Buried Under Red Dust: Sonshi Mining Destroys Lives and Livelihoods

As iron ore mining wreaks havoc around Sonshi, the village's residents’ rise to save their home.

Imagine going to school but not being able to hear any of the lessons. This is exactly what the daily reality is like for Vasudev Gaude and his friends. “Trucks pass by on all four sides of the school building and we can’t hear what the teacher says. There is dust all over the school. So we keep the windows of the classroom shut,” says the fourth standard student. They are all residents of Sonshi, a small village in the Sattari region of North Goa.

A mining ban in 2012 had brought a four and a half year-long respite to the people of Sonshi. But since it was lifted and iron ore mining resumed in late 2016, they have been living in a dusty, noisy and parched nightmare. Before the ban in 2012, Goa annually exported about 40% of the country’s iron ore exports. Officials, like the Bicholim District Collector Mahadev J. Araundekar, feel that the protesting villagers will be appeased if they are offered jobs by the mining companies. While it is true that youth from Sonshi harbour grievances against the mining companies for not giving them jobs, this is not the complete picture.

Without stringent regulations and monitoring, mining can be extremely hazardous to the environment. Inhalation of iron ore dust can cause serious respiratory ailment and pulmonary tissue damage leading to diseases like silicosis and siderosis. Further, depletion of water table and contamination of existing surface and groundwater is extremely likely in such cases.

“Earlier the rice from our fields would be sufficient for the entire year. Not anymore. If this continues we won't be able to live here.”

This is exactly what’s happening in Sonshi. The indigenous Gowde community is traditionally dependent on paddy and cashew cultivation. Runoff from the mines in monsoons has destroyed the fertility of their agricultural fields. Sandeep Gaude laments “Earlier the rice from our fields would be sufficient for the entire year. Not anymore. If this continues we won't be able to live here.” The ever-present patina of red iron ore dust is choking the cashew trees. In this situation, they are completely dependent on the munificence of the mines for basic services like provision of potable water as well as for earning a livelihood. Mines, touted by the government and officials as creating employment, are only destroying livelihoods and then stepping into that vacuum to provide a few jobs. Lack of monitoring and regulation means that not just the residents of Sonshi but even the workers in the mines and those operating trucks are suffering due to the profit hungry corporations’ unscrupulous exploitation of natural resources.

In April 2017, the residents of Sonshi got together and created a roadblock to prevent the trucks from passing to draw attention to their grievances. The police promptly arrested 45 protesters. Their incarceration and inability to pay around 4.5 lakh rupees in bail, finally made Sonshi front page news. They were released after thirteen days once the state Minister for Health stepped in and assured prompt action. The villagers continued agitation under young Adivasi leader Ravindra Velip soon started yielding results. All mining operations were stopped on April 28. After twiddling its thumbs for a month the Goa State Pollution Control Board finally declared that they were not going to renew the sanctions for 12 out of the 13 mines surrounding the village.

Velip and the people of Sonshi are tirelessly continuing their struggle, drawing attention to the numerous flagrant violations of mining norms laid down by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in 2014. But with powerful mega corporations like Vedanta being involved, they cannot succeed unless more and more people join in their struggle.

Article by Madhura Chakraborty

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