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“We are protesting against dust. Have you ever heard something like this?” ask agitating villagers of Sonshi

With most of the homes now locked, Sonshi village is now at the police station on all hours protesting.

 sonshi dharna, sonshi protests, sattari, sonshi mining, mining dust in sonshi, sonshi villagers, protest against dust, goa news, india news, indian express Currently two companies, Vedanta Sesa Goa Iron Ore and Fomento have six mining leases between them, with trucks plying their iron ore through Sonshi to the port limits.

A decade long protest against hazardous mining dust, has taken a fresh turn with 45 villagers from Sonshi in Sattari taluka deciding not to walk out of Colvale sub-jail, despite getting bail, after they were booked for unlawful assembly. On April 11, the villagers had stood on the road, blocking 250 trucks filled with mine extract on its way to the port.

With the High Court taking the matter suo moto on Monday, the villager’s decision is the first active protest this term on the state’s biggest poll issue of mining, threatening the political image of a new coalition government in power. Currently two companies, Vedanta Sesa Goa Iron Ore and Fomento have six mining leases between them, with trucks plying their iron ore through Sonshi to the port limits, according to the official ground report sent to Collector office. The Police say the action against the villagers was taken on a complaint lodged by a company official from Vedanta Sesa Goa Iron Ore.

In a letter — written in Konkani, given to the police, are their crucial demands, an ambulance and basic health facility, supply of clean drinkable water twice a day, and jobs for their men, and rerouting of the trucks.

At Valpoi station, the protest has Ujjwala Gawade, 30, sitting with her two kids, placards, and a bag of water and cough syrup, demanding justice for the village and her husband Yashwant, 35, who is in jail. With most of the men in jail, she is accompanied by women and children in the village who bear a similar fate. “The living conditions are bad. Every 20 minutes you have to wash the surfaces at home, you cannot cook, the children cannot breathe,” she says, “Our protest is against the noise the trucks make. The dust they bring to our homes. We didn’t even throw a stone on them. We just stood on the roads with our kids. Now we want the government to tell us who is wrong? Us or them?”

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Among those in jail — are 22 men, 22 women, one senior citizen fondly called “Buja Maushi”. “She is above 70 and she protested as she can’t sleep or even cook. Her window opens to the road,” says her neighbour Anusuya. “We are all SC/ST and that makes the situation tougher.”

At the village, any conversation even inside the house is difficult with at least 40 trucks crossing their village every minute, cutting their “chain of thoughts”, complains Geeta Mali. Of a salary of Rs 6,000 her husband, a contract worker earns, half goes to the local doctor 20 kilometres away. “Humara chehra aur dil dhool se bar gaya hain, (our faces and heart are filled with dust now), she complains, adding, “We haven’t had any relatives or friends visiting us either. Forget Politicians, or MLAs. The dust is unbearable.”

With 53 pucca homes, and a voter base of 300 families, villagers rue they are “too small a electorate for even the elected MLAs to visit”. Ironically, the last election appeal came from the region’s political face, Vishwajit Rane, the rebel Congress MLA who is now the health minister in Manohar Parrikar’s new cabinet. Having voted for the Ranes, with the village under Congress leader Pratapsingh Rane’s Perium constituency, the villagers complain they have not heard a word from their elected representatives either.

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“All politicians are same. Regulating mining activities is just a bullet point in political manifestos. It is never an issue in their air-conditioned offices. Someone told me we should write to Narendra Modi as he had come to Goa promising a lot of change. I don’t know if even Manohar Parrikar sitting in Panjim can hear us frankly, “ scoffs Ujjwala.

Pointing to the water levels, the villagers say the mining dropped that too. “The mining companies were to give us water every day. The tanks do come, but not everyday. They pour the water in the tanks kept by the roads and leave. In half an hour, the mining dust settles on them,” says Sandesh Gawade, an unemployed youth who alleges the miners do not even give them jobs, taking outsiders on labour contracts.

With most of the homes now locked, Sonshi village is now at the police station on all hours protesting.

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“Their issue is genuine,” admits Deepak Pednekar, Police Inspector, Valpoi Station He got video cameras fitted on the roads, soon after the protest, and accounted for 4000 trips made by 900 trucks a day. “That is a lot of noise and dust in a minute. We have proposed for a bypass road, as in this mining region, this is the lone village which is on the route of miner’s trucks.” Another proposal moved by the mining companies is relocating the 53 homes and the school, which the villagers have rejected in two separate meetings.

Having put nine IPC sections, including a non bailable section of IPC 506 of criminal intimidation against the villagers, the police say, every time the police state the miners bring a Goa High Court order of 2014 which allows them to mine legally. In a report now sent to the state government, the police have warned, “there is every possibility this agitation could turn to violence due to transport issue,” if quick measures are not put in place.

A company official for Vedanta Sesa Goa Iron Ore, who confirmed he attended one meeting with the villagers claimed, “This is instigated. Most of those who are are inside are truck owners who ply our iron ore. We have promised water and a doctor. They now want jobs. They will have to compete for that and they cannot protest. As for dust these villages frankly settled here after the mining leases were founded. We can always challenge that.”

Shriram Shrigaonkar, a villager and a truck owner says, “It’s easy for them to say so. The village is older than them. The mines have come in our territory. Now they give jobs to others, and give us their dust. We are neither compensated, nor given jobs, nor are basic life facilities provided.”

The Collector’s office, meanwhile, have also been apprised of a rivalry between two villages, Sonshi and neighbouring Pissurlem, as the mining companies has given new contracts to 117 new trucks to villagers of Pissurlem. “That was also the trigger of the day the villagers stood to protest was when their rival village got new truck contracts. Many of those inside are themselves truck owners,” says a government official not wishing to be named. The fact-finding teams of Aam Aadmi Party and Congress meanwhile debunk it as they add, “The miners have given a few trucks to the villagers around the mining belts. That is called as soft bargaining. They buy their silence and then when issue escalates they put it on villagers,” says Ashley Rosario, spokesperson from AAP who visited the spot on Monday.

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Later on Tuesday evening, Vedanta Sesa Goa Iron Ore issued a response. “It is not a standalone issue of Vedanta and concerns all mining fraternity working in the area. As a responsible and sustainable miner we will work along with the government and stakeholders at large towards a proactive approach to resolve the crisis at the earliest. However, we would like to state that the root cause of the issue was business / economic related,” the company statement read.

“From tomorrow onwards there shall be temporary diversion of the transportation of ore from mines bearing TC no’s: 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 t.c. no 16/55, till further measures for mitigation are taken to reduce the pollution level” which the company claimed “at present are well within permissible parameters,” it added.

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The villagers though deny this completely. “Ask them to live here, eat our food and drink the water they send us,” says a livid Ujjwala Gawande.

“We are now clear. We are not going to give any surety. We want the mining companies to keep their promises and ensure the basic facilities we are asking, and cut down on the trucks plying. Every surface in the village is red. This is now a question of human rights. We are protesting against dust. Have you ever heard something like this?” asks Anusuya, whose husband is now in jail for over a week.

First published on: 18-04-2017 at 09:31:09 pm
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