Gauree Malkarnekar| TNN | 

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GOA: “Don’t underestimate the power of the common man,” he said, sitting at his home in the heart of Bicholim town. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had approached him to contest polls, which he politely refused.

From working relentlessly to allow dalits in Goa’s villages to use community water sources to encouraging inter-caste marriages, to exposing superstitious practices, teacher-activist Ramesh Gauns has dedicated himself to social causes since 1977.

But his mission in life was to bring errant mining companies to their knees. His activism not only made mining companies follow regulations on dumping of mining wastes, but also resulted in the rehabilitation of used mines, making him somewhat of a messiah for Goans.

It was a casual grumbling by a neighbour on how children from a school were forced to walk through mining sludge that led to the start of a full-fledged movement in 2003, which advanced to a mining ban in Goa in 2012.

This feisty anti-mining activist is quite a different person in reality, who goes all pensive on an unattained desire in life. “My only regret is that no one taught me to sing. As a child, I was good at drawing, cricket, football and badminton. I was the first person from Goa to go mountaineering in 1968. I later acted in numerous dramas and directed at least 100. I write poetry too. Today, my students find it hard to believe this side of me,” said an ever cheerful Gauns.

With his wife Shardha recuperating from a brain haemorrhage, Gauns begins his day with cooking for his family. This national awardee school teacher then reports to duty. And, by the time he is back home, there is already a queue waiting for him, some looking for assistance on writing RTI applications and others for legal help. Gauns taught himself law to counter the authorities appropriately.

“The national and international media, which have come here to make documentaries on my work, told me that I single-handedly do a whole NGO’s work. But I prefer it this way. I don’t like to associate myself with any NGO. I don’t want any obligations. I have been offered lakhs of rupees of foreign funding and crores of rupees in bribes, but I have refused them. Then there were parties like AAP asking me to contest the polls. I said a stern no,” said the unusually soft-spoken Gauns.
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Born at his mother’s house in Betki, Gauns spent much of his childhood there, playing by gurgling streams amidst dense plantations. There, he believes, the anti-mining activist was born, who would, decades later, question the likes of the Centre for Science and Environment over the impact of mining on water sources.

After schooling at Bicholim’s Shantadurga High School, Gauns moved to Chowgule College in Margao, but he had to soon shift closer home to St Xavier’s College in Mapusa as his health suffered due to the lack of good living facilities away from home back then.

Gauns soon launched his activities to abolish superstition and began to train students to complete their education after ‘schools discarded them as useless’. He was often faced with aggressive mobs in his quest to do away with casteism, but he refused to give up.

“In the early 70s, I got a job as a draftsman with Chowgules. It was a well-paying job then and when I eventually decided to leave to be a school teacher, people laughed,” said Gauns.

What shaped the Gauns of today, he opines, were a few experiences including the visit to North India through the Gandhi Foundation during the Sikh riots and to North-East India during the height of Hindu-right wing violence against Christian missionaries.

Gauns has even scripted a concept of progressive weddings, where he conducts the marriage ceremony. “If we do not believe in the caste system, why should we call a priest from a particular caste to perform a Hindu wedding ceremony,” he asked.

Taking his activism a step forward, Gauns drew names for his children from different religions; Annie, Salma, Kurnd and Akash. He, however, said he does not expect his children to take after him in any way. “Different human beings are shaped by their own varied experiences. They cannot be made with a laboratory-like formula,” he added.

No matter how busy or difficult his day is, Gauns ends it with reading. “I read anything and everything, from Sane Guruji, to Gandhi, to Aristotle, to Socrates. But, in the end, it is important to draw only what you believe in and become your own person,” he said.