MARCOS GONSALVES / Clinton d’souza
GUIRDOLIM: The State government seems to have woken up to the pillaging of Goa’s riverbeds a little too late. While it took an order from the High Court for the authorities to deploy 24x7 police patrols at a few of the sand extraction hotspots across Salcete, unscrupulous sand thieves have used heavy machinery to gouge out huge chunks of the dunes along the banks of the Zuari and Kushawati Rivers, altering their paths and causing irreparable damage to the rich ecosystems supported by these rivers.
While the instances of illegal sand mining seemed to have halted temporarily after the HC’s directions for round-the-clock vigilance, Herald discovered there was no police presence at many of the suspected hotspots, and especially at Chandor, near the Cotta Railway Bridge over River Kushawati, where locals say clandestine sand extraction is still rampant.
Two police personnel attached to the Maina-Curtorim Police Station were seen keeping vigil at Corjuem, and Curtorim at the loading point, but none at Chandor or Guirdolim, when Herald visited. Villagers and environmentalists who have spent decades trying to stop the decimation of these eco-sensitive zones allege there is a nexus between sand miners and state authorities, who look the other way even as bunds are destroyed and villagers are attacked by the sand mafia.
A visit to the once-idyllic waterfront sites across Curtorim, Guirdolim, Chandor, and Macazana revealed large swathes of the mangroves deliberately uprooted and destroyed to make room for the installation of suction pumps, to scoop out entire slabs of sand from the riverbanks. Expressing despair over the destruction of their rivers, villagers from these areas told Herald that their fish catches have drastically dropped over the years due to indiscriminate sand extraction that has removed entire habitats of small aquatic organisms, disrupting the food chain of fish and prawns.
Newly-elected panch member of Guirdolim panchayat Franky Rodrigues, who has been attacked by sand miners in the past, told Herald that some wards of his village and the neighbouring villages were in grave danger of flooding, with river erosion at an all-time high due to the destruction wreaked by sand extraction. "The illegal sand extraction has caused the river banks to collapse, which has consequently widened the river. The depth of the river has increased by around 10 feet, and the river bank has been washed away by soil erosion,” rued Rodrigues.
He said that the village panchayat of Guirdolim, on December 17, 2020, had filed a complaint before the Captains of Ports and Directorate of Mines and Geology, but no action was taken. “Only after the intervention of the High Court, sand extraction has stopped for the time being,” he said. He further claimed that due to the illegal sand mining, the riverbeds of the Kushawati and Zuari Rivers have been altered in several places.
"The damage done to the river banks is beyond imagination and no authorities are able to check on this. The concerned authorities have just closed their eyes, resulting in permanent damage to the ecology,” said Luel Fernandes, pointing at the deep holes dug by miners over the past five years.
Joao Pixeto, another newly-elected panch member from Guirdolim, said the destruction of riverbanks was a major issue of concern in his ward. "We want action to be taken against all those involved in the illegal sand extraction from the river at Bacho ward in Guirdolim. There has been lots of damage to the bunds, and this endangers people’s lives and livelihoods. We live in fear of flooding, and worry about our crops being destroyed,” Pixeto said.
J Santano Rodrigues, Chairman of the Curtorim Biodiversity Committee, stressed that the concerned authorities should take the local bodies in confidence so that proper vigil is maintained at vulnerable sites, which the police seem unable to do.
"We have heard about sand mining being carried out at Corjuem, Curtorim, but the concerned authorities need to verify it and take action. One thing is clear - the dumping of sand is done here and later clandestinely transported by trucks during night-time," he said.
"We would not object to sand extraction if it is planned sustainably and done manually and if care is taken not to destroy the ecology. It is a source of livelihood for many, but what has been happening in our villages is simply unacceptable,” said Rodrigues.
"The Captain of Ports should also be held responsible for illegal sand mining, as they are too involved in giving licences to canoes, and not checking the plundering happening in the rivers,” he added.