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A Goan village besieged by mines is fighting back

Corporate Sep 28, 2011

She cremated her hubby on her land to thwart Goa's miners

By Raman Kirpal

Goa's illegal miners have been challenged by scores of intrepid citizens. This is the story of Cheryl D'Souza, who has sustained a fight against illegal miners, including a minister in the Digambar Kamat government, for several years now.

Cheryl is a 43-year-old widow in village Maina in south Goa. Eighteen years ago, when she was 25, she had bought a huge tract of land (seven lakh sq metres) to live a rural life. Married to Anthony Sanfrancisco ("Tony" to friends), they made their money in a furniture export business. They lived an ideal rural life till the politicians started coveting their iron-ore-rich land.

As long as Tony was alive, the miners did not harass them, but in 2006 he was electrocuted in an accident. The harassment began soon after.

Cheryl D'Souza with her daughter. Raman Kirpal/Firstpost

"When Tony died, it just came full in my face. I had never seen people like these. When good words (to get me to sell the land) didn't work, the threats started. Joaquim Alemao (Minister for Urban Development) bought two-lakh square metres of land bordering my land from a farmer at throwaway prices. And then he put pressure on me to buy my land."

But Cheryl refused and faced veiled threats. "When I refused, he turned around and told neighbours: 'Is this woman mad? I don't want to do anything to her. She is sitting there with the kid.'"

Cheryl, who lives with her 85-year-old mother Dora and 11-year-old school-going daughter Aki, keeps dogs, including two Rottweilers, to defend her land from attack by the miners.

But her strongest act was her decision to cremate her husband in 2006 close to their farmhouse!

"They (Joaquim Alemao and other miners) did not expect that I would virtually sit (over my husband's body) and say cremate. First, I am Catholic. Second, people are so scared of having this (cremation) done on their own ground. I had taken permission from the Bishop. I categorically asked Joaquim Alemao's cronies: 'My husband's grave is here... My daughter is here... Do you want me to run away?'"

So what did they say to that? "They promised that they would make a beautiful temple on my husband's grave after I sell my farmhouse to them. And they offered Rs 40 crore for my land!"

Cheryl was stunned by the price offer.But then hers is the last bit of green left in her village. "I got several calls threatening gang-rape of my daughter and to kill me. It's easy for me to take Rs 40 crore and go, but I can't take away this farmhouse from my daughter. She has associated her father with the farm. She was six when he died. You can't take away her father and her home," says Cheryl.

When Joaquim Alemao began cutting down the trees nearby, Cheryl went from government office to office. Alemao had no permission to cut trees. She managed to stop him.

Then came another miner - Tarcar. His mine is a stone's throw from Cheryl's house. She protested along with her mother. Both of them were put in jail on charges of carrying arms. They spent one day in jail. Thejudge, however, took one look at Cheryl's 83-year-old mother (in 2008) and mockingly asked the police 'what terrorist are you talking of?'

Cheryl's furniture export business ended with her husband's death. She is now into a private job. She doesn't know how it is going to end. Her daughter is 11 and she may be pushed around for the rest of her life.

"They (the miners) are greedy. They will never give up. But I don't have a choice," Cheryl says. She has constructed a 4.5 km long wall around her farmhouse. "These miners call this wall my folly. But I have conveyed to them that we do not sell out our `dead' cheap,'' says Cheryl.

by Raman Kirpal

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