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.”

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