she initiated an anti-mining struggle near her land in Goa.
Why they put four women in the jug…
Yesterday afternoon at around three in the afternoon, in Maina, Quepem, forty-six year old Cheryl D'Souza, her nine-year old daughter Aki, her mother Dora, aged eighty-four, and two women from their household, Rita and Shashikala, were manhandled by the police (after they had been attacked by goons from the mining company) and put in a cell at Quepem police station.
Before one reads political ambitions in Cheryl's actions, her own take is that it was a last ditch resort, a necessary bit of theatre to focus attention on the ironies of this whole scam they call 'mining' in Goa.
She was joined by Father Mathias from Sulcorna, and Rama Velip and some others from Collomb, both villages under threat from mining operations and who had pledged their unstinting resolve to stand by her side. The Goans were joined by Kurush Canteenwala, a filmmaker from Mumbai, who caught the bus the evening before to join them in their protest on Saturday morning. In June, he had already visited Maina and Collomb and north Goa, shooting his short, but blistering documentary on mining, titled 'Goa, Going, Gone', busy doing the rounds.
At the last meeting of the anti-mining committee she attended in Panjim, Cheryl was told in no uncertain terms by Dr. Claude Alvares, who ought to know, given his unstinting resolve in the matter, that she could expect no recourse from the courts and had to, perforce, take the fight to the streets. The mining's started again, she told the committee, I see the trucks getting ready, and they're lining up on the road outside the mine. You stop them, is the message she got, don't take it lying down…which is exactly what she did.
At Cheryl's request, Saby Rodrigues joined her to show solidarity and support. I don't have the exact numbers sitting here in Paud… I get the basis of this account from Cheryl over phone last night, from the hospital. They were taken there after languishing in a cell while the goons and police paced outside working out how best to work things out so that the mining continues from Monday morning. Cheryl tells me they've bashed both the cars…
CNN IBN, NDTV 24/7, even BBC were informed about the illegal mining operations in Quepem in late May and right through the monsoons, but all sighed off, saying they had already done a 'story' on it. Cheryl's joked about this before, saying, that it needed her head to be broken before they think it's 'news'. Her protest was intended to be dramatic; she would block the road in front of the mine with the cars and chain Aki, Dora, Rita Shashikala and herself to them. The men would stand to the side and offer support.
It did not pan out that smoothly. From nine in the morning their protest had the mining company abuzz, with managers and drivers in a tizzy. By late evening, goons led by a young political aspirant, perhaps even a staunch ally of the Chief Minister for all one knows, attacked the male supporters standing by. Cheryl's driver, Kasim, was beaten up; twenty men pounced on the young, tough Goan (with experience in Iraq) Cheryl hired to protect her family. Saby's camera was smashed. Kurush had his glasses broken, and was kicked several times while he was on the ground. Cheryl tells me she unlocked the chain and went to stop the goons. She was abused in the vilest language, the goons and their leader telling her exactly what they would like to do to her to show her who's the boss. The police inspector and his posse arrived and stood by while all this was happening, tapping his baton on his palm and staring at Cheryl.
To Cheryl's great misfortune, CNN IBN and NDTV 24/7 may still feel she doesn't make it to the news at 9, but her actions may just highlight the political skulduggery at work, and give people the chance to bring Goa back to the rails with honest politicians. Last night, villagers from Benaulim hit by the corrupt practices of builders showed up outside the police station, and today at 6 in the evening I'm told there's a meeting in Margao to plan out where to go.
When one says Cheryl's was a last ditch battle, this is true.
It was Digamber Kamat himself who said there would be a blanket ban on mining until his cabinet's Draft Mineral Policy (DMP) was properly discussed. He said this at his house when he met some 25 people from mine-affected areas at his house the day before the DMP was made public. He said this in response to a statement that the mining operations in Quepem were illegal and in front of noted activists like Dr. Claude Alvares, Ramesh Gauns, Saby Rodrigues and many others.
A few months back, during the rains, one of the mining companies (owned by a minister in the government no less) cut down about forty trees in the area adjacent to her land. Cheryl and her lawyer immediately filed complaints. The matter was hushed up, in spite of investigations carried out by forestry officials. What to do, one honest official told her, all the fellows in the south have been bought.
For the last fourteen years Cheryl D'Souza and her late husband, Tony, developed their property to be a viable and profitable farm. When they bought it, borrowing to do so, they got it dirt-cheap. When they first tested soil on their land, they were told it's rich in iron, they could be millionaires. They laughed and built their house over the richest lode. Both actively worked closely with honest forest official Archana Singh to stop illegal felling of trees, mining of river stones, and illegal poaching. Cheryl slaved in marketing to pay back the loans and bring home the bacon, while Tony worked on the land with help from the agricultural department.
Cheryl has been under threat ever since Tony passed away in a tragic accident. Because Tony was tough, no one dared to talk about mining. For the last year, the mining has come closer and even closer.
A wise man said recently that "Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner". What's happening in Quepem right now, in villages from Kawrem, Maina, Collomb and all the way south to Sulcorna, makes those words come back. What we have here a large mine-owner contracting out his dirty work to other mining companies, who, in turn, contract this dirty work out to a few other dirty, fly-by-night mining operations of the base sort.
These abovementioned wolves, aided by truck-drivers who've taken loans from them, are intent on destroying the environment. There is nothing less than that in their minds. I can write about the majesty of a spring in Maina till the cows come home, they will rip the water from the ground. They want to do to Quepem (in spite of what the draft Regional Plan pronounces for it) what has already been done in the poisoned minefields in north Goa, or what they will soon do around the coastal plateau where the bauxite is.
There are a few other farms in the area too, one a major sugar-cane grower, but these have reasons to sell. The wolves come closer then…around her farm, the minister in question has already moved excavators in, ready to dig up land that has hitherto been used to farm sugarcane. The land owner sold out, in the process cheating the widowed wife of his brother out of her share.
Cheryl herself was offered an astronomical sum to sell her property. She laughed and said how it was enough to pack up everything, including the house and dogs, and just move to New Zealand. Then lighting a cigarette, saying, yes, but I'd never be able to look at myself in the mirror again. Tony was cremated on the land two years and some back. He loved this damn place, I hated it, full of snakes and all sorts of creepy crawly things, give me a damn flat in Margao any day is what she used to say. Tony was the environmentalist dabbling with organic techniques, she was happy either reading or watching TV when not working. Then, after Tony died, she changed her mind about the place. It grew on me she says, I thought of doing something in Tony's memory. She figured out there were so many young children in the villages, what it really needed was a good school. That's what he said too, Cheryl says. Before she could think that idea through though, two huge hills disappeared in less than eight months. Overnight, she re-educated herself on the environment.
Four days before she chained herself and immediate household to the cars, she sought an audience with the chief minister, telling him what a minister in his government was about to do. He told Cheryl his hands were tied, he was helpless…
Hartman de Souza teaches theatre arts at the Mahindra United World College in Paud, Maharashtra.
-- Cynthia Stephen Independent Writer and Researcher
And may you be blessed with the foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world, so that you will do things which others tell you cannot be done
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