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April 04, 2011

Sierra Club in India - Day 3

India Day 3 mine

In the morning we piled into cars and drove through the blazing heat to reach the village of Kalane, next to an open iron mine that is carting away the mountain one truckload at a time -- one of many villages that Vaishili Patil from AnkurTrust and her twenty organizers work in. Once there, we were welcomed into the local temple by Mrs. Sampada Desai, the village's first lady. On one side the women sat in their colorful saris, and on the other the men sat win their slacks and shirts. But we didn't arrive alone. As we sat down, the sides of the temple were filled with men we later learned were "goons" from the mine.

The tension didn't appear to us until Awadesh Komar from our group introduced himself. One of the men from the mine stood up and began disagreeing with him, and then shouting. The police arrived, and began to quiet the man, in what we later were told was an orchestrated attempt to make the police seem sympathetic. What followed was a discussion like what would happen in any town hall meeting.

India Day 3 police

One man who had lost his land stood to speak out about his experience, the landowner who sold to the mining company claimed that everything was fine until outside agitators came to the village, and the final speaker was a partner of Vaishili's, who reminded the group that everyone has the right to speak up and protest. Then Vaishili closed the event. I do not know what she said, but she spoke with force few people have. She appeared to both admonish parts of the crowd and demand more from others. 

Afterwards, snacks were circulated and people mingled in the temple. It was a low concrete building with exposed beams decorated with faded, colored paper and herbs hanging from the rafters. At one end was a low meeting area, where we gathered, and at the other was the entrance to the shrine, where people rang a bell hanging from the ceiling before going in. It was then, that Sampada invited us to her home to learn more about the struggle she is leading. When the village found out about the mine, they gathered and voted to oppose it and decided that the women would lead the opposition. The first public hearing on the mine was outside of the district, so they demanded that one be held in the district. 

India Day 3 temple and Sampada

At the second hearing, they insisted that the EIA and other materials on the mine be translated into the local language so they could understand them. Then, finally, at the third hearing they presented all their research, including surveys they collected and testimony from faculty at Goa University about local biodiversity, and they presented their unanimous opposition to the mine. And that was that. They did not hear anything until the trucks arrived to begin digging.

The villagers left their homes and clamored to the mountain, stopping the trucks, but some of the youth also let the air out of the tires to keep them from moving. Forty-two or so employees were sitting on top of the trucks, and in the mayhem one fell off. A local reporter snapped pictures of the fall, as well as pictures of a police officer looking at the fallen man. He was taken to the doctor, who said he needed to go to the hospital in Goa. The villagers suspect that the politicians may have killed him, but regardless, the police returned to arrest the village men for his murder. In response, the doctor testified that his injuries were not that bad when he left the village. 

In retaliation, the doctor was removed from his position, tortured, and hasn't been seen since. The reporter published the pictures showing that the official murder claim was false, and he was arrested too. In total, 16 men from the village spent three months in jail. For the next six months, the women and children left in the village protested in the only way they could, by holding daily prayer and song services in the local temple. They stood together while their husbands, sons, and fathers were wrongly held in jail, and they stood together as the mine they fought so hard grew. 

India Day 3 reporter

But it was the elections that proved to be a true blow to their morale. Thanks to their organizing, the man running for Chief Minister received no votes from his own village, but despite all their work, he was able to buy his way into government by bribing voters not impacted by the mine. But the fight continues. Now that the mine is in operation, they want to use their foothold in the state to expand it. Complicating the matter is the ex State Minister's son, who owns part of the mine and has many connections to powerful government figures. This is a case where the people did everything right and still lost. However, word about their struggle is getting out, and while mining is underway, the village is not ready to give up.

-- Nicole Ghio

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