Uncertainty continues in Goa over mining judgment

  • The February 7 judgment of the Supreme Court cancelled 88 iron ore mining leases that were renewed by the Goa Government in 2015, to avoid the amendment to the mineral use legislation that directed auctioning of mines.
  • While the judgment brought hope that there could be a respite from environmental damage that the mines are causing in the state, how the situation will develop depends on the future actions of the Goa Government and the other stakeholders.
  • The mining industry has been causing air pollution from tailings, depletion of water in dug wells and pollution of the rivers. It has also been providing employment and contributing to the state’s economy.

The Supreme Court’s judgment of February 7, cancelling the renewal of 88 iron ore mining leases in Goa, has left the industry shell-shocked and environment activists hopeful of regulations in mining. However, the judgment has left many uncertainties that will clear depending on the future course of action by the stakeholders.

The Supreme Court judgment quashed the 88 mining leases renewed by the Goa Government in 2015 to benefit private mining leaseholders. These leases were hastily renewed to circumvent an amendment to mining legislation. The Mines and Minerals Regulation and Development Amendment Act (MMRDA Act of 2015), makes auctions mandatory for commercial mining of minerals like iron ore.

“The impact of the judgment of the Supreme Court is substantially negative on the industry and various stakeholders and has adverse repercussions for all stakeholders”, was the only official comment from the Goa Mining Association (GMA) and the Goa Mineral Ore Exporters Association (GMOEA), the two trade bodies representing the sector of mine owners and ore exporters. Regional leaseholder private companies, many of whom have been operating their mines for 60 to 70 years, are faced with the prospect of losing their leases, or competing in open auction with national industry players for commercial exploitation.

A mining pit in Sonshi village. Photo by Pamela D’Mello.

However, the judgment rattled the state government. Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar began a series of meetings with stakeholders, legal experts and held an all-party meeting with legislators to assess views and suggestions for ways out of the deadlock. He told media that all legal implications and options available to the state government would be explored to resume mining and protect the interests of the state.

Frenetic mining till March 15

With the Supreme Court giving the mining industry time till March 15 to wind up operations, frenetic extraction and transportation of ore to jetties is reported from the mining belt, to the dismay of anti-mining activists. Operations that were limping along due to low global demand for the Goan ore this fiscal, have dramatically increased since the February 7 order. “Where earlier 2 rippers were used, now 5-6 rippers have been pressed into service and ore is being extracted and transported,” said anti-mining activist and teacher Ramesh Gauns.

A truck exiting a mine pit. Photo by Pamela D’Mello.

The state government’s calculation is that ore extracted in the next month, along with 4 million tonnes of e-auction ore with the state government and one million tonnes in existing stock, would keep exports going until May end, when the industry shuts for the monsoon. The chief minister announced that he was confident of thrashing out a solution before the season resumes in September 2018.

Tailing mountains, dry wells and polluted rivers

Six decades of open cast mining in Goa has left a deadly ecological footprint. For every tonne of ore extracted three tonnes of waste or overburden is generated on an average in Goa. The state has accumulated 764 million tonnes of waste dump mountains, many over 30 metres high, strewn all over the mining taluks of Sanguem, Bicholim, Quepem and Sattari. Miners were demanding a zero duty regime on these low-grade rejects (45 percent iron) to monetise them in the international market.

Waste/overburden dump hills. Photo by Pamela D’Mello.

Monsoon runoffs from these dumps have meanwhile silted drains, springs, tanks, rivers, including the Selaulim Dam and Opa Water Works, besides flowing into nearby fields and plantation areas, greens have pointed out. In its petition before the Supreme Court in 2012, the Goa Foundation pointed out that mine encroachments had been found on 11,000 ha of forest land. A total of 32 mines were located within the one kilometre ecologically sensitive zone of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.

According to Claude Alvares, secretary, Goa Foundation, the NGO that petitioned the Supreme Court, resulting in two mining closures in 2012 and 2018, no effort has been made in the past years, to repair even 2 percent of the damage done before 2012. “Right now there are a 100 mining pits with water in them because they have gone below the water table, and have sucked out all the water from neighbouring wells. That’s a colossal problem,” said Alvares.

While the mine pits below the water table have rendered several villages dry, dust and air pollution, besides silting problems have completely destroyed agriculture as an occupation in mining belt areas. Villages along the truck transport corridors face accidents and dust pollution that is beyond the threshold limit for industrial areas.

Ore is transported from mines to 57 loading jetties on the Mandovi and Zuari river, from where river barges ferry them to ships at the Mormugao and Panjim ports. An estimated 3500 barge trips per annum on the rivers have caused its share of oil pollution and damage to estuarine bunds and fisheries over the years. “The 15 % the state government gets as royalty payment is not enough to even repair the ecological damage done, which is simply externalised in current economic thinking” commented Alvares.

Dust coats everything. Photo by Pamela D’Mello.

Is it a jump from the frying pan into the fire?

But despite the Supreme Court orders and several reports, there is serious worry that the solutions could be worse than the problem. “Auctioning of leases will make the situation worse than today. The MMRDA Act provides for auctioned leases for 50 years duration. After 50 years, will the tribal villages in such lease areas, even survive in this scenario? I don’t think so,” said tribal activist Ravindra Velip, who has been advocating that mining be handed over to co-operative societies of tribals, workers, villagers and mining dependents to run.

Alvares’s Goenchi Mati Movement has been advocating that the government keep the leases, while a government corporation could operate select mines by contracting excavation to tribal co-operatives or even mining firms, and auction the ore through a public sector mineral development corporation, where profits could accrue directly to the exchequer. Nine other states have mineral development corporations that are listed on the stock exchange, but not Goa, he said. Though Goa accounted for 40 % of iron ore exports from India, it never had a mineral development corporation, because of a colonial heritage of private mining companies that have consolidated a majority of the leases.

This idea is not acceptable for the state government. Chief Minister Parrikar, who is also mines minister, has indicated government is disinclined to take the public sector route.

However, within the ruling coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Goa Forward Party minister Vijai Sardesai is not in favour of the auction route for commercial exploitation of the ore. “We don’t want outsider mining mafias to enter Goa. If everything is up for grabs, then how will we prioritise the interests of the local people?” he asked.

According to Alvares, 50-year leases under the auction route will be ecologically devastating. “It means that for 50 years the mines do not need to be rehabilitated, because the rules say that as long as there is ore in the ground, the mine cannot be closed. So it will never get closed.  And you can imagine what is going to happen,” he pointed out.

Air pollution on the road. Photo by Pamela D’Mello.

The economic implications of the order

The series of setbacks to exports since the 2012 closure and downturn in global prices from 2017, has reduced mining’s contribution to Goa’s GDP from 18 % to 4 % currently, and reduced royalty earnings (Rs 2 billion this year).

“There are around 25,000 workers directly working in mines, either on contract or permanently. Another 25,000 work in ports and the transport sector, and many more in ancillary machine operations, repair workshops and other associated sectors. There is worry of job losses, but since the chief minister has said he would find a solution, we do not want to add to the confusion, but will wait and watch at the moment,” said mining union leader Christopher Fonseca, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress in Goa.

Goa’s 90 working mines operate in a 200 square km core mining area. The GMOEA estimates that prior to 2012, exports contributed USD 7 billion per annum in foreign exchange. Come 15 March, extraction will cease at the mine pits, but the state government is interpreting the order to suggest that exports would continue with stocks in hand until May 2018, when the season closes.

Any time frame for resumption of mining would depend on what options the state government exercises. The possibilities being explored include running a public sector corporation, auctioning the mines or asking for a judicial review by stakeholder sections. Until then, the uncertainty will continue to prevail.

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