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When mining trucks turn man-eaters

Mining trucks, discount which once roamed like muscled, untamed carnivores in Goa’s dusty mining-ravaged countryside, order are slowly turning on their owners.

Streets tracks down the fortunes of two owners of iron ore-carrying dumper trucks whose lives changed overnight after India’s topmost court banned mining and allied activity in Goa, putting over 25,000 mining trucks out of work. The massive orange dumper truck, which until very recently was something of a status symbol in interior Goa’s mining villages, has now become the proverbial albatross hanging around the owner’s neck.

Audoot Navelkar is in the prime of his life at 33. He’s been married for six years and is a proud father of three-year-old Audumber. But of late his wife Akshada has stopped socialising completely. Reason? Audoot had pawned all her gold ornaments to buy a mining truck for about Rs 1.5 million in September last year. The orange truck stands idle near the doorway of his house in the village of Navelim, a mining hub, 50 kms from the capital.

“There seems to be absolutely no hope … I just don’t understand what to do,” Audoot told me, repeating “kitem korchem…? kaich samzanam (What should be done …? I just don’t understand),” time and again in Konkani.

Audoot ‘s sin: Like so many folks in Navelim, he had plunged into the iron ore transportation business last year just as the mining industry was on the cusp of scandal. At the time, the mined ferrous mud was highly valuable.

“Almost everyone my age and older in my village, was into it. All of them were doing extremely well. I too thought I would join the trade and do better in life,” Audoot told me.

Goa’s mining sector, which exports nearly 50 million tonnes of iron ore mainly to China, is worth Rs 2.5 billion annually. Truckers like Audoot corner a very small fraction of that massive pie at the tail-end of the business.

An individual trucker can hope to make a profit of Rs 2,000 per trip ferrying ore from excavation sites at the mines to the ore-landing jetties.

Call it greed, or an urge to better oneself or perhaps a bit of neighbour envy, but Audoot  borrowed money from every available source, including family and friends, to raise seed money of half a million rupees needed to buy the truck.

After just eight weeks of ferrying ore, the scandal-hit mining industry showed signs of wobbling.  Then came the Justice M B Shah commission report which unearthed a whopping Rs 35,000-crore mining scam, triggering a series of events that led to the ban on all mining in Goa by the Supreme Court of India.

This bigger picture isn’t what worries Audoot. His problem is, what now for him and his family? “The decision to get into the business was solely mine. Akshada (his wife) was very sceptical. She later agreed only because I insisted. Now, she’s blaming me for the mess,” he said, adding that there are times when he even thinks of ending his life.

There’s the monthly installment of Rs 25,000 he has to pay the bank against the truck loan. There’s money required to feed his family. And there’s the looming shadow of bankruptcy and shame.

Audoot cannot visit his in-laws and ask them for help because he had borrowed money from his father-in-law, too, to purchase the truck. Like Audoot, thousands of others in Goa who own a mining truck or two are in a pit of despair. A pit which their own trucks helped hollow out by carrying load after load of iron ore, much of which has been illegally extracted, according to the Shah Commission report.

Many of them do have additional incomes from businesses such as eateries and ancillary activities related to mining. But that’s peanuts compared to the hefty bank installments they have to shell out every month to repay their truck loans.

Dnyaneshwar Gawas, 40, who owns three trucks, is livid over the impasse in Goa’s mining sector. “We never did anything illegal. We only transported ore from one point to another. Whether the ore was extracted legally or not, it’s the responsibility of the government and of the mine owners,” he argued.

Dnyaneshwar branched out from his father’s transport business with one truck over a decade ago. Today, he owns another two, one of which was partially financed by a mining company about two years ago. But he is now left with the loan hanging around his neck.

Both Audoot and Dnyaneshwar see nothing other than mining-related activity as an option in Navelim to earn a decent livelihood. “Our fields and orchards have been destroyed. We can’t go back to agriculture, which our families lived off before mining destroyed it,” Audoot told Streets.

So is there hope, anywhere in sight, for Audhoot , Dnyaneshwar or any of the truck-owning tribe? Maybe, says Dnyaneshwar, suggesting that the government should phase out mining in Goa after a window of eight years, which would help those dependent on the industry, to look out for alternative means of subsistence.

Asked in a recent interview whether the mining ban will damage Goa’s economy, Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar said that while some could be hurt in the short term, cleaning up the sector will be good for Goa in the long run.

The story of Audoot and Dnyaneshwar echoes in homes across every hamlet in Goa’s hinterland pockmarked by mining. And in the eerie silence following the mining ban, the echoes have begun to spook.