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In spite of the poor reputation of the mining activity, still it can be continued with measures such as RFID technology, 3D laser scanning systems, onsite inspections and periodic audits could ensure malpractices end or reduce substantially, feels Bhasker Assoldekar

Current mining mess and the way forward


Goans especially those who were travelling into and around Panaji got a rude jolt on March 19 when they were stuck up in traffic jam due to the mining dependents’ agitation. The protest paralysed vehicular traffic along the national highway for hours in which several school children, commuters and tourists were stranded.

In an order dated February 7, 2018, the Supreme Court’s two judge bench directed to stop all mining operations with effect from March 16 until fresh mining leases are granted with fresh environmental clearances. The court thus quashed the second renewal of mining leases given to 88 leaseholders in 2015. The agitation was to protest the mining ban order of the Supreme Court.

So why did the apex court decide to ban mining in Goa? The court felt that the Centre and the state acted in “undue haste in renewals.” The court held that there was no need to take the decision in haste as mining operation was banned for the earlier two years in September 2012 and the urgency suddenly exhibited therefore seemed to be “make-believe and motivated rather than genuine”.

In a scathing indictment it said that, “there was one and only one objective behind the mining activity and that was profit maximisation. The renewal of the mining leases would give considerable profits to the mining leaseholders well beyond the benefits that could accrue to the state or to the average resident of Goa.”

The bench said that the state government should have auctioned the leases  and it, “sacrificed maximising revenue for no apparent positive reason and surrendering itself to the commercial and profit making motives of private companies ignoring the interests of Goan society in general.”

In a significant verdict last year in the Shivshakti Sugar Mills case, Supreme Court Justices Sikri and Sapre had said that, “The court needs to avoid that particular outcome which has a potential to create an adverse effect on employment, growth of infrastructure or economy, or the revenue of the state.” The Supreme Court can’t be insensitive to the potential economic impact that its decisions might have, especially when there is no statutory violation or the violation is, at most, of a technical character. But in the case of Goa mining, perhaps, the judges perceived that the issues are of much more serious nature.

Mining activities in Goa began during the last decade of Portuguese rule. The rest of India had gained independence from Britain and the Portuguese were concerned that Goa would follow suit. Despite the presence of iron ore deposits in Goa being known of for years, they had not been exploited. The Portuguese government decided to permit the excavation and trade of iron ore in order to keep the populace happy by bringing economic prosperity to the state and also earn revenues for infrastructural developments back home in Portugal which was economically stressed after the Second World War.

The Portuguese government granted 893 mining concessions but it was mostly manual. Mining was concentrated in Bicholim, Ponda, Sanguem and Quepem taluka covering approximately 30,325 hectares and carried out by nearly 15 per cent of the population.

Following World War II, ravaged countries like Japan, Germany, Italy and Holland required large quantities of iron ore for conversion into steel – a major input for infrastructural development. Many Goan entrepreneurs decided to explore the opportunity. Post Liberation, with sophisticated excavating machinery the activity started expanding exponentially. The mad rush for iron ore began in the year 2000 with the price of iron ore touching $180 per tonne in the international market. In 2006 alone, China procured 588 million tonne of ore, with an annual growth of 38 per cent.

By now, Goa’s mineral resources were overexploited in a rat race among mine owners and even abandoned mines were reopened. Mining in the state touched 55 million tonne (35 tonne per every Goan per year) in 2010-11 as against 45 million tonne the previous year. This was accompanied by a mad rush to extract everything and send it to China, Japan and South Korea etc. Malpractices became a common place.

An asset which was built up during a million years was attempted to be exhausted within two generations – something unheard of in the world history.

Arguably the mining industry is the single largest employer in the state of Goa with almost 60,000 people associated directly and an equal number indirectly. It also has more than 12,000 trucks and 160 barges with other ancillary equipments associated with it.

However, no one can deny that mining has destroyed local water bodies and dried up rivulets. Both Opa and the Selaulim dam basin which together cater to water requirement of 85 per cent of population are badly affected. Selaulim alone supplies drinking water to half the state’s population, besides providing water for irrigation and to industries. Over 20 mines are operating in the vicinity of this dam and in catchment area. Heavy silt has settled in the dam reservoir because of mining.

It has rendered waste, large swathes of fertile land due to the improper disposal of waste normally waste is two times more in quantity than ore extracted. The resultant dust pollution is also a major problem. Agriculture which was mainstay in that 200 sq km eastern belt of rural Goa has taken a backseat. Unfortunately, the complaints of local villagers were often interpreted as being ‘misguided and a form of ‘emotional blackmail’.

The facts however are, that an estimated 1,00,000 people living in the villages in four talukas in north and south Goa have lost their source of living. Their farms have been destroyed by silt and water sources have been contaminated. Mining thus has caused irreversible damage to forests, agriculture, fisheries and water aquifers. The classic case is the recent news of Harvalem waterfall drying up in mid March itself.

In September 2012, all mining operations were suspended in Goa because of large-scale corruption and a general mismanagement post MB Shah Report. But in April 2014 the top court lifted the ban and prescribed fresh clearances and approvals from the environment ministry and the respective state agencies. The court also placed an annual cap of 20 million tonne. But contrary to the directive, about 88 leases were renewed for the second time for 20 years without fresh environment clearances and that too, with retrospective effect from 2007.

Some of the questions to be asked are: How much of the revenue from mining remains in the state? What are the local fiscal overdue to the government from the mine owners? Who pays for the socio-environmental liabilities, such as groundwater overuse, surface water pollution, encroachment on farming or protected areas, air pollution etc.? Who would pay for rehabilitation? What has been the benefit of mining to Goans at large?

As to the road ahead, the problems caused by mining in Goa are not due to lack of rules and regulations. The problem is the lack of implementation and lack of political will to control the mining operations.

In spite of the poor reputation of the mining activity, still it can be continued with measures such as RFID technology, 3D laser scanning systems, onsite inspections and periodic audits could ensure malpractices end or reduce substantially. It is necessary for the government to know the quantum of ore excavated annually by a company. SC has suggested 20 million tonne cap but government should go a step further and cap every mine so that at the end of fiscal year sanctity of 20 million tonne is maintained.

Measures should be taken to minimise the pollution to environment. Further community development in respect of health, education and livelihoods should be created for the project affected people and other stakeholders of the affected environment. If the PAPs can participate in the whole process of mining and its allied activities and development is people driven then, mining process can continue without rejection from the people. The Mining surveillance system should be given more teeth to ensure that every tonne of ore excavated is accounted for.

In conclusion several measures of welfare have been undertaken by leaseholders and even funds deposited under the District Mineral Foundation (DMF). The government however needs to initiate bidding (auctioning) for granting of leases with fresh ECs without further loss of time so that legal mining could start sooner than later.

In the meantime, there is a need to have SIT recovering the amount from mining companies which were allowed to extract ores in violation of the law. Fresh leases should be given only to those who have cleared all their dues. Part of DMF Fund should be utilised for afforestation and even cashew plantations.

The very nature of mining operations means devastation and irreversible damage to the environment. There is nothing “sustainable” about demolishing entire hills and emptying water tables and silting rivers and clearing dense forests which are thousands of years old with important biodiversity destroyed forever.

After all this, we are at a situation where according to the mining industry itself,  the iron ore is expected to get depleted in ten to twelve years if the speed of excavation was to continue.

The only way forward therefore is that, mining needs to be phased out in Goa and the process needs to start. The process needs to be clearly communicated to all the stakeholders so that the situation like that of March 19 is avoided. Whether mining dependents should try to get compensation from mine owners for whom they worked all along or get it from government is a debatable issue.

If the question is of livelihoods then the time has come to protect the traditional livelihoods of rural affected Goans and introduce new sustainable ways of earning a living without damaging the environment. Government and the political parties would do well to understand and remember that Goa lives and breathes through its villages.

The author is MSc (Tech), MBA (IIM-A), managing director of Vibha Natural Products Ltd, Mumbai

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