Having trekked several times to Paikdev’s spring to gulp water pouring out of the moss-covered iron mouth, one would think the mysteries of the journey would fade. But, if anything, they have become more poignant – sitting here at this shrine to the snake deity of the Velip community in the village of Maina, in Goa’s Quepem District. It is here, amidst thousands of hectares of rolling forests, in the foothills of the Western Ghats, home to countless perennial springs and streams, wildlife and more, that a strange conglomeration of mining companies, politicians and real-estate developers are sharpening their collective sword. These activities were already afoot a year ago, with mining operations systematically destroying forests, because, as the government in Panjim stated at the time, the iron ore was needed by New Delhi to keep its nine-percent growth rate on track. This year, the message is no different.
Last year too I trekked to Paikdev’s spring, halting at a curve on the highest hill before the slope leads down to his water, to view the brooding majesty of the dark, cloud-framed Ghats beyond Sulcorna. In the foreground, behind the government school at Maina, barely two kilometres as a bird would fly, I could see how the thickly forested hill I had earlier walked on had literally disappeared; in its wake was a huge pit, its daunting cliffs leading to dirty, muddied water at the base. Today, it is even worse. That same mining pit has rapidly increased in circumference. It is now barely 500 metres from the school, and the many bordering springs have been dammed lest more water flow into the cavernous pit below them.
As any mining engineer will tell you, the most significant obstacle to making profit is water. The deeper into the earth a mining operation burrows, the more aquifers it will burst and the more water it will draw from the surrounding sides. This water prevents the miners from getting to the ore, which is why significant work goes into diverting these flows. The water goes where it can – or, for reasons only a deity such as Paik would know, simply disappears. The monsoons, succour to Goa, are seen as a curse by miners, because even more water gathers in the pits. Come September, this water too is pumped out, but stained with the dirty blood of mining. Surrounding fields, naturally, die from the poisoning. The pits go as deep as the mining company wants; in Shirigao, not far from the mining town of Bicholim, the pit goes 30 metres below sea level. No shaman is needed to understand why every well in the adjacent village has today run dry.
Not far from the government school at Maina, the mining company has already killed the spring that supplied its perennial lode of water for the downhill watershed. It did this by dumping mining waste over the spring in order to create more parking spaces for their trucks. But in choking this flow of water, the miners deprived the Curca River, barely a kilometre away, itself handmaiden to the Kushawati flowing some six kilometres away, of a minor but important tributary.
The end result is always the same, and can be no other way. To get at the ore, you have to hack the trees, upend the earth, and do away with the vast aquifers that give Goans their water. After a mining company chokes the natural freshwater springs – as they have done at Maina, creating a swamp that will turn turbid and then, depending on how hot the sun is or the composition of the soil, thicken and eventually solidify – they will dig it up for the ore beneath. What water has soaked down below, to gather in a basin above the ore, will be just another tiny aquifer to be pierced. This is what is happening right now, as mining surveyors appropriate even more sources of freshwater, going by the simple truism that where there is water, there is ore beneath.
I recently witnessed a heart-rending sight. The miners know when they will hit an aquifer that may be above the ore. As they widen the mouth of the pit, extending it along one of the machine-made terraces, they spring such an aquifer free, letting it roar out, and channelling it away from the pit. The one I saw was a waterfall, a veritable tourist site; the explosive gush lasted more than two days before the aquifer depleted and died.
As the plunder continues, most Goans today are uncaring about what happens to the aquifers, learning how to reclaim land from water in the frenzy to put up and sell buildings. As if cursed by the same deities of water they show scorn to, in village after village along the coast where the traditional water sources have been tampered with – either covered by concrete, or contaminated by uncontrolled sewage, or both – Goans face water shortages. Today, water costs 12 rupees a bottle; tomorrow, maybe 20. Meanwhile, What to do? is the only refrain everywhere. Industries and real-estate projects have already killed the bulk of the springs on the Verna plateau, which fed the Sal River as it coursed past Margao south to the sea. Now, a water-bottling company has captured one of the springs on the plateau, on the northern side, selling water to Goans in the same villages that once drank deep and free.
Given the prices that the Kawrem fields fell to, or the vast tracts of surrounding forestland that have been grabbed and paid for in cash by politicians, not many give a chance to the government school in Maina. Next year – who can say? – the mining may cross the road adjacent to the school and gobble up the sugarcane fields. No knows how many aquifers will disappear below
I was recently in Maina with five actors, with whom we would develop a performance titled ‘For Mother Earth’. This was to be a month-long theatre residency that would result in an ensemble enactment of four poems, written by the scholar Uma Narayan, depicting the horrors of destroying the environment in the name of progress. The journey to Maina drew the usual exclamations of first-time visitors to this beautiful area – in the rains, it is nothing short of magical, and to five actors from Iran, Bombay, Delhi and even Margao (barely 40 km away), even more so. We entered Kawrem first, a village so beautiful it stops short even the most hardened city-dweller: a village from a storybook, cradled between thickly forested hills. The dwellings at the foot of the valley are shaded by mango, jackfruit, tamarind and guava, with areca-nut palms towering high above the tiled roofs. At the back of the houses, where the wastewater flows, are giant breadfruit, clumps of banana, and even fig. And layered down the slopes, below cashew plantations, fields growing two crops of rice a year are terraced one below the other, with brooks tumbling through them and racing each other to several ponds at the base.
Now that mining leases have become operational in the area, however, many in Goa already know what is in store. The high, sloping hill that borders Kawrem is but a magnificent façade for, beyond it, mining operations have already begun. The sight is bizarre beyond belief, if one is daring enough to climb beyond the screen and peer down at how rapidly bulldozers can mow down age-old trees, or how even more-monstrous machines can scoop out earth by the truckload, all the while flinging aside precious water.
All the same, many younger Goans are not docile; they are beginning to ask questions, including the young actors that had made the trip. This could certainly be seen over the course of our theatre workshop, also in the reactions of the audiences at the 30-odd venues we performed – some 5000 people in all, mostly those between nine and 20 years old. The revulsion that these viewers felt at what was being depicted led to lengthy post-show discussions.
For our part, the off-stage ‘research’ was just as important. The first rehearsal of our ensemble began with a trip to the paikeachi zor, or Paik’s spring, to drink his water and receive his blessings. And I take it as a great omen that the residency ends the same way it began, with another trek to the spring. This time, we also take with us several younger Goans who have seen our performances – 22 people in all. Starting out, we cross the old mining road, dating back to the last years of Portuguese rule, when the operation was discontinued. Along the way, one of our young companions takes pains to give me an elaborate argument on why Goa needs mining for its development and economic prosperity.
Her words remind me of how, after one of our performances, a student had come up to me and sheepishly admitted that her family had a mining lease in Quepem. Coincidentally, I knew the case. Her family possessed one of the accursed concessions granted by the Portuguese colonial government. Starting in 1961, the year Goans were liberated from the Portuguese, these same colonial mining concessions were ratified at the behest of Goa’s first chief minister, Dayanand Bandodkar, himself the owner of a flourishing iron mine. An incongruity surrounds this issue of mining concessions: How can colonial concessions, governed by imperatives that were exploitative from the very beginning, continue to hold good in independent Goa? Absurdly, the Portuguese lease owned by the girl’s family still has a chance of being ‘processed’ by the government, even though the land has been owned by a different party for the previous decade and a half, with some of it covering land officially notified as ‘forest’. As with everything else dealing with mining in Goa, once a lease has the necessary approvals there is no stopping the mining, even decades hence.
As a result of my dark reflections, we get gloriously lost on the way to Paik’s spring. I am clueless as to what lies ahead, when my son and I almost simultaneously say, “That way!” The water is barely a few hundred metres ahead – instead of skirting the last hill, we have climbed the length and depth of it.
At the spring, finally, everyone suddenly becomes silent. Eventually, one of the hikers, my young niece Aki, skips up to me. “It’s nice we are coming here often,” she tells me, “to see Paikdev’s spring before it disappears.” My son, Zaeen, standing close by and munching on a biscuit, is more sombre. The first time he came here he was incensed that the then-state government had sanctioned four crores to build a canal taking Paikdev’s water from the base of the Maina hill to the village downstream, and that the present government had sanctioned its drying up. “That’s dumb,” is what he said last time. This time, he’s more direct: “There’s no way to stop the mining company from doing this?”
“Sure, you can file a case in court,” I respond.
“Then you grow old with the case,” I reply, “while the mining company uses the law to give you the run-around while they take away the mud.”
How do you tell him that the law of the land has failed the environment? Every bit of the lands currently being ripped apart for mining purposes were, according to law, officially sanctified as forests as recently as 1980. “Think about it,” I tell him. “The law is what the law wants it to be. Supposing there’s a judge who has shares in a mining company, is he going to step down from a case against a mining company?”
“He should,” he responded.
Zaeen can be tenacious. “So there’s nothing to be done?”
“Of course there is,” I say. “You could block the road from the mine, like your aunt and grandmother and Aki here.”
“That won’t work,” Aki, who’s been listening, tells Zaeen. She’s tall for her age, and stands next to us like an equal. “First, all the truck drivers will make a circle around you and abuse you in Konkani, terrible things I can’t even tell you. Then they’ll go away and someone from far away, in the trees where you can’t see him, will throw a stone at you. Then another group of drivers, smelling of even more feni, will come and beat up the men. They pulled Robert’s hair and hit him on the head; they threw Kurush’s glasses off, pushed him to the ground, and kicked him the back.
All this time, the police will watch and do nothing.”
After a pause, she continues: “After the drivers who hit the men ran away, they put all of us in the back of the jeep, including granny. They tried to take granny’s hand but she hit them away, calling them devils for letting the water be taken away. Then they’ll take you to the police station at Quepem. There the big inspector will shout at you like he shouted at mummy, that he’ll teach her a lesson she’ll never forget. Then they’ll put you in Aguada jail and write a long complaint.”
Zaeen is not done yet. “Are you saying nothing can be done?”
“From what I’ve seen so far, yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. If the law is allowing this to happen, what do you expect to do?”
“Not even blocking the road and going to jail?”
“Especially that! Everyone will support you in spirit and you’ll end up like Aki’s grandmother, cursed by having to go to the Quepem court, to face endless criminal charges filed against her by the mining company.”
On the way back it starts to rain, hard. And we get lost again, this time so badly that we retreat multiple times in the face of thick undergrowth and tree cover. When the rain slows to a drizzle, I am leading ten yards in front of the group, and suddenly come to a drop – where the mining company has eaten away a full hill of Kawrem. The rain slows, the sky brightens and a breeze blows away the mist, and from the middle of the cavernous mining pit we see two huge canopies of blue plastic covering the ore. Then, the same young girl who earlier defended the mining says, “It’s sad that the forest just ended there, suddenly. Then that blue plastic, so ugly after this colour –” pointing to the trees around.
After the experience of seeing the majesty and darkness of a forest’s womb, the open pit has clearly come as a shock to her. A bright sparkle of tears burst in her eyes.
“This is mining?” she asks.
“This is mining.”
I leave her to cry.
~ Hartman de Souza is a theatre director, teacher and writer who is now involved in the movement to save the Western Ghats.