12 Nov 2023  |   06:37am IST

People of Cuncolim get ready for their freedom struggle against pollution

Cuncolim is renowned for playing major roles in Goa’s struggles. For example, the Chieftains’ Revolt is said to be the first battle against Portuguese rule started in Cuncolim. Post liberation, the Opinion Poll Jyot launched from Cuncolim played a stellar role in convincing the majority community against merging with Maharashtra. However, in recent times, the fish meal plants have become a major nuisance as it is thanks to these 10 plants that not only the industrial estate but even an area in a radius of five km around it has a foul odour. In fact, four fish meal plants were fined around Rs 1 crore each for dumping their waste illegally in bore wells constructed within their factory premises without any authorisation. The Goa State Pollution Control Board shut down one of the fish meal plants a few days ago and is in the process of shutting down another one. But will this be sufficient to end the problem, which has taken a toll on the people? The situation is so bad that people are forced to close their windows at night to escape the stench emanating from these plants. In the weekly Herald TV debate Point-Counterpoint, SUJAY GUPTA delves into this critical issue and discusses the implications of it on the lives of local people living in the vicinity of Cuncolim Industrial Estate and the way ahead for the local residents
People of Cuncolim get ready for their freedom struggle against pollution

Cuncolim is known as the land of courage and passion. The sons and daughters of this soil have participated in various struggles for the glory and liberation of Goa. It has given renowned poets, writers, freedom fighters and people from different professions, who have made their State and nation proud. 

Ironically, the same Cuncolkars today are braving the onslaught of industrial pollution. They are struggling to breathe due to the hazardous pollution caused by some of the industries located inside the Cuncolim Industrial Estate. 

The people here now are fighting for freedom from the curse of pollution. All along for the last 10 to 15 years, we have been arguing and litigating on fighting hazardous pollution by different kinds of industries, who have resorted to shortcuts to earn profits. But in the process, they have completely ignored the pollution control guidelines.

The Goa State Pollution Control Board (GSPCB) has a lot to answer, because they have not been able to ensure that these industries carry out their production work under strict pollution control and environment protection norms.  

The debate on this issue should go beyond industrial pollution and look into the fight for health, life and livelihoods as well. The livestock and cattle are dying and people who have been consuming different kinds of hazardous material, including lead and so on and so forth, are all in danger of succumbing at one point of time to some deadly disease.

If this is not checked in time, the repercussions could be very damaging. And this is not some random alarm that has been set off without any basis. There is scientific evidence to point towards this very serious issue. There are new pollutants coming into the scenario. Fish meal plants have exponentially increased and there seems to be no serious effort to monitor them, in spite of the closure of just two factories. 

In a united stand against the growing issues of air and smell pollution emanating from various industries, residents of Cuncolim have been voicing their concerns. The pollution, primarily attributed to fish plants and other local industries, has significantly impacted the living conditions in the area, prompting residents to demand action from the authorities.

The residents expect that their demands will be taken seriously by the authorities, ultimately leading to a cleaner and healthier living environment in Cuncolim.

Sharing his thoughts on the subject, Dr Jorson Fernandes, physician and activist, said, “From the beginning itself there have been issues with this industrial estate. I remember, when this facility was being planned by the Government of Goa in the 1990s, a meeting was being held in our village and we were told that everybody will be getting jobs. That’s the bait, which was put before the people, saying that everybody will get a job and so everybody was happy.”

“Then people asked what type of factories were going to come up. Would it cause pollution for us? The answer was we need to worry as this would be taken care of. That’s how the industries were launched. What we had were the rolling mills. Almost around 14 rolling mills were put up in the Cuncolim Industrial Estate. We had two very hazardous units. One was Nicomet Industries Ltd and the second one was Sunrise Zinc Ltd,” Dr Fernandes said. 

“People hardly understood the pollutants that were being released into the environment till such time. Suddenly people found that it had become very difficult for them to drink the water as there was scum on the water surface. The animals gave birth to dead calves. Everybody was trying to find out the reason for this. Finally we found hazardous chemicals like cadmium, chromium, zinc, copper, lead and arsenic in the groundwater, which was entering the wells and ponds,” he said.

All this happened gradually, because the pollution level went up beyond the permissible limit. So when people started checking all the water samples, this is what they got to know from the GSPCB and it was very difficult for them to know that the pollution levels had gone up to such an extent that it couldn’t be reversed. 

“We tried all the different other agencies of the government. We tried all the other bodies of the government that are supposed to deal with pollution related issues - right from the Health department to the GSPCB, the IDC to the Inspectorate of Factories & Boilers, Government of Goa. Invariably, each one of them passed the blame on somebody else and then we couldn’t track down. So finally I had no other option but to write a letter to the Goa Bench of the Bombay High Court and it was converted into appeal,” he said.

Frenny Rodrigues, a Cuncolim resident, who lives barely 2 km from the hazardous point, speaks about how her life has changed over the years, saying that it’s been 23 years since she got married.

“So, for the first few years, I used to drink the well water. It was so nice. Then after a few years I noticed that there was a foul smell coming from the water and the taste was different too. So, then my husband took the water sample and got it tested. Then we found that the water was polluted. We couldn’t drink it. We drink the tap water, but we don’t know how safe it is,” Fernandes said.

“I used that water only just for watering plants. Now we completely use tap water. But now we have another problem, which is the air pollution and the stench emanating from the local IDC.  It is so severe that we can’t even breathe. Since water is polluted, we can’t drink it. Air is polluted, so we can’t breathe freely. The smell starts emanating from 9 am onwards. It’s a daily affair,” she said. 

The locals get respite from air pollution only when it rains. Once rain stops, the foul smell becomes so severe that breathing becomes difficult.

“So we decided to find a solution to this problem ourselves by hitting the ground. We’ll find a solution because we cannot see this happening. We don’t know what air we breathe, we don’t know how polluted it is and the thing is, when I clean the house, large amounts of black dust containing carbon, can be seen. I cover every food item as our surroundings are full of dust. So just imagine how much pollutants we are breathing and how much it is affecting our lungs. Every day, every second we are breathing all this,” she said.

Prasad Lotlikar, who is a geologist, explained the nature of the pollution sources. One is of course hazardous waste from the polluting industries that are there. But now the fish meal plants are also contributing to this menace. There was an effort to dump all this hazardous waste to an offsite landfill.  

Speaking about the severity of pollution and the success or failure of transporting the waste, Lotlikar said, “First of all, the basic need of human beings is to have clean air, clean water and hygienic food. Here all three components are missing. First of all, the hazardous waste has been lying for more than 14 years in the Cuncolim IDC.”

“The waste is having hazardous metals like Nickel, Cobalt and Chromium. Due to rain water, this toxic waste is percolating inside the ground water and contaminating it. Some people continue to use well water. But they don’t know the adverse effects of these heavy metals like Cadmium, Chromium, Arsenic, Zinc and Lead. These elements will damage your lungs, kidney and also cause blood cancer,” he said.

“The contaminated water enters the fields. The grass that the cattle and livestock feed on, is harmful for them. So, the milk we derive from the cattle or the agriculture produce we get from the farms, are all having hazardous elements in them. So, these toxic elements get introduced in the food chain of human beings. This situation wasn’t there before,” he said.

When asked about the specific problems related to the fish meal plants, Manjunath Shirvant, a young activist from Cuncolim, said, “Our ward (No 5) is the most affected one. The smell coming from these fish plants is increasing every day. They are dumping the waste, which is mixing with drainage water. We have even inspected the fields. Everything is contaminated.”

“We met the fish meal plant owners and confronted them with multiple wants. But nothing happened. The government is playing hide and seek with us. We gave a memorandum to the authorities earlier. Now, we have again drafted a fresh memorandum, which will be finalised on Monday. We have taken signatures of the local people and will hand it over to the CM. We have relevant photographic evidence to support our demands,” Shrivant said.

People of Cuncolim are surely agitated and geared up for a prolonged fight with the government for the sake of their present and future. Cuncolim has always stood up for the right cause and the time for another revolution has arrived for the Cuncolkars. And it is not because people want to take law into their own hands or to cause any disturbance. Far from it, people are wanting to exercise their democratic right to protest in a manner that they feel, the administration will be prompted to act.  

They think that the system, which is not opening its doors to reason and to understanding and empathy, needs to be opened and if they don’t open with a gentle push, the doors need to be knocked and at times to get justice, it needs to be brought down literally. 

The issue is they will go to any extent to see that justice is given to them through all the means that are there in their command. The point is, it has reached this stage because one feels that conversation and empathy has broken down between those who are mandated to protect the environment and the lives of people.

The nexus between these forces with the perpetrators of the pollution seems to be very deep and that is what the feeling is. The local residents have repeatedly said the polluters must pay. But who do they pay? There is an underlying message in this, which any sensible viewer of this programme will understand.

The issue is that if this is true, then you are actually playing with people’s lives you’re playing with not just the environment, but you’re playing with health and lives of not just this generation, but a generation that is to come and generations thereafter. 

Secondly, politicians need to look at themselves in the mirror and ask whether they can sleep peacefully at night and look at the faces of the children and grandchildren. They should ask themselves whether they are doing justice to their future, and most importantly, question should be asked to the powers that be in the State.

All the rulers – MLAs, ministers - should be asked as to why promises made in the Assembly, which is a sanctum sanctorum of the temple of democracy. As they say are not fulfilled, if an inspection has to be made, then be it. Why does the government not promise the people that their grievances would be sorted out in 10 days? Why is it not done? These are democratic desires and needs that should be fulfilled.

These are issues regarding rights of people. Until and unless their rights are protected, we cannot call Goa a functional State. We cannot call ourselves a State, which is on the path for progress. We cannot call ourselves a world class destination. 

We may have our G20s, we may have our big meetings, we may have our National Games, which are all fine, but the point is until and unless we ensure the health of the people and to see that our environment, our soil, our water is completely protected, we have no right to call ourselves as a truly successful democratic State.

Under Article 21 of Indian Constitution (Protection of Life and Personal Liberty), “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”

The right specifically mentions that no person shall be deprived of life and liberty except as per the procedure established by law. This implies that this right has been provided against the State only. 

State here includes not just the government, but also, government departments, local bodies, the legislatures, etc. But the situation seems to be completely opposite in Cuncolim, where the people are fighting for their lives, which is being threatened by pollution, caused by government apathy.


Idhar Udhar