Ten-year-old Vasudev Gawde knows his family needs Rs 10,000 immediately if he is to see his father walk out of Goa’s Colval sub-jail. He is worried because he knows his mother does not have the money. It is a worry 44 other families of Sonshi village in Valpoi district are sharing since April 11.
Vasudev’s father is among 45 Sonshi villagers arrested a week ago on charges of unlawful assembly and criminal intimidation. The villagers had formed a human chain and stopped the movement of iron ore mining trucks through Sonshi, located 57 km east of state capital Panaji. The protesters were demanding an end to plying of mining trucks through their village road, cleaner air, water, and basic healthcare. All 45 got bail, but are stuck in jail because each needs to furnish a bond of Rs 10,000, and none of the families has the money.
The families of the 45 villagers have been gathering outside Valpoi police station every day since their arrest, demanding their freedom. Amid the uncertainty, they are certain they cannot raise Rs 4.5 lakh needed to get their villagers out.
“They have put my father in jail. I miss him,” said Vasudev, sitting in his class in Sonshi’s lone government primary school. He wipes away red iron ore-laden dust on his school desk and shirt. Red dust returned to the lives of Sonshi’s 75 families in October last year after mining work resumed following lifting of the Supreme Court’s ban on mining.
Now, the village is surrounded by mining activity on all sides and residents say they are starved of water. Sonshi residents are primarily opposed to trucks of a mining company taking their village road.
The man on whose complaint the police registered a case and arrested the villagers declined to comment on the developments in Sonshi and urged HT to speak to a senior official of the mining company. Contacted, the mining company official too declined to comment.
Incidentally, it is the mining company which supplies potable water to the village. “The only well in the area dried up when the mining began. Now, we store the water supplied by the company in tankers once a day in barrels, but it is not enough,” said Sonshi resident Sushila Gawde, 60.
“The dust here is bad. Our children have breathing problems every now and then. Our school had 40 students, but after mining resumed, many parents moved their children to another school 5 km away. Our school now has only eight children,” she added.
The April 11 protest was triggered by news that the mining company was getting 117 new trucks. “Every 20 seconds, three to four trucks pass the village, raising a cloud of dust. Imagine the kind of pollution we will face when 117 more trucks ply here,” said Sushila.
According to a police report, 900 trucks make nearly 4,000 trips a day through the village road.
On the arrests, the police say they acted in accordance with law. “We understand their grief, but have to act on complaints. The mining work is legal and they also have a high court order stating that villagers cannot stop them. The order came after the villagers made similar attempts in 2014 to stop their trucks,” said inspector Deepak Pednekar of Valpoi police station
“Pollution will remain no matter how many facilities one tries to bring to the village because it is right next to the mining area. The solution to the issue, which I have mentioned in my report to the government, is to find an alternative route to the dumping area so that the trucks can avoid taking the village road. But this will take time,” Pednekar added.
Sonshi residents have rejected a suggestion to relocate to Honda area nearby. “This is our village and we will not go anywhere,” said Geeta Nile, a housewife.
Most men in Sonshi are taxi drivers and say the mining industry does not throw up jobs for them. The villagers said they had pinned hopes on their legislator Vishwajit Rane, but he recently quit the Congress and as MLA, and joined the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Asked about the grievance of Sonshi residents, Rane said, “The chief minister (Manohar Parrikar) is taking this matter very seriously. I have come forward to help the villagers and told them I am ready to help, but they are insisting their demands be met. These demands cannot be solved alone. They need to involve the company’s management and take a call together. Also, it is not possible to fulfil their demand to stop mining in the area. Goa earns maximum revenue from mining.”
The Goa bench of Bombay high court on Monday took note of the arrest of the 45 men and sought a reply from the state government and the state’s pollution control board within 15 days.