Mining and its dusty shadows

Last Updated : 04 April 2016, 18:20 IST

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Tension is brewing in the tiny state of Goa. On March 23, Ravindra Velip, panch (head) of Caurem-Pirla village in Quepem taluk, who has been protesting against illegal mining and transportation of e-auctioned iron ore, was blindfolded and mercilessly beaten up in Sada sub-jail.

His medical reports show multiple fractures on his left hand, besides bruises all over his body. Ravindra, along with four more villagers, was remanded in judicial custody on March 22, as they had stopped transportation of e-auctioned iron ore. These Adivasi residents of the village allege that under the garb of e-auction, excess quantities of iron ore was being lifted by the companies. Social activists have termed the incident as the comeback of mining mafia in Goa, which exposes the nexus between the state authorities and the miners. And, they are not wrong.

On March 10, over 100 people, mostly women, were taken into preventive custody when they blocked the passage of trucks carrying iron ore at Sonshi village in Bicholim taluk of North Goa. These women were protesting against pollution caused due to transportation of iron ore through their villages. They were also demanding that a mining firm should provide medical facilities to the local people.

 Their protest, however, was seen as means to extort money from the mine owners, leading to their arrest. The protestors were later released by police, but the incident signals return of the face off between local villagers and Goa’s mining industry, which, for more than a decade now, are at loggerheads over illegal extraction of iron ore and environmental destruction.

The beginnings

It was the Japanese prospectors who discovered the first traces of iron and manganese ore in Goa in 1905. A flourishing mining industry developed in the next 40 years. In 1971, 10 million tonnes (mt) of iron ore were being exported from Goa. This figure rose to 15 mt in the 1980s. By the 1990s, both price and tonnages rose further.

The real spurt came in the early 2000s with a very high demand for steel and its raw materials in China in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics of 2008. The state then had over 90 iron ore mines that produced iron ore fines (powdery iron ore), sold mostly in China, where steel mills had the technology to mix Goa’s low-grade fines with expensive high grade ores to create a cheap blend for their blast furnaces.

It is estimated that by 2011, Goa, India’s third-largest iron ore mining state, was producing about 45-47 mt of iron ore. In a hurry to extract the ore, all rules and regulations were set aside, leading to an environment crisis in the state. Much of the mining activity was illegal and miniscule royalty was paid to the government. Mines with expired leases were still operating. Several mining operations had encroached the forest land. In 2011, the state legislature-appointed public accounts committee (PAC) informed that nearly half the active iron ore mines in Goa were illegal and had caused the state exchequer a loss of at least Rs 3,000 crore since 2005.

This is not all. Several sponge iron factories came up right in the middle of villages, spreading pollution and health problems. It must be noted that sponge iron plants are ‘red category’ industries and have very high pollution potential and can cause serious health hazards. The manufacturing process releases extreme heat and smoke containing oxides of sulphur and carbon, unburnt carbon particles and silica.

Predictably, locals started protesting against mining operations and sponge iron factories.Some filed Right to Information (RTI) applications to gain more information about the mining activities, whereas others blocked roads to stop the entry of iron ore laden trucks in their area. Response to some RTI applications revealed how the mining companies had lied about plant location and fudged data to get environmental clearance.

Mounting public protests forced the Goa State Pollution Control Board (GSPCB) to shut down five sponge iron plants in 2006. The Goa government decided not to set up any more sponge iron plants in the state.

Amid these public protests and brazen operations of the mining mafia, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court (SC), which lead to the appointment of Justice M B Shah Commission in November 2010 to look into illegal mining and exports in Goa, Karnataka, Odisha, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

On September 7, 2012, the Shah Commission report on Goa was tabled in the Parliament along with an ‘Action taken Report’ of the Ministry of Mines. The Commission made some startling revelations (see box). Three days later, on September 10, the Goa government passed an order suspending all mining operations in the state with immediate effect. The Union environment ministry also revoked environmental clearances of all 139 working mines in the state. In October 2012, the SC, too, suspended all mining activities in the state and banned trading and transportation of the ore. Ever since then, there has been a lull in Goa’s mining industry. Goa government claims that nearly 1,50,000 people directly or indirectly dependent on the mining industry have been affected and that India has suffered a loss of $ eight billion due to the ban.

Conditions apply

The SC lifted the mining ban in April 2014, but ruled that iron ore extraction would require clearances from the environment ministry and approval from the state government. All mining activity post 2007 was termed illegal and the court ordered issuance of fresh leases. It set an annual cap of 20 mt of iron ore extraction in the state. However, the controversy around illegal mining in Goa is far from over. Between November 2014 and January 2015, Goa government renewed 89 mining leases. In March last year, the Union environment ministry granted environmental clearances to 72 mining leases.

Subsequently, the GSPCB granted consent to operate to 57 mining leases to mine 13.79 mt of iron ore. But, Goa Foundation, an environmental action group, has already challenged renewal of these mining leases and the matter is again before the SC. This entire gamut of Goa’s mining mafia has been well documented in a recent publication, Eat Dust: Mining and Greed in Goa, by well-known journalist Hartman De Souza, who travelled the length and breadth of Goa for several years while mining was still operational in the state. With mining activities poised to resume in the state, which is often referred to as mandkulem.

(a Konkani word lovingly used to denote a baby crawling on the floor and beginning to discover its world), will Goa’s future be any different from its ecologically-destructive past?
Published 04 April 2016, 18:17 IST

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