Sunsets in Sirigao

By Harman de Souza

Andrea shot these photographs at Sirigao, a village past Bicholim in North Goa, off the main road leading westwards to Mapusa. They capture, as if one could not know, the horrors of an open-cast iron ore mining pit, one of 500 if not more such pits in Goa. They were shot between five in the evening when the sun is ripe and the light as clean as the thrill of biting into a fresh orange, and just after six, when, as if fleeing from the grotesque sight of this pit that goes more than 30 metres below sea level, the sun escapes in a sigh of pain.

When you open Andrea’s photographs several times, staring at each one for a few minutes, you understand the turmoil that leads some women to break into inconsolable sobbing when they see the mining pit for the first time, up close. One woman said she felt she had just been raped. Whether one likes it or not, Andrea’s eye gives us a panoramic glimpse of the devastation that mining has brought to Goa, season by season, from April when the sun is at its strongest in Goa, till June when the clouds mute and gray the light.

The mining companies and other assassins of the earth beholden to them will continue to talk about ‘sustainable mining’ till the cows come home; they will pat each other’s backs and exchange awards to proclaim their Corporate Social Responsibility, but when push comes to shove, it’s these photographs that tell you what mining in Goa is all about.

Take the first picture, taken in April, when the sun had probably just touched the sea off Calangute, which, as the gull flies, is probably just 15 kilometres, if not less, due west. The light is warm enough to show detail just before the sun is burnt to a cinder, mellow enough to bring out the melancholy in the hardest of hearts. The machines in the pit are silent and stationary. You can barely see the two bulldozers on the steeper terrace above, to the left of the frame, to the left of the orange-yellow earth mover.

The pumps floating on a raft of lorry tubes in the water below have stopped pumping out the water the pit sucks out from the aquifers around. To the end of this deep pond, where the water is a dark gleaming green if you see it in the morning, on the black eye-patch of the cliff just above, one can actually see the dregs of an aquifer flowing.  In the middle of the frame is the giant machine, vicious when at work barely an hour or so before, but now in repose, and almost as harmless as a yellowish crab with an injured claw.

If you save this picture as your desktop background, it gets even more interesting with every passing day. After a while one shifts between anger and grief and desperation so seamlessly, on its own accord, the photograph miraculously speaks of foretold misery.

Look just to the right of the accursed earthmover where the mud road slopes downwards to take a sharp turn into the pit, and you will see a face. Just above the line of the brown road is a darker patch, perhaps a rich lode of ore. It looks very much like the snout of an animal, something small, like a fox, or even a bear cub.

Just below the snout, contoured with a few fluffs of white, is the animal’s mouth; above the head, where its right eye should be, a blurred shape, but where the left eye is, a distinct patch that could very easily be an eye. Above these, past the ridge of the snout, is a tuft of brighter mud almost like a crest.

It gets little more defined as you zoom inwards, the face of this animal even seeming bemused. The left eye looks sharper, and if one stares hard enough, one can see an eyeball start to emerge.

If one moves the cursor ahead bit by bit, while the animal’s face blurs, with one’s eyes squinting one bears witness to the animal’s fate. With the claw of the machine just off the frame, it could be a sepia-toned painting of the last days of a ten month old tiger cub for instance, who had the misfortune of losing its way, and was put to death by workers and security guards armed with sticks and stones and crowbars, the right side of its face smashed, the skull impacted into its lower jaw, and its left eye, strangely enough,  staring wide open, off its centre, in a mixture of innocence and accusation.goa-opencast-mine2

Every conservationist in Goa worth his or her salt knows that the forest authorities in Goa are hand in glove with the mining companies. Barely ten years ago, the department paid obeisance to timber contractors, today, in South Goa it appears to have bent backwards for the mining companies. It is not to the forest authorities or to the laws that supposedly govern forests that we must turn to, and certainly not to the courts, where, as environmental lawyers will tell you, the entire machinery is geared to use the garb of justice to kick petitions into the long grass.

There to be kept as long as it takes to get the iron ore out. The arithmetic is simple, a half a kilometre stretch of hill translates into a few thousand crore. Calculate this as a cool 30 crore in his kitty each year, and tell me which Goan politician is not into mining to make himself rich. Given the greed that seems to have overtaken this country, justice has every chance of losing out.

Just whom we are supposed to turn to, nobody knows which is why so many Goans are now asking what the use of government is when there is no governance, when men and women elected by them have no concerns other than making themselves, their families and their village cronies rich?

In all of Andrea’s photographs, the frames are tinted with tree cover, some washed out by the haze reflected off the cliffs, other showing the bright almost artificial green of Australian acacia, the forest department and mining companies’ favourite tree. At the top of the frames, blotches of casuarinas, some left on the side of the pit for visual relief perhaps, and some forming a crest on the top of the barren cliff.

What makes the scene even more painful given this is still verdant Goa, is that the Sirigao mine is the last pit in a mining operation that has destroyed some twelve kilometres of hills, forests and water eastwards; leaving behind an eyesore as bad as this; dirty, dust-covered human habitations totally beholden to or damned by mining, depending on who owns trucks and garages and spare parts shops and who depends on agriculture for a livelihood.

The governments at both state and centre, and their various departments set up to exploit natural resources refer to such an operation as a ‘contiguous mining lease’, in this instance, some five or six mining companies given the necessary permissions to hack the trees, upend the earth, and take away the ore to make themselves rich.

There is little anyone can do to stop the rape of Goa’s northern foothills and plateaus that came down to the coast from the Western Ghats, bringing with them, water. The traditional springs in and around Sirigao area have long run dry. Ironically, Sirigao is home to the indigenous Goan deity, Lehrai, one of five other sisters still remaining and a brother, each of their shrines and sites of pilgrimage close to or dependent on water. Before Lehrai’s palanquin is carried out on the day when her pilgrims walk over hot coals to proclaim and test their devotion, the bearer must bathe in her pond. That pond, as also every single well in Sirigao, has long been dry. Water for the traditional cleansing is now provided in tankers that mining companies thoughtfully provide.

If it wasn’t for the monsoons coming every year to wash a mining area such as this, the area around Sirigao would be worse than Bellary only because the rape has been sanctioned the last fifty or so years. If the birds fly in a circle of three or four kilometres around Sirigao, either side of the main road leading from Bicholim to Mapusa, all they will see is the glaring site of pit and waste dump, and convoys of orange trucks in long lines like soldier ants. And a scene such as this mind you for twelve kilometres east of Sirigao…then another twelve kilometres southwards…and another ten kilometres…and another ten kilometres…till one comes close to a hundred kilometres of mining operation in the foothills of the Western Ghats…

In the village bars, where cynics gather to singe the pains of a day, they say that democracy in Goa has been reduced to being a government off the people, buy the people, and far from the people. How true!

The larger picture can be grasped from a recent petition to the Ministry of Environment and Forests submitted by several citizens’ organizations from Goa. They urged the Ministry to uphold the moratorium on clearing new mining leases pending a comprehensive social and scientific audit being undertaken, and to take steps to ensure that earlier mining operations were restored as per the law. As the petition duly noted, Goa had less than 1% of India’s land mass, but contributed to more than 60% of India’s iron ore exports.

The petition brought to the ministry’s attention the absurd possibility of Goa itself ceasing to exist at the current pace of mineral extraction…