Although annual school exams are around the corner, homework or preparing for the series of tests is the last thing on the mind of 10-year-old Vasudev Gawde of Sonshi village, literally a speck in North Goa’s dusty mining belt. Gawde as well as more than a dozen other minors are awaiting the release of their parents from incarceration. They were among the 45 people arrested on April 11 for protesting against dust pollution caused by the transportation of iron ore in trucks, the paucity of water due to mining in the village’s vicinity, and an ore transportation jetty several kilometres away. “There is too much dust in the area. Coming and going to school is very difficult due to the movement of trucks. We want clean air and water… I am not afraid because my parents are in jail. They have done it for me,” Gawde told IANS. Last Sunday, Gawde was among 25 children who led a protest to the Valpoi police station demanding the release of their parents.
The incarcerated, including 23 women and one senior citizen, were arrested by personnel attached to the Valpoi police station and booked under various sections of the IPC. “We have to act as per the law. The company has a high court order which clearly states that nobody can stop them from carrying out mining activities in the area. This order was issued by the court after the company had complained against the villagers in 2014 when they tried to stop the trucks,” Valpoi Police Station in-charge Inspector Deepak Pednekar said.
While those arrested continue to languish at the Colvale Central Jail in North Goa, due to their collective inability to obtain bail by posting bonds of Rs 10,000 each, the Bombay High Court bench in Panaji has suo moto taken up the issue of their incarceration and ore dust pollution.
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The court has now directed the police to update it on the action taken against the villagers, while the Goa State Pollution Control Board has been asked to submit a report on pollution in the Sattari sub-district.
City lawyer and activist Aires Rodrigues has also filed a petition with the Goa Human Rights Commission (GHRC) seeking access to drinking water and clean air for the residents of Sonshi. “I have drawn the attention of the GHRC that the Supreme Court has held that the right of access to drinking water is fundamental to life and that there is a duty on the state under Article 21 of the Constitution to provide clean drinking water to its citizens,” Rodrigues told IANS.
But, amid the petitions, more urgent existential issues continue to plague the inhabitants of the village, mostly women and senior citizens of Sonshi. “There is no food in the house. My children keep on asking about their father. What should I do? First they took our land, then polluted our place. There has to be an end to this,” rued Geeta Nile, a housewife.
Iron ore mining has been one of the mainstays of the Goan economy, especially in the hinterland. The multi-billion rupee industry was banned for two years from 2012-2014 following a mammoth Rs 35,000 crore ($5.5 billion) illegal mining scam.
No major mining industry player has been arrested by the police, despite the Justice M.B. Shah Commission appointed — to probe the illegal mining scam — by the Union Mines Ministry indicting nearly every mining company operating in Goa, as well as top bureaucrats and politicians in the state’s largest scam ever.
While the industry was at its peak, Goa exported nearly 55 million tonnes of iron ore. Following the ban, however, the Supreme Court, which is hearing the illegal mining case, has imposed an annual ceiling of 20 tonnes on the extraction of iron ore.