“Eat Dust! Eat Dust!”, chanted the villagers who had gathered in the Public Hearing by the Environment ministry on the environmental impact of a mining lease which was due to be extended. As they chanted, they tossed fistfuls of the crushed red earth in the air. They were enraged by the attitude of the governmental officials who were there to conduct the enquiry, which was blatantly in favour of the mining company.
Hartman De Souza documents, in vivid and visceral detail, the dismemberment of a hill, a culture, a people, in this book which the blurb calls “ at once travelogue, investigative report, and memoir”. I would also call it a requiem for a way of life which he and his children had enjoyed just a few short years before the mining boom hit Goa.
He also documents, in fair detail, the events, personalities, families, business and institutions which were part of the milieu, and how they all played a role in the decimation of the springs, fields, orchards and sacred spaces of the working classes – farmers, fisherfolk, labourers, and tribal communities of Goa – a Goa largely undocumented by the writers and tourists and new residents who are drawn by the heritage structures, beaches and tourism. The ancient composite culture of the locals, particularly the Scheduled castes, has been almost invisible, but Hartman documents it briefly, and writes of the existence of the local deity called Paikdev, whose temple, which felt more like a community hall than a temple, a cool and shady spot on the summit of a hill called Jollerancho Dongor, a deity who guarded the sanctity of water. Paikeachi Zor (Paik’s Spring), from which a small bubbling perennial brook started and ran down the hill , greeing it as it went. Hartman documents the history of the temple in an absorbing chapter and dredges up magical memories of trip he and his children made up the hill on summer some years ago.
“A football-kick” away from this was where Joaquim Alemao started his mining operations, and at the time of writing the temple was in the midst of a treeless dusty wasteland, surrounded by buildings. He records a brief exchange he has during a walk there, with a young girl whose family had a mining lease but hadn’t cashed in on it yet: ‘We trudged down the bare, heartless scree ….watching fat frogs drop into the many ponds, and picking our way across furrows left behind by the churning of truck tyres. Everyone saw themselves for what they were – a group of travelers within a lifeless crater. The girl didn’t look as confident as whe was that morning. A bright sparkle of tears burst in her eyes. “This is mining?” she asked me. “This is mining.” “This”? “This”. What would she say, I wonder, if she knew that barely a year and a half later, the barren slope we climbed down had become a 50-metre cliff.’
The book also documents the struggle of his sister and mother who organized a resistance against the rapacious mining companies, in the face of an indifferent Church, the violence of the security detail of the mining families, and the collusion of the very government staff who are duty bound to protect the mineral and forest wealth of the state against over-exploitation and loot. It records, in chilling detail, the machinations of the mining lobby, the politicians, and the journalists who play a peculiar form of musical chairs as editors of newspapers owned and run by the business interests in the state.
It reads like the script of a Hollywood film as it lays out the dramatic success of the motley crowd of idealists in appealing to the Supreme court, which banned mining in 2012. It even expressed a quiet joy at the regeneration of the soil and the forests even in the two years intervening.
But the Afterword, written in September 2015, barely hides a tone of quiet desperation as it writes of the restarting of mining based on a court order which took place in the third quarter of 2015. His bitterness at the proceedings though, finally breaks through. Playing the anti-hero, Hartman ends the afterword, and the book, with a short passage in which he imagines the diety Pakdev cursing the people whose actions have caused the destruction of his spring, his temple, his hills, and his people.
He broods at the realization that they can ‘legally’ take away the forests and the mud and the water. “There are some of us left with nothing but the fading memories of a moral victory. We console ourselves knowing that our idealism is always there for the long haul.” He writes of veteran civil society actors who started out lobbying against mining, and got an epiphany in their old age – “it is possible to be greedily ethical, by ensuring that the people of the soil get monetary compensation for every bit of ore mined from their hills”, since it is “impossible to stop mining”. Is such cynicism called for, he asks. Are there any alternatives?
There are, he says, pointing to the Supreme court order of April 2013 setting up a ‘special purpose vehicle’ for mines in Karnataka, which “drew revenue from fines, cancelled leases, and sales proceeds”, and was directed to use the entire sum for the development of the people of Bellary, Chitradurga and Tumkur. He feels that this is the better model, which will better involve the people in repairing the damage.
This book is an important document which works at different levels. It shows the author’s intense engagement with his land, his people, and larger issues of justice and the future of communities and the environment. In engagingly light prose, written with a wry twist, he writes of gut-wrenching injustice and violence wreaked on institutions, people, and the idea of justice itself. The enduring nature of idealism – and a belief that people’s struggles and a balanced judicial process is what will finally bring closure to such struggles. And that cynicism and greed need define not us as a people. We are capable of better.
Cynthia Stephen is an independent writer and researcher