Sonshi village in Sattari taluka, Goa has about 53 households and a population of over 350 individuals, most of whom belong to the scheduled tribes category. They are the original settlers of Goa and are generally known as ‘Bhumiputra’ or ‘Gawada’ (Son of the Soil).
Vasudev Gawde is a 10-year old resident of the village who has not seen his father for more than a week. Like him, there are several others who fear that it will be months before they see their family members as forty-five villagers of Sonshi, including 22 women, are stuck in Goa’s Colval sub-jail since April 11.
A decade-long protest
Sonshi has been in a decade-long fight against hazardous iron ore mining from all sides of the village, polluting its air and contaminating its drinking water.
The protest took a fresh turn on April 11 when 250 trucks filled with mine extracts on its way to the port were blocked by a human chain formed by villagers. The police put 45 of them behind bars for unlawful assembly and criminal intimidation.
All 45 have been granted bail, but remain incarcerated as none of their families has the Rs 10,000 bail amount imposed on each of them.
A complaint was filed by Advocate Aires Rodrigues with the Goa State Human Rights Commission on Tuesday which highlights the fact that over 350 inhabitants of Sonshi have been denied fresh air and water for the past few months due to the ongoing mining ore transportation.
Referring to a Supreme Court order of 2000, he mentioned in his complaint that access to clean drinking water is a fundamental right of life and it is the duty of the state under Article 21 to ensure the same.
Currently, two companies Fomento and Vedanta Sesa Goa Iron Ore have 7 mining leases between them, with trucks plying iron ore through Sonshi to the port limits.
On April 11, the villagers had blocked the road, standing in the formation of a human chain to prevent 250 trucks filled with mine extract to pass through the village on its way to the port. This was the first active protest against extensive mining activities permitted by the state.
The villagers were asked to relocate to Honda nearby, but they rejected the suggestion on grounds that Sonshi belongs to them and they have the right to reside in the village.
The 45 individuals who were jailed last week remain in behind bars as they neither have the money to pay off their bail amount, nor do they wish to be released till their demands are met and the bail amount is reduced.
The condition of the village
Surrounded by mining activity on all sides, Sonshi is starved of water as the only well in the village has dried up after the mining began. The water table in the village has depleted and in some places gone completely dry. Where there is availability, the water remains heavily polluted with mining reject. Incidentally, mining corporations provide water to the village however, only once a day which is barely enough.
Speaking to The Logical Indian, activist and the panch (head) of Caurem village Ravindra Velip said that 1,200 trucks nearly make 16,000 trips every day through the village road. A truck passes through every three seconds or less, amounting to 25-30 trucks every minute.
Dust from iron ore extract has caused breathing problems among the villagers, with parents of most of the children enrolling them in schools outside Sonshi. The village school that once had 40 students, now only has eight.
“The villagers are suffering from tremendous dust pollution which makes it impossible to live,” said Velip.
Their houses, water sources, food, lands, cultivation are so heavily polluted by dust that they need to wash their homes at least thrice every day and there is no clean place to even dry washed clothes. The food that they consume is contaminated, their water sources have disappeared and their health is adversely affected, with villagers falling sick every 15 days.
Demands of the villagers
Mining around the periphery of the village has adversely affected the livelihood of its population. The crucial demands of the villagers include an ambulance and basic health facility, supply of clean drinkable water twice a day, jobs for their men, and rerouting of the trucks.
Activist Ravindra Velip further elaborated on the demands of the villagers:
- Immediate release of all 45 villagers under judicial custody without any charges or criminal action.
- To stop the illegal mining taking place under the guise of implementation of Supreme Court order.
- Take urgent steps to setup an inquiry into the large-scale excavation of minerals and transportation and the role of the authorities and take stringent action against those involved in breaking the law.
- To immediately implement the directions issued by Hon’ble Supreme Court to control the Air and Water pollution in Sonshi village and the directions of the Director of Transports and other authorities for regulation of movement of trucks, control of air and noise pollution, to provide relief for school children and clean drinking water to the local residents.
- Safeguard the tribals and save the tribal village of Sonshi which is heading towards extinction by ensuring their water and food security, especially for the future generations and by protecting their economic and social rights.
- To ensure that the villagers are treated with respect and their rights are not suppressed by the police and other authorities, even if it requires reducing the mining operations.
“The idea is to force the villagers to move out of their ancestral village so that illegal mining activity can go on unhindered. Some villagers have already fallen prey to this and have moved out of the village. These conspiracies and actions are in violation of Sec 3 (1) (g) of the Tribal Atrocities Act,” said Velip.
The April 11 protest was not the first instance of agitation by Sonshi adivasis. Last year, they had appealed to the mining corporations the same things they are demanding now: a regular supply of drinking water, playground facilities for children, employment of the villagers, a monthly compensation, clean gutters and trenches, street-lights, etc. However, any action is yet to be taken.
In March 2016, over 100 villagers from Sonshi were taken into preventive custody because they prepared to block trucks carrying iron ore extracts for e-auctioning. This year again, when the villagers tried to block the trucks that have turned their homes into a living hell, they were taken into custody with the total bail amount as high as Rs 4.5 lakh.
“Mining was banned Sonshi. In 2012, the apex court had suspended all mining operations in the state. However, the order was revoked in 2014. The state government is apathetic to the loss of livelihood of the villagers as iron ore extraction is largely profitable,” said Velip.
Mining has disrupted Sonshi in such a drastic manner that the village has lost its potential for agriculture and horticulture, claim environmentalists. With fertile lands turned into barren spaces, the villagers are forced to make their living as daily wage labourers.
The 45 villagers in custody have refused to sign their bail bonds as they neither have the money, nor do they believe Sonshi has anything left to return to. In this respect, senior Goa minister Vishwajit Rane said that the villagers are being “misguided” as someone is “provoking them.”
Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar has assured the villagers that necessary future course of action will be taken to solve this issue. Despite that, the villagers who have no livelihood left and have been asked to pay a bail of Rs 10,000 each for a peaceful protest.
The government needs to implement stricter regulations to limit mining operations. There should be regular monitoring by the Directorate of Mines and Geology and the Goa State Pollution Control Board. It is essential that trucks are rerouted and ordered to no longer pass through the village.
Mining in Sonshi has not only polluted its air and water resources, but the immense noise generated from the operations have made life difficult for the residents.
The Logical Indian urges the state government to take immediate actions in this regard and also set free the 45 villagers stuck in jail.