After the Justice MB Shah Commission report, which exposed an alleged Rs 35,000-crore scam involving top mining companies, politicians and bureaucrats in Goa, iron ore mining and transportation was suspended from 2012 to 2014 in the state by order of the Supreme Court, the apex court of law in India (1). The mining ban was partially lifted in April 2014 by limiting yearly ore extraction to 20 million tonnes. However, the mining frenzy picked up in the last few weeks of 2016, as per locals. And with it, protests intensified against mining of iron ore and the subsequent transportation of ore laden trucks covering everything around the roadways in shades of red dust. In an interview in January, 2017, Tulshidas Velip, a Caurem resident told, "We will have to take to the streets again. That time is coming.”
The statement turned prophetic for villagers in Sonshi, who were arrested for demanding basic rights from the state and the mining companies, such as clean air and water, clean gutters and trenches, safe playgrounds for their children etc a few months later in April. Sonshi is an adivasi hamlet of Honda village in Sattari. It is inhabited by 60 families, and surrounded by six iron ore mines operated by Vedanta Ltd. and Fomento (2).
On April 11, 2017, the Goude adivasi community in the taluka took to the road to protest against pollution due to the non-stop movement of trucks loaded with iron ore in their area. They formed a human chain to obstruct trucks, due to which 45 of them – 23 women – were arrested and detained in Colvale jail.
Although bail was granted on 14 April, 2017 , the arrested villagers were not freed much longer. “They are lodged in jail because of a hefty surety amount of Rs 10,000 per arrested villager, which comes to a total of Rs 4.5 lakh,” said advocate Raviraj Chodankar, representing the villagers; an amount which the villagers didn´t have.
Other than the hefty amount, the arrested villagers also refused bail on princple, claiming that their demand for clean air and water was not a crime to have been arrested for in the first place.
This wasn´t the first protest by residents of Sonshi.
On February 22 last year, the affected families had, by way of a representation to mining firm Vedanta Ltd, highlighted the problems they faced due to mining activity in proximity to their residences. During a joint meeting with officials of Vedanta at Sonshi, the locals were assured an overhead tank for drinking water supply, free medical check-ups, supply of medications, and preference during employment. The mining firm also agreed to clean gutters and trenches within the village.
Based on the assurances given, transportation of ore was permitted throughout the season. However, villagers subsequently complained that no sincere efforts were made to fulfill most of their demands (4).
A month later, in March, over 100 people from Sonshi were taken into preventive custody as they prepared to block trucks carrying iron ore for e-auctioning, most of them women (3). This year again, on January 27, villagers tried to block the trucks again, but no heed was paid to them.
Hence the agitation of April, 2017 was done out of desperation.
On 20 April 2017, they were finally freed, after being jailed for more than 10 days, after Speaker Pramod Sawant and Health Minister Vishwajit Rane negotiated with the villagers (5).
Children have played a significant role in the protests since the arrest of their family members on April 11, 2017. A group of 25 children led a protest on 16 April, 2017 to the Valpoi police station demanding the release of their parents. 10 year old Vasudev Gaude said, ´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.´ (9) The protests have resulted in pressuring the state government to take actions due to heavy coverage by media, involvement of the opposition parties and involvement of the courts (6). A complaint was also filed to the Goa State Human Rights Commission on 18 April, 2017 highlighting that over 350 residents of Sonshi have been denied access to fresh air and water due to the dust pollution caused by the transportation of ore (7). Not only that, on 21 April, 2017 the Goa State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (GSCPC) declared that the basic human right of safe water, good health and sanitation were being denied to the children of Sonshi mining village in Sattari Valpoi, and asked the State government to look into the matter, after two members Sujata Bhatkar and Carmelina Franco visited the village to interact with the children (8).
What makes this so complex is that the villagers were employed before the mining ban by the mining companies. But now the situation has changed, and not only are they being denied access to clean air and water, but also either no employment opportunities or employment with a significant reduction in earnings. Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar reportedly asked miners in Sonshi to give business to trucks owned by village residents and control the pollution or face closure. “But then, I don’t want people to come to me complaining about no business and that their livelihood is affected and that they should be given grants,” he said. (6).
Following the protests, on April 19, 2017 Vedanta announced that there would be temporary diversion of the transportation of ore from the mines bearing TC Nos: 55/51, 110/53, 70/51, 5/54 , 6/55 & 16/55 bypassing the residential area of Sonshi village which shall join the public road at the entry/exit gate of TC No 16/55. (7) However, this became redundant when the Goa State Pollution Control Board (GSPCB) issued showcause notices on April, 28 2017 to 13 mining companies for causing significant air pollution in the vicinity of Sonshi, the companies being Sesa Goa Ltd (Vedanta Ltd), R S Shetye and Bros, Chowgule and Company Ltd, Cosme Costa and Sons, Geetabala Manohar Naik Parulekar, V G Quenim, Kunda R Gharse, Sociedade Timblo Irmaos Limitada, Kashinath Talulikar and Sociedade De Fomento Ind Pvt Ltd. The mining companies have been asked to give an explanation to the board within three days as to why the permission granted to it to operate the mines should not be revoked. (10) This was done after the Bombay High Court at Goa on 27 April, 2017 directed the State government to ensure supply of potable water to residents of Sonshi village as well as to come up with a solution to the pollution issue. (11) On May 5, 2017 the GSPCB decided to defer the renewal of mining lease until a report on the air quality is prepared. This was one week after GSPCB refused to grant 12 of the 13 mining leases consent to operate due to the severe dust pollution they had been causing in the region. (12) On July 8, 2017, GSPCB informed the high court of Bombay at Goa that half the ambient air quality monitoring (AAQM) stations show that the air pollution in Sonshi exceeds the permissible limit due to mining. A senior GSPCB officer said they have informed the court that the board cannot give consent to operate to mine for extraction as it does not monitor pollution level at mines. This can be considered as a success, but mining companies have requested that transportation may be stopped but they be allowed to carry out extraction. (13) The future remains uncertain still.