it on your tongue. 

Thirteen hamlets other than Kalne would have gone unnoticed from all but the Goan mining companies had it not been for the Applied Environmental Research Foundation (AERF), Pune (www.aerfindia.org) which have undertaken exhaustive studies mapping the bio-diversity of these hamlets, and among other things, studying the patterns, use and conservation of water, identifying 'sacred groves' in the area, and, frankly, learning from the villagers their agricultural practices and traditions that many now know are far more respectful of the earth. 

Quite recently too, a group of teachers and students from a well-known institute of architecture and environmental studies in Mumbai also discovered what 'development' translates into when a greedy government and the mining industry get into the act. This entire corridor of hills falls under the project area of the proposed Sahyadri Ecologically Sensitive Area, a project, ironically for Goans, that abbreviates to SESA, and which is, quite shamelessly, sponsored by the ministry of environment and forests, New Delhi!

If one considers that these ghats and their thick forests and water resources course down through six states on the western side of this country, traversing north to south, with an equal number of ghats in states on the eastern coastline also branching off further south, at the cusp of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, it is no wonder these make for one of the major ecological hotspots of the world, and the gateways, let us never forget, to both monsoons.  

In all this lies a truism. That mining companies go where the ghats are at their steepest, flowing outwards like bolts of rich cloth adorned with forests and sheltering water in their folds. Below the aquifers, as any idiot will tell you, lies the ore, or the bedrock that keeps the water from disappearing into vapour. 

In studying Asniye as a human settlement, the young architecture students from Mumbai discovered 28 perennial springs and other water bodies that make the watershed. AERF knows of 68 such resources of water. Students discovered, that just as in Goa, the forests are community-owned, and that Asniye has 2 deorai, or sacred groves, protected and managed by villagers. If that is not all, the villagers in this area have been reporting sightings of 'patteri' tigers, a fact that just as in Goa, forest authorities have steadfastly refused to take seriously.  

What AERF and others do know now is that a Goan mining company (read Dempo), as early as September 2008, submitted a farcical Rapid Environment Impact Assessment and Environment Management Plan for Asniye. A laboratory based in Hyderabad with a shop recently opened in Goa, prepares these reports at the hit of a cursor. The first report, blatant in its untruth, was actually rejected! Unlike in Goa, mining in Maharashtra is not governed by a colonial dispensation. In Asniye, the villagers let their grievances be heard, and the panel issuing such approvals to mine, were left with no option other than veer on the side of caution. 

The mining company, not to be outdone, submitted a new report in February 2009. Such reports abbreviate among mining companies and the ministry to REIA or Rapid Environment Impact Assessment. Many want this to abbreviate to RAPE, or Rapid Assessment Pauperised Environment. 

The new report mentions some 28 springs, the actual existence of the village and a list of plants and bio-diversity, but still proposes mining in the same area with mitigation measures and what is actually called an 'Environmental Management Plan'. The company claims the report was prepared by environmental planners, scientists, biologists, geologists and 'technical' experts. Everyone has found serious problems with many of the recommendations and mitigation measures.  

Here is a small sample that got everyone shaking their heads in disbelief, wondering who was more dangerous, the venerable MoEF supporting an environmental initiative in the area and charged with protecting our forests and water, or the mining company intent on taking away the trees for the mud:

"For existence of living things, water is the most important commodity," the report states, "accordingly provisions have to be made for water holes, check dams, and gully plugging in order to provide drinking water to the faunal population. During the lean period, water will be provided from the Terekol river by pump and underground supply pipes to smaller ponds in the forest. The pond should be lined with polythene sheet to stop leakage of water stored in it." This in a village where the students found the water table so lush, the village has no need for wells! 

See what the wildlife experts making up the report had to say: "In general, wildlife is devoid of food with salt content. In order to have good health of fauna, salt licks have to be made next to watering holes etc." 

After turning village communities into ramshackle human habitations totally governed by the detritus of mining operations, red dust, grease, roads filled with trucks that spew dust, and a floating migrant workforce doomed to travel from one mining operation to the other, leaving behind ruination that no one has ever repaired, the report states: "The mine management will conduct social awareness camps for education, addiction, health and hygiene etc in nearby villages on a regular basis. The information about malaria eradication, HIV/aids awareness and prevention etc and the importance of proper sanitation health and hygiene etc will be conveyed to the people." 

In actual fact, unlike villages that fall to mining, there is no consumption of alcohol in Asniye. Unlike Goa, villagers collect the nuts from the cashew and let the fruit rot and fertilise the earth. Villagers give high importance to issues of health, hygiene and cleanliness. Most are already aware of HIV and malaria and insisted they do not need any welfare or awareness programmes to add to the local government facilities which are excellent to say the least. They were unanimous in saying that mining would destroy the water resources and increase the risk of disease and illness. 

As always, the mining company in question, cash rich, did as they do in Goa in the name of 'industrial and economic development'. They gave out the money to make even more money. Close to 30 per cent of the village land therefore has already been procured, the company taking full advantage of a rural population, in most cases not mentioning mining and in almost all cases targeting the male population with figures of what they could earn owning or driving a truck.

In this sordid tale, the larger picture is even more frightening for rural populations in both Goa and Konkan Maharashtra. The ghats, in which the people of Asniye lead their contented everyday lives, are crucial to the watershed for the entire coastal belt of Sindhudurg district in Maharashtra and an integral part of the catchment of the Terekhol river. 

Just three days ago, on a bright Saturday morning, between 11 and 12.30, when the sun was at its fiercest, history may have been made in Asniye, on the ground opposite their stately panchayat office, not far from the primary school and local health centre. Close to 400 men, women and young people, dressed in their best, came to attend a so-called 'public hearing' - the forum where mining companies cursorily present their Rapid Environment Impact Assessment and Environment Management Plan before officials from the State Pollution Control Board, who then act as couriers for the mining companies who have already paid for and bought their so-called 'environment clearances'. 

History was not in the fact that the 'public hearing' was cancelled and that neither the local government nor administration informed of the same. This is par for the course when it comes to mining. Already, political big-wigs, regardless of earlier affiliations and even so-called ideological divides, have rushed in to ally themselves with the mining companies in Konkan Maharashtra and take a share of the obscenely huge profits to be made from iron ore. 

No, history is in 400 men and women braving the hot afternoon sun and shielding their eyes to listen to local village leaders elected by them, representing their best interests. They took a decision that ought to impact hugely on those in Goa and New Delhi who stubbornly refuse to see the dust and destruction of mining and its murderous accompaniment - the total displacement of people, their livelihoods and their histories. 

All 14 villages in this ecological corridor joined forces in mid-March, 2010, and issued what ought to be now known as 'The Asniye Declaration'. Down to the last person, regardless of the few who sold out, none of the villages want mining to take place. If need be, they said, they would sit on the roads and physically block them. The declaration noted that since the villagers already opposed mining tooth and nail, there was no need to have a 'public hearing' to discuss the issue further. 

There is a perversity in Goa that one must deal with. Mining operations in some cases are barely a few kilometres away from villages where a few hundred mining trucks are parked for the night, and where the impact is being felt even as this is being written, and yet, what madness can grip a population to do this? In Goa, in the mining areas, as soon as the money comes in, truck drivers break down their old houses and build news ones, sometimes going a story up. 

This is the story in the length and breadth of mining country, people building new houses to show their new-found status and standing witness to how, they, their children and their dwellings can be covered by dust. Will this be the case with Asniye and the hamlets in the Western Ghats as they course through Konkan Maharashtra? 

At the last hill where the road climbs ever higher to leave Asniye is the temple of the village deity, charged with protecting Asniye and surrounded by one of the sacred groves that the village reveres. Below this temple, where the dwellings that make up Asniye themselves wend like a river, flow most of the 68 springs that give the village its magnificent watershed. Right down this hill on which the local deity presides, course a series of man-made channels taking water to each house, each interlinked by nothing more than a flat stone used to open and lock water for use.

 Villagers in Asniye never walk in this water with their slippers on. One can venture that no people who inhabit the Western Ghats, who live there, who work with the land, would fail to venerate the presence of water. In Goa, in village after village that is blessed with an abundance of water, mining, real estate and tourism-related projects have been, and are, destroying traditional water sources and bodies. 

Is this the same fate that awaits the 13 other villages neighbouring Asniye? 

It may be that in all the villages in the Western Ghats, there is a mythology surrounding the grandeur of a local deity and how protection and blessing for the village is made manifest in water. Asniye's temple and sacred grove is thick with trees whose branches sway, awash in colours of various shades - many kinds of green, some trees that begin with tender leaves that first turn pink and then change to bright red, others with leaves that have already turned a deeper red and many still covered in gold sheen. 

Above this is Asniye's main and largest hill, on the toe of which, westwards, towards the mining operation in Kalne, will come the Dempo-owned mine. On this same hill behind the temple, beyond a mammoth and sheer rock of granite, tucked into hills that are only a six kilometre trek away from the famous Ambolim Ghat, is a waterfall that makes up Asniye's myth. 

Except of course that this myth is based on a fact; in the months of mid- April and May villagers living close to the temple will tell you, while springs in the area lower their levels, this waterfall gushes even stronger. What they may not tell you, is that as soon as the Dempo mine begins operation that same waterfall will revert to what is commonly referred to as 'myth', the telling of a story of what used to be...

So why are they ravaging the pristine landscape of fruits, crops, springs and waterfalls in the Western Ghats, violating every law of the land? And who will smash this perverse nexus of politicians, administrators and mining companies?
Hartman de Souza Asniye (Maharashtra) and Margao (Goa)

Read more stories by RAPE: Rapid Assessment Pauperised Environment

This story is from print issue of HardNews