HE LOVES mathematics, but says the only counting he does is adding the number of trucks he sees speeding past from his window. “Sometimes even I am amazed what a minute can pack in,” says 10-year-old Vasudeo Gawade, sitting on the front benches of his class at Government Primary School at Sonshi. “My head aches.”
Vasudeo’s parents are now in jail — for protesting against dust and noise pollution caused by these 900 trucks plying iron ore.
A decade-long protest against hazardous mining dust has taken a fresh turn with 45 villagers from Sonshi, Sattari, deciding not to walk out of Colval sub-jail, having got bail, after they were booked for unlawful assembly, as they blocked around 250 trucks on April 11.
Vasudeo’s parents are among the 22 men and 23 women in jail.
In a state where over 9 per cent territory is under mining lease, and where the mining industry is estimated to be Rs 1 lakh crore — or worth 20 million-metric tonnes — children like Vasudeo and his school are the new face of the mining issue.
In the last one year, this lone school in a radius of 11 km, with two classrooms, has been reduced 43 students to six students of different grades packed into one room. With the mining dust and noise, parents of children of adjoining villages have now put their children in other private schools. Of the six students, four are from Sonshi and the other two are sons of migrant truck drivers.
The school sits on the edge of a road between Sonshi and Honda villages, which is used by the 900-odd trucks plying between mining dump yard on their final journey to the port at Vasco. While earlier only the front access road had trucks plying, now with six mining leases running between two major companies, the school is surrounded by mining activity.
The midday meal scheme stands withdrawn as vehicles plying the food parcels kept getting stuck in traffic jams caused by trucks ferrying ore.
On April 11, Vasudeo’s father Ankush and his mother were detained after they blocked the trucks. The boy says he understands why they stood all day on the road, bare feet, on scorching earth. Having tasted mining dust in food and forced to wash their clothes thrice daily, Vasudeo says they had got “tired”.
The teacher, a 58-year-old woman is worried about the fate of her students. Refusing to be named, she says “I will come even if I have one kid to teach. It’s only education that will get them out of this difficult place. I keep telling them that.”
She says, “Since three months, mining leases have been given on all three sides, making it difficult to even move out without parental escort. The school begins at 7.30 am, after a help has poured water across the floor. We sing the national anthem. The seats and the books are dusted, we then attempt to speak loudly and hear each other…. I try to distract them by asking them to paint flowers.”
“Sometimes my jaws ache, and sometimes their ears,” she adds, referring to the sound of the moving trucks.
Classmates Vasudeo and Dipti usually shares tiffin. In the last eight days their parents have been in jail, there has been no tiffin.
They talk about the absent Pranali Ashok, a Class I student. She has not come as her parents are in jail, they say. Vinay Vidyanand, a Class II student, says he comes as school is “cleaner than my house”. It’s been nine days since his mother, a labourer at a nearby cashew factory, was arrested.
After the protest by the residents got media attention, a hurried order from the Mamladaar’s office was received on Monday, asking that the second classroom at the school now vacant be turned into a primary health centre. “Even that can’t be executed soon, as the school’s members under the Parent Teacher Association are in jail. I cannot authorise the facility on my own,” the teacher says.
The regional health officer, who didn’t want to be named, said the health impact is evident. “The elders get acclimatised, but children suffer from heavy breathing-related diseases,” the officer says. “It’s developed over years of breathing red ore dust. The other problem is constant nausea and headaches.” “Their issue is genuine,” admits Inspector Deepak Pednekar of Valpoi Police Station. He got video cameras installed on the roads soon after the protest, and accounted for 4,000 trips made by 900 trucks a day.
“That is a lot of noise and dust in a minute,” he says. “We have proposed for a bypass road. In this mining region, this is the only village on the route of mining trucks.”