Of ecological damage and the politics of development in Goa
Parindey: Sebastiao Anthony Rodrigues
Alivelihood: Environmental Activist, Researcher
Region: Vaxim, Goa
At a time when many young individuals across the globe—who are both victims and perpetrators of the climate crisis—are advocating for intergenerational solidarity and for their governments to take sound policy-level action, it becomes imperative to discuss individual accounts of resistance against the forces of aggressive industrialisation leading to ecological and livelihood destruction. Sebastiao Anthony Rodrigues, known as Seby to his friends and family, is an environmental activist and researcher based in Goa who has been actively fighting for nature and human rights in the region and elsewhere (briefly in Delhi and rural Jharkhand) for little over three decades. For his activism and community engagement, he has been offered economic incentives, sued in a court of law (when refused to bend), threatened variously, and more. He has fought against mining barons and corporations destroying the regional environment, on behalf of local small-scale riparian communities, and illustrated a picture of Goa that is contrary to the popular imagination. Conventionally, Goa is imagined as a place of tourism, a space where life is relaxed—an idyllic setting. However, Seby’s work shows there is more to it than is known, as is the case for many tourist spots.
Born and raised in Goa, Seby completed his undergraduate studies in Sociology and Economics at St Xaviers College, Mapusa. Around this time, in the mid-nineties, he started working as a part-time journalist covering stories of ground realities in Goa. By the time he was pursuing his postgraduate studies, he was already quite well-versed with the diverse local communities of Goa and their continuing struggles. His brief stint with a law degree gave him knowledge of legal affairs when it came to issues concerning the degradation of the environment. Recently, his doctoral research focused on conflicts in the field of environmental ethics. As part of this, he extensively studied the destruction of fishing in the Zuari river from a grassroots perspective. Conflicts, in the sense, his research focused on the lived experiences of the local small-scale fishers or traditional fishing communities, who use non-destructive fishing gears, vis-à-vis commercial fishing companies. For instance, industrialised fishing enterprises use destructive practices such as trawling or purse-seine fishing methods. Trawling essentially destroys the seafloor as it catches even the smallest of fishes on large scale and in the process destroys the eggs, and releases pollutants stored at the bottom of the sea. This not only destroys the natural habitat of organisms but also destroys the livelihood of traditional fishers who do not catch the number of fish (as the trawler does) in a full season. Furthermore, in the context of Goa, many trawlers catch fish even in the months of monsoon (June-July) when fishing is prohibited. Of late, due to government orders, trawling has been banned. However, many individuals appear to violate the law and use trawling machinery with LED which is very destructive for marine life. The ban during monsoons is because of the regeneration of marine life. Yet the trawlers continue to catch fish in the rainy season violating the law of the land.
According to Seby, the Indian Marine Fisheries Bill 2021 is more of a threat to traditional fishing communities than it does any good. The Bill denies the existence of mechanised fishing by large firms or companies. “This bill proposes to allow mechanised fishing within a radius of five kilometres. It claims there are no large-scale fisheries and only small-scale fisheries exist in India. This is because of pressure from the WTO on the Indian government. Furthermore, the bill claims there are only one type of fishes found. Therefore, the securities that were available for small-scale fisheries are threatened that it may go. Protests are ongoing and several MPs have been informed. All Goa Small Scale Responsible Fisheries Union, an initiative set up by the fishing communities of Zuari, Chapora river, and Arabian Sea, have protested against this bill”, shares Seby who currently functions as the Goa State Convener of Bharat Mukti Morcha (BMM) and is also a member of the National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers (NPSSFW). Both these initiatives continue to fight for the traditional fishing communities and actively object to this problematic fisheries bill. Moreover, another threat faced by the local fishing communities of Goa is high-end tourism, which comes often with the support of the central government. These luxury tourism companies get ownership of the river by acquiring a lease for thirty years and so on. As a result of this, “the river as a space for fishing was replaced with water sports”, claims Seby who has fought extensively against such companies.
Seby was not always so well informed about the challenges faced by the local fishing communities. It took him several hours of interviews, spending time with the communities on the ground, who patiently explained their complex predicament to him. However, Seby’s main focus had always been the mining issue in the region. He planned to pursue his doctoral research on the ecological and livelihood destruction caused by mining in Goa. It was only when he started spending more time in the riverine villages that he changed his mind to focus on the more pressing challenges faced by fishing communities. To know more about certain aspects, which were otherwise not known even to the local fishers, Seby filed an RTI with thirty-six questions to the Department of Fisheries. “This letter got so famous that it went to several official departments in Goa. I would get police officers frequently visiting me at the BITS Pilani campus wherein I was pursuing my PhD as if I were some criminal. However, they came to visit me with responses to my RTI letters”, remarks Seby reminiscing about some of the challenges he faced.
He got support from many local individuals, government officials, and groups. For instance, Govind Jaiswal, an IAS officer, ordered a study to understand the impact of water sports on marine fisheries and fishing by appointing scientists from the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO). This study was never sanctioned, and Jaiswal was shunted soon after. In 2022, the Mormugao Port Trust (MPT), a subsidiary of the Ministry of Shipping, Government of India, was changed to Mormugao Port Authority (MPA), under the Major Ports Authorities Act 2021. Many environmentalists in the region claim this gave the central government even more power and authority to conduct whatever they wanted to within the state of Goa. Therefore, the issue of luxury tourism and the destruction of livelihood for the fishing communities remains an ongoing matter.
Before he engaged with the fishing communities, Seby for almost a decade fought extensively against mining companies in Goa. In April 2001, through a chance encounter at a public meeting, he got to know about water not reaching certain villages despite the region’s close proximity to the sea and rivers. At the time, talking about the mining industry was highly dangerous because of their stronghold and presence everywhere in public life. The mining companies always hired individuals from local areas, especially truckers, and made them invest in the mining industry so the locals do not revolt against ecological destruction. Seby, travelling in the back of such trucks, went to many mines and first-hand witnessed the damages which were being inflicted upon nature. In the village of Pissurlem, the conditions moved him to the point that he authored a poem titled “I love Pissurlem”. After mining was banned in the state, individuals across socio-economic classes who owned trucks faced a major blow to their livelihood. Many since then have actively spoken out against the ills of mining in the region.
It was only around 2007 that protests started to erupt, and mines were consequently ordered to shut down. However, the problem did not end here as “transportations of the remaining ores, especially the rejected ones, would be unloaded in rivers like Zuari and Mandovi”. This contributed to massive ecological destruction. The riparian communities had no idea what was happening. Neither did they anticipate repercussions such as bad fishing seasons, destruction of fish eggs, fish life, water pollution, and so on. “Creating awareness and learning how mining was linked to the issues faced by the fishing communities posed quite a bit of a challenge for me”, shares Seby who has also been at the forefront of a defamation suit for his extensive blogging about the mining issue on the website Mandgoa—an Adivasi-rights research and resource centre, an initiative by the Gawda, Kunbi, Velip and Dhangar Federation (GAKUVED). The issue of illegal sand mining in rivers like Mandovi remains persistent. Most recently, in 2022, Seby has been threatened in many ways to not file police complaints or speak up against the sand miners in the region.
Previously, in his quest to voice the ecological damages inflicted by mines in Goa, in December 2008, Seby was sued in Kolkata High Court by Fomento Group of Industries for allegedly publishing false and defamatory statements. This defamation suit was for 500 crores. However, it is ironic when the issue at hand is in Goa and the case filed is in Kolkata. Many local residents and government officials came in support and argued this was nothing short of harassment. Referring to Seby as a Naxalite, many mining companies tried their best to silence his voice. For Seby, “lack of public awareness allowed mining and hence we used this spotlight to create more awareness on the issue. Consequently, we got great community support from not only Goa but from all around the world”. From around this time, mining had been banned in Goa, yet many individuals continue sand mining after sunset, but this does not go without notice. Many locals call the police because of the awareness generated during the protests. Seby functioned as Convener of Goa Mines Affected People (GOAMAP) for two years from August 2008 to August 2010.
Currently, Seby is also fighting against the illegal sale of Vaxim island (without any of the residents being aware) wherein industries are trying to set up a golf course and other high-end tourism enterprises. In February 2006, it was the Church that sold off this island privately. Until 2010, the residents had no idea that their homes had been purchased. According to canon law, Seby argues, “the Church may sell a piece of land if it wants to build a hospital or school, but to sell off an entire island to private companies without informing the inhabitants of the land is a whole different thing altogether”. Vaxim, relatively unknown although close to Panjim, can only be reached by ferry and is home to local communities for generations. As a current resident of this island, Seby is actively resisting the encroachment of the island as it is a vulnerable geography for any high-end tourism constructions. Since this intrusion, albeit no construction work has officially started, many individuals have moved out of the island to other parts of Goa and elsewhere. Very few residents are left. Yet Seby continues to fight for what he believes to be just for the local community and environment.
In future, his goal is to see empowered communities wherein the public can take up the dissemination of information without any fear of what might happen or help from specialised categories of activists. In his journey, the abundance of support and encouragement he has received from the locals drives him to work furiously against the unequal politics of development in Goa. After all, whose development is it anyway—the locals or the industries? Through Seby’s work, one can see how industries and corporations can be effectively held accountable for their perverse actions. In an age of climate crisis, individuals must resist the external threats and so-called developmental projects imposed by the state and private actors.
Sebastiao Anthony Rodrigues can be reached at: email@example.com