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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Thieves At Canacona

So. I went to Canacona to volunteer my services. Properly equipped with snacks, water, tough comfortable shoes, I was ready for work, but there was no work to be done except building houses which exercise has not yet begun. The next best thing was to accompany my guides to hamlets around the Galgibaga and Talpona rivers to see the damage done.

NSS volunteers, locals and the affected people themselves along with the hot sun had brought those areas to a semblance of normalcy. When one is not faced with the roar of a swollen river gone berserk, frightened people, dying drowning animals and the awful sound of houses collapsing on themselves, one can look dispassionately at the larger picture. Until one met the fragile Shali Chintu Pagi. But more of her later.

It was clear that the rivers were badly silted up. As a result human habitation has crept closer to the water’s edge and right in harm’s way. Ex-MLA (NCP)and ex-Chairperson of Goa Tourism Development Corporation, Fatima D’Sa’s house has become something of a tourist attraction, because she was just a prayer away from swinging on a coconut tree when the raging river rose to cover her storeyed house leaving her stranded and shouting for help on her terrace. The river flows along two sides of her house which in itself must be breaking all sorts of CRZ rules. If there are no rules for riverine construction, there should be. Human life is precious and one really shouldn’t disrespect rivers. Especially not heavily silted ones.

One learned that one should not make sweeping assumptions about people in general, calling them warm and good. As I did in last week’s column on the people of Canacona. I learned that there are a number of seriously dishonest people in Canacona.

I learned about how people who had suffered no flood damage at all, were the first to line up to each collect a cheque of Rs10,000 and cash of Rs 2000 since the flood hit on Gandhi Jayanti, the first day of a long weekend of bank holidays.

I heard about a group of five fisherwomen excitedly leaving the relief centre with cheques and cash clutched in their hot little hands. And how they were followed by a municipal councilor pounding after them equally excited, reminding them that he allowed them to get relief money even though they suffered no damage from the flood, and that since he did their work for them, they had to do his work for him during elections.

I heard about 40 thieves from a hamlet near Chaudi, who collected Rs 12,000 when the flood waters had not even touched the steps of their homes.

These stories have come to the ear of the Mamlatdar of Canacona, who is highly respected as a straight and upright bureaucrat. He has promised to do a cross-checking exercise of all the recipients, and hopefully, will take the money back from those who had suffered no flood damage.

Some pragmatic Canconkars hope he won’t do that because if he does, he’ll be transferred out so quickly, he’ll be a mere blur. This is because workers of political parties across the board are alleged to be in on the scam, helping their near and ear.

I heard that the villagers around Cotigao heard strange noises coming from beneath the ground before the hill itself split open. They feel the water came from there too, not just the cloudburst. Those close to the beach say they saw birds flying in from the sea on the morning of the flood. Not dozens, not hundreds, but birds in their thousands flying in from the sea.

I met a family of pigling siblings that had survived the flood while their mother perished. And I noticed that only in post-flood Canacona will you see refrigerators out in the gardens of houses and around the ruins.

But by far the most heartrending sight was Shali Chintu Pagi of Gallim village, who stood sentinel over a pile of rubble that was once her home. Shali lives alone after her parents died. They say she is ‘simple-minded’. She has lost everything and has no source of income. When the Talpona river burst its banks Shali along with her neighbours ran to their bhatkar’s two-storeyed house and waited on the terrace. She watched her house collapse on itself with all her meager belongings. Everyone we met listed all items of wealth that were lost – gold jewellery, electronic equipment, music systems, fridges, etc. We asked Shali if she had lost gold and other valuables and Shali her eyes large with remembered horror said simply, “I did not have any gold or fridge or TV, but I had lots of cooking vessels and a few clothes which are all underneath this rubble.”

We told her not to worry, her house would be rebuilt with bricks this time and she shook her head sadly, “Who will build it for me? I am alone. I have no one to help me.”

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Canacona – a sign of times to come

Canacona shows us the writing on the wall for Goa. For a few years now, people of this beleaguered taluka have been warning anyone who would listen, that the three major rivers of Canacona were a disaster waiting to happen. They said that the ecological imbalances in the region had led to the narrowing of the three rivers at Saleri, Galgibaga and Talpona. They asked the authorities to listen. No one did.

Like most problems facing Goa today, which anger one half of the population and have the other half on the defensive, the cause is tourism or mining, or both. In the lovely, sleepy taluka of Canacona with its forested hills, gentle rivers and beautiful beaches, the horror that unfolded with a killer flood of two-and-a-half metres height was as unexpected as the sight of a dead buffalo hanging upright with its forelegs through the middle branches of a tree.

With the rivers narrowed and silted up, the water made nonsense of the rivers. The flash flood broke banks, bundhs and nullahs taking houses, plantations, animals and people along with it. Sheer luck, presence of mind and the bravery of the Canconkars themselves who risked their own lives to save others, kept the human death toll at two. Animals were not so lucky.

Could it have been avoided? Locals say that age-old farming practices have been abandoned without a thought to the gradual death of the rivers. Traditional farmers used to remove the silt which accumulated during the monsoons from the riverbanks and used it in their orchards. Now they use artificial fertilizer and let the silt accumulate. Weeds grow on the silt and narrow the width of the river. Worse, with tourism, farming has been abandoned by most families. Instead land has been sold and developed. Khazan lands have been filled up and river banks now have constructions instead of plantations.

I have a special fondness for Canacona because I used to travel with a team of my colleagues to get stories from there. And what stories! How an entire village was sold decades ago to a hotel owner in North Goa and how they are still fighting a losing battle in court. We met Querobina who was 102 years young with sparse salt ‘n pepper hair, and all her teeth intact. She told us wryly that she drank beer, ate pork, and smoked cheroots that had her youngest son in his late 60s gagging. She died two years later.

We met a Dhangar freedom fighter who was educated in jail by another Brahmin freedom fighter Vishwanath Lawande, who shared his cell. The Dhangar settlement was neatly laid out with cool thatched houses, goats grazing and an unending supply of tender coconuts. Our freedom fighter claimed to be older than Querobina but had no written proof of it. He also told us he shot and killed over 300 tigers. It was kill or be killed because he used to carry letters hidden in tins of nashni, from Goa’s freedom fighters over the hills through the dense jungle to a designated tree trunk in Karnataka where compatriots in Karnataka would collect the letters and bring some of their own.

As far back as 2001 locals said it was almost impossible to identify the existence of the river Saleri, as heavy weed infestation had taken over major portions of the river.

We met some wonderful people there. Canakonkars. They are different from us fast changing urban Goans of the rest of Goa. One could say the locals of Canacona are the original Goans, gentle, warm, resourceful. They have been blessed with a beautiful land with no less than three rivers. They have a rich culture steeped in centuries of tradition. Yet they have been cursed with a baffling kidney disease that attacks sometimes entire families or at least one family member.

I learned all this almost 10 years ago. I plan to go this week to Canacona, not to get stories this time but to lend a hand. I can cook, I can clean, I can sew, I can make people laugh and I can write. I can definitely help to remove stones from paddy fields. Maybe some of these qualities can come in handy. Clearing up the fields and getting them ready for planting again is going to be a long process. I wish Querobina was still around, but then again, it’s a good thing she left before she could see the horror unfold.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Bad heir days for India

Like hair they occupy pride of place at the top of the body politick. Like bad hair on a bad hair day, heirs to political dynasties are the first thing one sees when looking at the whole picture of India. In a land with overflowing rivers, mountains and plains, in a land peopled by great minds in science and engineering, the arts and culture, in an ancient land which should have had an ancient wisdom coming down the ages, a bad heir would be the last thing one would expect. But then you see the grinding poverty and poor infrastructure, simple evidence of a people living in the dark ages and you know the bad heirs who have inherited this land are not good for us.

And yet there they are, strutting their stuff while those who apply the election glue to the seat of their pants bow and scrape before them. Look anywhere and you see them, political families taking the place of the royal families that once owned the land and the people who lived on the land. Here in Goa we have the Ranes, the Alemaos, the Madkaikars, the Dhavlikars, the Monserrates and many more.

The Nehru-Gandhi family has been ruling the roost since Motilal Nehru in the late 19th century and still batting at the crease more than 200 years later. Look down South and you have the Karunanidhi clan which even held up the formation of the current cabinet in the UPA-2 government because Karuna wanted posts for his children and members of his extended family.

Nowhere in the world is the heir affliction as pronounced as it is in India. You have the Meira Kumars, the Deoras, the Yadavs, the Scindias, Pawars, Gowdas, Pilots, Dutts, Thackerays. So many sons and daughters have taken over chief minister status from their fathers. Naveen Patnaik succeeded Biju Patnaik, Omar Abdullah succeeded his father Farookh who succeeded his father Sheikh Abdullah; there’s Mehbooba Mufti and many more.

Political dynasties are scattered all over the country and this is not a good development in a modern democracy. When the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 removed the rule of lineal primogeniture where the eldest male member of the eldest line was successor to the throne, in politics crown princes and princesses are installed on the throne by their parents who ruled before.

It’s their right and those before them have made politics their family business. As in royalty their subjects make certain transfer of kingship through kinship is smooth. The more money they make the more certain the fact that their children will inherit the throne. The families also have such a hold on the parties they represent that the parties willingly put up names of the children for candidature. There is no democracy within the parties. Politics is an extremely profitable business. The patronage between the political parties and the political dynasties favour each other at the cost of the common man. Bad heir days are clearly dangerous for India.

Our only hope is that there will be increasing revolt in the ranks of party cadres never mind that it is greed that makes them fight against the heirs taking a larger slice of the pie. Now Rajendra Shekhawat son of Mrs Pratibha Patil, President of India, has been put up for candidature by the Congress Party in the fast approaching Maharashtra elections. The Congress MLA Sunil Deshmukh who has been winning that seat for the last ten years, has been told to shove off and give the seat to “Raosaheb”.

So what’s the solution? As with chronically bad hair, the best thing to do is to condition the heirs, trim them to size, keep a careful eye on them, smooth them, stroke them, discipline them and if the bad heirs persist, cut them, sweep them into a dustpan and dump them in the dustbin of history.