As mining activities in Goa slowly pick up after a 19-month ban was lifted in late 2014, the sector is waking up to a new reality. Sections of tribal communities in new mining areas are no longer willing to stay silent and accept the small payouts they get for crop damage. Instead, they are gearing up for an economic and political challenge to the groups that have traditionally controlled mining extraction and transportation.
In the small tribal village of Caurem in Sanguem, an overt challenge has spilled over onto the streets in the past month. In mid-March, five young tribal leaders of the Caurem Adivasi Mukti Sangram mobilised the village to block the transportation of ore – auctioned online – that was moving out from mines in the area.
Under Supreme Court guidelines, ore deemed as illegal had to be auctioned and its proceeds retained by the state in a separate fund. As the bidding company prepared to transport some 73,000 tonnes of auctioned ore from a mining site aided by a transport contractor from another village, trouble broke out in the scenic hamlet that partly still relies on rice, vegetable and chilli produce from nearby fields.
Caurem village had lived with the horrors of unregulated mining in the boom years of 2008- 2012. There were frequent protests even during that period, as trucks carrying ore lined up bumper-to-bumper and gridlocked village roads, marooning the village and choking its inhabitants and their crops in red dust.
But much has changed since then. Cut to 2016 and group of aware tribals started a campaign to assert and leverage forest rights as per the law. Since 2014, the group has also been trying to register the Sadhana Multipurpose Co-operative Society, through which they planned to run mining operations under the collective aegis of the village and distribute its benefits.
“The primary thing is that these new mining areas have seen the devastation caused to villages in the old mining belt,” said Abhijit Prabhudesai of the Rainbow Warriors, an environmental group backing the ambitious idea.
However, despite the formation a co-operative society being a basic right, the Registrar of Co-operative Societies has refused to register the society for months on end.
The group moved the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court in this regard. The matter has been referred to the Administrative Tribunal, where it is due to come up on May 2.
“Have you heard of authorities refusing to register a co-operative society anywhere in India when then are 260 members in it?” asked Prabhudesai. He blamed entrenched interests such as traditional mine lessees and politically connected transport and mine contractors for blocking the co-operative society. “The moment a co-operative society is formed in one village, other villages will also try the same experiment to take charge of mining operations in their areas,” said Prabhudesai. “And hence Caurem is being blocked.”
Subhash Phaldesai, the local legislator from the Bharatiya Janata Party and a former transport contractor in the area, said that the idea of a co-operative is unworkable as contractors require startup capital to operationalise and manage the sector. He also argued that the co-operative format does not work for running a business of that nature.
Irrespective of the feasibility of their endeavour, the Caurem tribals have been tenacious. On March 23, the co-operative’s promoter and movement leader Ravindra Velip was allegedly assaulted in judicial custody by unknown persons. The matter snowballed into a major controversy. A fact finding team has expressed horror that the police have yet to file an FIR, even as reports by a government inquiry committee suggest that no assault took place within the jail premises.
The local legislator told the media that his political opponents were stirring up trouble to force an altercation, suggesting that other tribal politicians were looking at wresting the seat in a segment that has a 50% tribal presence.
In April, Caurem villagers have continued to block transportation amid frequent face-offs with the local police.
Velip, the tribal leader, also alleged that government authorities were colluding with mining firms to move out non-auctioned ore from the sites, without proper on-site monitoring and weighing to ascertain quantity.
Inadequate mining site monitoring of ore quantities was one of the factors that led to the massive multi-crore mining scam and industry closure from 2012 to 2014.
The allegations and media spotlight led Goa Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar to halt transportation for a day last week to ascertain the facts.
The mining company and the local legislator have hit back with a smear campaign, singling out Velip in sections of the media. They have accused him of accepting Rs 23 lakh from a mining company in 2012 and seeking the transport contract for himself.
Velip was left with the ignominy of providing his bank statements to the media to prove he had accepted and distributed crop damage compensation money as the leading negotiator for farmers, whose fields were rendered uncultivable from ore runoff in 2012.
“They are trying to break the movement, single me out and malign me by saying that I want the contract personally,” Velip told Scroll.in. “This is not true. I have demanded that the village co-operative society be given the transport contract so that we jointly benefit since we are in any case bearing the health and environmental brunt.”
As the establishment pushes back and ore moves out through Caurem under police protection, the red dust has not yet settled on this skirmish.