BATTLEGROUND CHAPORA

UNIQUE: Much of coastal Goa is destroyed due to the unrestrained influx of tourism with everyone out to make a quick buck. Now, with construction booming in other places inland also, sand mining is a lucrative source of easy money for those willing to break the law without considering the ecological consequences

Padmashri awardee NORMA ALVARES is an Indian social worker, environmental activist, lawyer, and a founding member of Goa Foundation, an environmental action group. This is the sixth article in the ECO-WARRIORS series that recognises the efforts of Goans to save their homeland

By Rajan Narayan

SAIDAS Khorjuvekar is a very worried man. He is worried that his island, “Zuvom de Tuyem,” located in the Chapora river, is sinking. Not from sea level rise or any such macro-scale event that ordinary mortals can do little about. The cause of the island’s troubled existence is entirely man-made. It is illegal sand mining: a nightly, rampant, large-scale assault on the island to extract river sand, which is needed in huge quantities to feed the insatiable construction industry in Goa.

For the past three years, Saidas and his co-villagers have been desperately trying to reverse the threat to the survival of their island, and in 2015, three of them finally decided to turn to the National Green Tribunal for help.

No one knows how and when these islands emerged from the river waters, but due to the dense mangroves that surround them and the bunds and sluice gates that control the ingress of salt water, they have not just survived, but have fertile agricultural lands within. Many people residing in the vaddos of Arabo, Dhargal and Tuyem in Pernem taluka have fields on ‘Zuvom de Tuyem’ which they and their forefathers have been cultivating for decades. They also fish in the waters of the river for crabs, tisreos and other small fish, using futanis (fishing nets).

But now, because of the illegal sand mining, the bunds on the island have been breached and salt water has entered the fields, the houses on the banks of the river have developed cracks, the crabs and shellfish have disappeared and the futanis have all been destroyed by the sand-carrying canoes that ply up and down the river. This is a classic case of unsustainable modern development activity displacing age-old, environmentally-friendly, traditional Goan practices. Above all, the island itself is on the verge of collapsing and being washed away into the river altogether.

The practice of sand mining from Chapora river commenced after the government banned removal of sand from the beaches about two decades ago. In the early years, small quantities of sand were removed and transported by carts, but in recent times, the operations are large-scale, with scarce concern for the stability of the river or its banks.

Well aware that they have no permissions for the sand extraction, the sand miners venture out in canoes into the rivers and creeks at night, where they find the uninhabited islands easy targets for their illegal operations.

Hastily, and under cover of darkness, they shovel as much sand as their canoes can carry and head back to the shore on the mainland where trucks await the cargo. Several such trips are made in a single night by as many as 40 to 50 canoes plying in the Chapora river alone. As dawn breaks, the surreptitious work stops, the trucks speed away to various construction sites and quiet flows the river.

CHAPORA STALWARTS: (l to r) Saidas Khorjuvekar, Albino Fernandes and Eknath Chopdekar, together fought to save
the ‘Zuvom de Tuyem’ island from sinking due to illegal sand mining

As a result of these nightly, wanton sand extraction, these fragile islands have deep gashes and large holes on their sides. Repeated such activity relentlessly carried out every night and chunks of land just come apart and disappear into the waters. The villagers have repeatedly petitioned the authorities to take action against this illegal activity, which is threatening the survival of the island and the livelihood of the fisherfolk and farmers of this area.

In September 2012, based on news reports in the Goan dailies of illegal sand mining in Goa, the High Court took suo moto cognisance and issued notice to the authorities both at the Centre and the State, observing that ‘rampant extraction of sand from the river poses serious danger to river banks and can lead to bank erosion, deepening of the river bed which may also pose danger to bridges and this definitely has adverse effect on ecology and the environment.’

Pursuant to the court’s notice, the State government issued a slew of orders appointing officers to patrol areas where sand mining takes place, and directions to inspect all river banks particularly in the ‘wee hours,’ seize canoes, equipment, trucks and heavy machinery and book offences against persons who were carrying out the illegal extraction, storage and transportation of sand.

A year later, in August 2013, the Principal Bench of the NGT at Delhi issued stringent directions that no removal of sand from riverbeds would be permitted anywhere in the country without Environment Clearance from the Ministry of Environment / State Environment Impact Assessment Authority and licence from the competent authorities.

It was perhaps these orders which emboldened Saidas Khorjuvekar, Albino Fernandes and Eknath Chopdekar to approach the NGT at Pune. After all, their repeated complaints to all the authorities in Goa including the Chief Minister, the District Magistrate, the Collector, the Pollution Control Board and the police had had zero impact and the nightly assaults on Zuvom de Tuyem continued, without interruption.

Saidas approached me in early 2015 with a request to take up his petition. Being over committed at the time, and also quite confident that all that was needed to stop the illegal sand mining was implementation of the various orders already in place, I suggested that he appear in person before the NGT. To make sure he had no difficulties with procedure, I requested the advocate who regularly assists me in Pune, Ms Supriya Dangare, to help him out in the initial stages. As it turns out, Saidas was very impressed with Adv. Supriya and engaged her to argue his case, which she has been doing with great enthusiasm, with Saidas in attendance at every hearing.

At the initial stage itself, in April 2015, the government assured the NGT that there will be regular vigil and patrolling of the area. A month later it informed the NGT that a committee was being constituted to prepare a plan for identification of sand bars, after which the sand mining areas would be auctioned. The NGT directed that the plan be placed before it and that no auctioning be conducted without prior environment clearance.

As Saidas complained to the NGT that the illegal sand mining was continuing, the NGT directed search lights be used to identify vessels illegally carrying sand and the licenses of the vessel owners be withheld till further orders. Later, it directed that police assistance be taken to seize those vessels which were defiantly continuing operations.

The record of canoes seized produced before the NGT prompted the tribunal to remark as follows: ‘There

WAY OF LIFE: The villagers are fighting to save their way of live, their livelihood, and the very land they live and work on

are two inferences which may be deduced from the report. One: Illegal sand mining is being permitted under the nose of the authorities. Two: The fact that unlicensed vessels are being used is rather serious because they are also likely to endanger the security of the State.’

By 2016, the GCZMA informed NGT that the Captain of Ports had identified four zones suitable for sand extraction and the Environment Clearances for the same would be issued. Zuvom de Tuyem island was not included in any of the zones. This was a major victory for Saidas and friends.

At this point, 40 residents from Camurlim, who claimed to be traditional and manual sand extractors, applied to intervene in the proceedings. They sought compensation from the ‘sand extractors’ for damaging the environment. The matter was posted for final hearing with NGT specifically requesting to know from the government what steps would be taken to curb illegal sand mining around Zuvom de Tuyem.

The government informed the NGT that a public notice had been issued by the Directorate of Mines and Geology and widely publicised that any act of sand mining in the area which is ‘No Extraction Zone’ around Zuvom de Tuyem island will attract a fine extending to `5 lakhs per canoe and upto `1 lakh per extractor. NGT thereupon directed the 40 respondent villagers to furnish a written undertaking that they shall not carry on any activity whatsoever amounting to sand mining in and around the island.

Saidas requested that, in addition, CCTV cameras be installed along the shore on the island as a precaution and offered to indicate suitable locations where cameras can be effectively installed. When these spots were shown to the authorities, the District Collector expressed the opinion that while they was not averse, in principle, to installing CCTV cameras, it was not within their purview to lay an optical fibre network by crossing creek waters. The Collector also said that there was no electric power available to keep cameras in running state and further, the remoteness of the island posed a security risk to the equipment. Hence, the Collector declined to oblige.

Saidas however was not willing to accept these excuses and offered to find a reliable private agency to do the job. This suggestion was accepted by the NGT which directed him to place before it a proposal, including costs, prepared by the agency after a site visit.

Thereafter, hearings of all matters from Goa were temporarily halted by the High Court who was hearing scores of public interest petitions protesting the transfer of jurisdiction of Goa matters from Pune to Delhi (a move since struck down by the Bombay High Court).  

I asked Saidas about costs and who had borne them till now. He told me that he personally spent approx `3,000 per trip on travel to Pune and that he has made around 15 trips so far. As for advocate’s fees, he said that although the advocate did not quote a fee or insist on payment, the villagers have contributed around `50,000. The fight to save Zuvom de Tuyem island has been a long and hard one, but the villagers of Arabo, Pernem, can certainly look back with pride on their success.

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