Nandita Haksar writes: Ravindra Velip, a 27-year-old tribal activist fighting mining in Goa, is facing the combined might of the state government, the mining lobby and a complicit media. A founding member of green activist group Rainbow Warriors, he was arrested and placed in judicial custody. When he was assaulted in jail, it went unreported.
Lakhs of people come to Goa every year to holiday. They come to relax on the beaches, taste the fresh fish and enjoy a cold beer in the sun. And when the vacation is over, they return with photographs of Goa’s salubrious landscapes, unmindful of the fact that the beauty would have long disappeared had it not been for the struggles of the Goan people. It is these people’s courage and determination that has saved the land from destruction at the hands of corporations, especially those involved in mining.
This is the story of one such Goan.
Ravindra Velip is a 27-year-old tribal activist and panch of Caurem village who has been fighting doggedly against rapacious mining. He is a founding member of Rainbow Warriors, a registered society whose aims include protecting the “interests of the communities, individuals and associations involved in, or dependent on, agriculture and other natural/ecological economies within the State of Goa; and to ensure that the State provides them with economic and legal security, adequate assistance and their long denied recognition and respect”.
Velip’s activism has earned him the combined ire of the State and corporations, which are even willing to subvert constitutional principles if required. He was brutally assaulted on March 23 while in judicial custody in Sada sub-jail, and yet no first information report has been filed in the case. This grave lapse should have been emphasised by the media in Goa, but it appears a section of the press, with links to the mining industry, is party to the conspiracy of silence. I saw this hostility of the media first-hand at a recent press conference.
After the assault on Velip, a fact-finding team was set up consisting of me, Prof Amita Dhanda from NALSAR, a law university in Hyderabad, and John Fernandes from the London-based South Asia Solidarity Group. This week, Rainbow Warriors organised a press conference to release the fact-finding team’s report entitled Murderous Assault on Tribal Resistance in Goa.
The fact-finding team presented its findings and concluded by making the following demands:
1. An independent enquiry should be ordered into why the police failed to register an FIR in violation of the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code.
2. A 12-point charter of demands of the United Tribal Association Alliance should be accepted.
3. Village panchayats must be given full powers to oversee the mining operations to ensure there are no illegalities in the process.
4. Justice demands that Ravindra Velip be given adequate compensation by the prison authorities for failure to protect him while he was in custody.
5. In consonance with the fundamental rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution, especially Article 14 read with Article 19(1)(c), which makes the right to form associations and co-operative society a fundamental right, the Caurem Co-operative society should not only be registered immediately but the government must offer all help to make it a success.
6. The State Commission for SC/ST could play a more pro-active role in ensuring the tribal peoples of Goa get social-economic and political justice.
7. Lastly, we would like to recommend to the mining companies that they follow the Ten Principles of United Nations Global Compact.
The day after the attack on Velip in judicial custody, anti-mining activists condemned the assault and demanded an inquiry. The chief minister, in response, said he would consider the demand after seeing the report of the “independent” enquiry instituted by the Inspector General of Prisons. The report was submitted but not made public, and the chief minister announced another magisterial enquiry.
Nobody, however, asked why an FIR had not been filed. The fact-finding team raised that question.
Yet several journalists were quick to ask whether members of the team had visited the jail, met the Inspector General or gone to the Goa Medical College Hospital where Velip went after getting bail. We pointed out that we were not a substitute for the police. It was the job of the police to investigate a crime and they were bound to register an FIR under section 154 (1) of the Criminal procedure Code. It was mandatory and it had to be done even before any investigation started.
Besides, the enquiry appointed by the Inspector General-Prisons did not talk either to Velip or the other four activists who had been locked in the same cell.
But a section of the media came up with all kind of theories – they even speculated on the integrity of the fact-finding committee. Why did the media object to our asking a simple question: why has an FIR not been registered in a case of such serious allegation although two enquiries have been instituted?
After all, the Supreme Court has held that “the provisions of Section 154(1) of the Code, read in the light of the statutory scheme, do not admit of conferring any discretion on the officer in-charge of the police station for embarking upon a preliminary inquiry prior to the registration of an FIR. It is settled position of law that if the provision is unambiguous and the legislative intent is clear, the court need not call into it any other rules of construction”.
Deprived of their lands
To understand why an FIR has not been filed in the case of Velip, it is important to understand why Velip was attacked.
Ravindra Velip comes from Caurem, a tribal village in Quepem Taluk of Goa. He belongs to the Velip community, which was recognised as a Scheduled Tribe under the Indian Constitution in 2002. The Velips were systematically deprived of their forests and land during the Portuguese rule, and the process continues in democratic India. Their lands are being usurped by non-tribals who pass them on to mining companies. The companies and non-tribal usurpers make fortunes while the tribals have become impoverished. Today, Caurem has five iron ore mining companies.
As Hartman De Souza points out in his book Eating Dust: In exporting 35% of the country’s ore mining has used 8% of the state’s richest land mass and returned just 4% to its exchequer.
Beginning 2009, the youth of Caurem village organised themselves into the Caurem Adivasi Bachao Samiti and fought against the mining and disastrous effects of mechanisation of extraction. The mining was being done in violation of the pollution laws. The villagers used the Right to Information Act and got information to prove their claims and then wrote to the authorities, but their appeals went unheeded.
Meanwhile, someone felt threatened enough by the Samiti’s activities to attack the president of the organisation, Nilesh Gaonkar. In May 2011, Gaonkar, a mechanical engineer, was going to Verna when he was hit with an iron rod on his shoulder. That time, a FIR was registered but the assailants were not found. The case was closed in 2014.
A few days after Gaonkar was attacked, the tribals of Goa, under the leadership of the United Tribal Associations Alliance, began an agitation to push 12 demands. One of the demands was reservations for tribals in the Legislative Assembly, entitling them to 12% of the seats.
The agitation signified a struggle between tribal peoples who were excluded from power and profits of development and those who had made money by depriving the tribal communities of their land and resources without any compensation. The tribals blocked the National Highway and the trains. There was heavy police presence.
On that day, two tribal leaders, Manguesh Gaonkar and Dilip Velip, were pushed into a burning building in full view of many non-tribals and the police. The two were burnt alive. The subsequent investigation resulted in acquittal of all those accused.
Ravindra Velip, who had witnessed all these struggles and the violence on his people, decided to stand for panchayat elections. He was elected a panch, the youngest in his village. Under him, the panchayat tried to regulate the illegal mining and passed some resolutions.
But in retaliation, the Directorate of Mines and Geology in Goa passed an order (No 01/1001/Misc-Mines/2016/5031), stating that the panchayat had no power to regulate illegal mining.
Velip and his fellow villagers then decided to deal with the problem in a positive way. They decided it would be best that they ran the mines themselves to ensure that mining was done transparently with due regard to pollution laws and with a proper inventory of the iron ore. The villagers subsequently formed themselves into a co-operative. They were confident that they could run an iron ore mine because so many of the miners in the area had been thrown out of work. Also, they knew the business of transportation.
The co-operative was called Sadhana Multi-purpose Co-operative Society and Ravindra Velip went to have it registered. Indian citizens have a fundamental right to form associations or unions or co-operative societies under Article 19(1)(c) of the Constitution. However, the registrar of co-operatives refused to register the co-operative from 2014. The approval has not come till today.
To whom can the tribal peoples of Goa now turn to?
The Goa Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, whose remit includes recommending disciplinary action against public servants who fail to protect of the interests of SCs and STs, could have been one such body. But the Commission has not made any recognisable efforts to protect the rights of the tribal peoples of Caurem or their leaders.
Meanwhile, Ravindra Velip still fears for his life. The media, or at least a section of it, is hostile to him. It occurs to me that there are Dalits, adivasis and youth around India challenging the basis of authoritarian structures of our society and polity – in Goa it is Ravindra Velip, in Hyderabad it was Rohith Vemula, and in Delhi it was Kanhaiya Kumar. Their efforts are part of the movement to take forward India’s struggle for freedom. They are the Bhagat Singhs of our times.