Goa is one of the smallest of the Indian states, and yet one of the most storied. The beauty of Goa’s natural landscape, and of its traditional homes and churches, the artistic and musical creativity of its people — these have all attracted hordes of foreign and Indian tourists to its shores.
But there is a darker side to Goa as well. Away from the beaches, the real estate sharks play havoc with the countryside, and the mining barons loot the dense forests that line the state’s eastern boundaries. Hartman De Souza’s book Eat Dust vividly describes the impact of unregulated and/or illegal mining in Goa — its destruction of hills, forests, rivers and springs, its undermining of the social fabric of rural communities, its physical polluting of Goa’s environment and its moral corruption of Goa’s political economy.
As Hartman De Souza relates, in the 1960s and 1970s mining in Goa was largely in the hands of four families. But as the business spread, ownership became more diversified. What remained constant was the patronage given to miners by politicians across parties. They provided the leases, and overlooked the environmental and social transgressions of mining lords, so long as they funded elections (and often lined pockets of individual politicians too). State leaders were given active support by politicians at the Centre (again across parties) who ensured that environmental clearances were given without any due process. One committee set up by the ministry of environment and forests in Delhi cleared 150 projects in Goa in a little over an hour.
Last week I visited Goa to study the situation at first-hand. I went first to the north, to the island of St Estevam, where a priest named Father Bismarque Dias lived. Father Bismarque had been campaigning against controversial development projects, including a special economic zone and a new airport, that would have adversely affected social cohesion and caused environmental abuse. He had also opposed the sale of large tracts of Church land to builders (for which brave act the Bishops had him defrocked).
In November 2015 Father Bismarque went missing. Two days later his decomposed body was found in the Mandovi River. Sitting in his home, speaking to his mother, brothers, and friends, I found that despite their grief the priest’s spirit still lived. Father Bismarque was a fine musician who used songs (sometimes composed by himself) to motivate villagers to protect their lands, their forests, their livelihoods. Banners with his photograph fluttered around the village, demanding that justice be done. In death, as in life, Father Bismarque embodied the struggle of decency and democracy against brutality and illegality.
From St Estevam, I drove to the south-east of the state, to the village of Cawrem, set amidst fields and forests. Here lives a young tribal activist named Ravindra Velip, who has been at the forefront of social protests against illegal mining. Last month, Ravindra was arrested and taken into judicial custody. The next day, with the evident complicity of officials responsible for his safety, he was blindfolded, gagged, and savagely beaten. He suffered multiple fractures, and might have been killed had his screams not brought fellow detainees to the scene, whereupon his attackers fled. Shockingly, the police even refused to file an FIR on this murderous assault.
In Cawrem I met Ravindra Velip, his arm in a sling. I also met with the villages, whose morale and resolve was intact, the women’s especially. The villagers of Cawrem argue that if mining is necessary, local co-operatives should be entrusted with the job, since they would take greater care not to damage the environment while retaining the proceeds within the community.
Afterwards I toured the mining areas. The devastation was horrific. Entire hillsides had been gouged out, the waste dumped in streams and ponds. In this lush, monsoonal, part of the world, where peasants had access to springs and streams to provide them all the water they wanted, mining had made unpolluted water so scarce that they had to import tankers. The social disruption was as grievous, with mining lords recruiting goondas to intimidate protesters, and the administration playing divide-and-rule, by offering trucking contracts to other villagers to provide them some sops.
In 2010, after the horrors of illegal mining had been exposed by social activists, the government of Goa appointed the Justice MB Shah Commission. The Commission found that the mining mafia had committed large-scale violations of forest, wildlife and pollution legislation. It estimated that the loss to the public exchequer owing to illegal mining was a staggering `35,000 crore. The report and the outcry it provoked compelled the government to suspend all mining in Goa in September 2012.
Sadly, the Goa government has recently permitted mining to re-start. As several studies have shown, mining provides massive profits to mine-owners, but merely short-term employment to the locals. It destroys both the village economy as well as social solidarity. And the environmental impact is colossal, unquantifiable in precise terms, but surely running into billions of rupees.
The attacks on Father Bismarque and Ravindra Velip are not new. Other social activists have in the past been targeted by the mining mafia in Goa, whose tentacles run deep into the political class, the police, the bureaucracy (and even the media). The Goan economy is increasingly based on greed rather than innovation, its political system based on cronyism and corruption. In such a political economy, elementary human justice as well as environmental sustainability inevitably get short shrift.
Although most Indian and foreign tourists may not know or care, something is very rotten in the state of Goa. The citizens of Goa know and care, since they see and experience it all the time.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India
The views expressed are personal