- The brakes have been put on the once-flourishing mining sector in Goa, following litigation on illegal mining of iron ore and manganese in the state.
- Plans to revive the sector has so far yielded no results and the fate of 6,000 workers hangs in the balance.
- Ironically, the deadly impact of mining on surrounding areas is such that it kills agriculture, and leaves farmers dependent only on mining and other ancillary occupations.
On February 26, this year, mining unions, workers, truck, river barges and machinery owners staged a shutdown in major mining towns in Goa. Their demand: governments at the Centre and state must take legislative steps to restart the iron ore mining industry in the state in “public interest”, at the earliest.
Once a major earner of gross domestic product (GDP) – Goa’s iron ore comprised 40 percent of the sector’s low grade ferrous exports from India before it sputtered to a stop due to a slew of litigations by environmentalists and the M.B. Shah Commission Report on illegal mining of iron ore and manganese in Goa. In February 2018, the Supreme Court quashed the Goa government’s second renewal of 88 leases, ordering established firms out of the sites they had mined for decades. It left the Goa industry shell-shocked.
Over the past year, industry stakeholders – from mine owners, mining firms and ore exporters to workers’ unions and river barge, truck and machine operators – have been rallying together to exert pressure on the central and state governments and elected representatives for a legislative solution to revive the sector.
However, numerous delegations to central ministries and even the Prime Minister, have failed to yield results as have numerous other protests, including a sit-in in New Delhi. With the 2019 elections around the corner, stakeholders, backed by the industry, have amped up pressure on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state, which is keen to retain its two Lok Sabha seats. Facing the heat are BJP’s North Goa Member of Parliament (MP) Sripad Naik and South Goa MP Narendra Sawaikar.
BJP MPs and Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) have kept alive the hope among increasingly restive stakeholders that the Centre would intervene on Goa’s behalf with an ordinance or legislative relief. But as that prospect dims, with the election code of conduct now in place, the spin from political managers in the BJP has increased – to offset the electoral damage it could face.
“I am confident that the Centre will come out with a solution,” said BJP power minister for Goa Nilesh Cabral, an active spokesman for mining and an MLA from Curchorem in South Goa – the heart of the mining area, now affected by the shutdown. The opposition, Congress, who are hoping the backlash will singe the BJP in the upcoming critical by-elections for two seats and then the general election, are making the most of the situation. “They have fooled the people in the past one year,” said state Congress president Girish Chodankar.
State-Centre tussle over mining leases
Both the opposition and ruling parties in Goa have politically endorsed restarting mining. On August 3 2018, the Goa Assembly passed a unanimous resolution backing early resumption of mining in public interest. Former Goa chief minister, late Manohar Parrikar met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 7, 2018 to discuss the situation and wrote twice to Union Minister of Mines Narendra Singh Tomar since September 2018.
Goa is seeking the Centre’s legislative intervention on the 2015 Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) or MMDR Amendment Act’s new auction regime. One contention is that the Goa leases ought to qualify for the deemed 50-year period granted to mining leases under section 8 A (3) of the MMDR (Amendment) Act 2015, and be valid until 2037 and not come up for auction prior to that year. This arises from several disputed legal positions.
The Centre and the state of Goa have long tussled over mining leases. Since Goa’s liberation from a Portuguese colonial government in 1961, the Centre had repeatedly attempted to cancel the concessions given under a 1906 decree in perpetuity to mine owners, and turn them into leases under the then MMDR Act, 1957. The protracted tussle led to the Goa Daman and Diu Mining Concessions (Abolition and Declaration as Mining Lease) Act, 1987, that came into force that year. Another contention is that the 1987 Abolition Act – currently pending challenge before the Supreme Court – was retrospectively applied to the leases from 1961 onwards, rather than prospectively from 1987.
Replying to a ‘calling attention’ motion in January 2019, then Chief Minister Parrikar had said that the Goa government had, even before the February 2018 Supreme Court order, made this position clear to the mines ministry. In a meeting in 2015, shortly after the MMDR Amendment Act was passed, he said the Goa government had notified the central mines minister that the “deemed leases in Goa, as per Abolition Act, 1987, need special attention to bring them at par with the leases protected for 50 years in the rest of the country. The said demand is not negated so far by the central government explicitly in any of the communication received by the state government till date”.
With the upcoming elections in the country, the ruling party has made conflicting statements to balance both its electoral prospects and central policy of auctioning mining leases. Mines minister Tomar was quoted saying that “the Centre can’t intervene” while Suresh Prabhu, Union Minister for Commerce and Civil Aviation, assured people in Goa that “the central government wants to find a solution and (is) working with Goa to find a joint solution.”
In 2018, all state governments were asked to prepare an action plan to effect a smooth transition to the auction regime under the MMDR Amendment Act 2015, for mining leases due to expire in March 2020. The Goa government’s reply to the mines ministry’s request is not conclusively known and bureaucrats have refused to comment on this aspect. “We have told the ministry that no mines will come up for auction,” said Cabral, who is often seen to oscillate between pressurising the government and defending it. Cabral recently said that 110 leases, including the 88 renewed last, were not open for auctions, and he would oppose his government if it went ahead. Of the concessions originally given out on land free from habitation, some 110 are considered working mines, spread along the state’s eastern interior taluks of Bicholim, Sattari, Ponda, Quepem, Sanguem and Dharbandora.
Mine workers’ future at stake
Loss of employment and revenue to the state and loss of business for truckers, barges, machine operators, workers and ancillary downstream sectors are the key factors behind the demand of a speedy resumption of mining. “We have already been shut for a year. Thousands have lost jobs. If mining is not resumed quickly, nearly 6,000 workers who are still on the payrolls will also be laid off, while the existing inventory of 7,000 trucks, 220 machines and 150 barges will rust and rot. All the market towns in the interior regions have developed around mining and the economy is hit badly,” said trade union leader and Goa Mining People’s Front (GMFP) leader Puti Gaonkar. Over the past year, several mining companies have retrenched workers, retaining only a skeletal workforce.
Gaonkar also echoes the anti-auction stance. “Auctions will take a long time. And mine owners will challenge it and not give up easily. Mining in Goa is different from other states, where the government owns and leases the land. Here the land and surface rights belong to the mine owners. They will litigate and demand adequate compensation and that will hold up the entire industry,” said Gaonkar. Apart from holding regular protests, the GMPF has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court in the lease renewal matter. In February 2019, the GMPF also filed an interlocutory application seeking early hearing of a batch of matters pending in the Supreme Court, related to appeals and challenges by Goa’s mine owners to the conversion of their concessions into mining leases by the 1987 Abolition Act. The miners have challenged the constitutional validity of the Abolition Act. Reportedly, on March 13, 2019, the Union Mines Ministry has also filed an IA seeking a hearing in the matter, pending before the court for the past 20 years.”
Politically, negotiations over the central government’s intentions to redress Goa’s mining industry situation may well be deferred to after the elections. In the interim, the state government, in efforts to retain its vote bank, had granted subsidies to mining dependents to clear bank dues. However, the ruling BJP might find the going tougher for the upcoming poll, given the anger across the sector, especially since the promised “legislative cure” from the Centre has not come through. Late CM Parrikar had told the Assembly that the state government was in ongoing discussions with the Centre for resumption of mining and that a “legislative solution” was preferable.
No turning back
Environmental action group Goa Foundation initially argued that auctions would fetch Goa optimal price for its ore. It advocated setting up of a Permanent Fund with the monies to benefit the state and to offset the damage. The Foundation now feels the state government ought to set up a mining corporation and grant bidding firms excavation contracts for ore that could be sold through the Metals and Minerals Trading Corporation (MMTC) of India. This follows increasing concerns in the state that far from providing any succour, auction of mine leases could land Goa’s fragile environment from the frying pan into the fire, if new and more powerful companies entered the mining space.
A mining cap of 20 million tonnes per annum has been applied to the state to restrict the disastrous consequences of over-mining. “But we have sought a further reduction in this cap. We feel that a maximum of 12 million metric tonnes a year is what is possible, and if you take the 200 year apportionment for intergenerational equity (concept that future generations have an equal right to inherit as much opportunities and resources as has the current generation), then it should ideally be capped at 5 million metric tonnes per year,” said Dr. Claude Alvares, director of the Foundation.
Open cast iron ore mining in Goa has left a devastating environmental footprint in Goa. All vegetation is cleared before excavating out tonnes of ferrous rich red laterite soil to sift out the ore. Reject mud piled onto adjacent land into artificial unstable mounds have leached into neighbouring fields, rendering them useless, while mining pits that spiral down to deep pits suck out ground water from the area’s water table into the pit. This renders neighbouring wells springs and wells dry. It’s a double whammy for farming villagers when the water that has to be regularly pumped out of working mine pits floods fields with mining silt. An estimated 764 million tonnes of waste dump mountains, some over 30 metres high and cover around 27.96 square kilometres of surrounding land area.
Ironically, the deadly impact of mining is eventually what creates a situation where mining becomes indispensable. “Mining undermines all other natural resources in the area except for iron ore. It dries all water sources and creates water logging the fields. No other occupation is possible. It kills agriculture and, therefore, farmers take recourse to providing trucking, machine operation, labour and other services to mining. This is why people clamour for it to restart, even though the industry has completely destroyed their villages,” said long time anti-mining environmental campaigner Ramesh Gauns. At the height of the mining boom in 2010, when dead non-working leases were illegally revived, farmers in the new mining areas had protested, but the money power of the sector has brought all opposition to its knees.
“Now, people want mining back. Nobody wants to do agriculture – the soil is dead from all the mineral pollutants,” rues Gauns.
In the heart of the mining belt, once green villages, now brown after 50-60 years of mining, are languishing from the dust-laden air, perennial truck movement and water scarcity. “In good years, mining returns can be huge. Villagers who made money plying mining trucks have built their bungalows in other towns, while those who don’t have money have to stay back,” said Gauns. Among those left behind, life has become a trade-off between the pollution and the perks (like jobs, contracts, school buses and water tankers) that mining companies once provided. And the only respite is bringing mining back.
Banner image: Artificial hills created by mining rejects. Photo by Frederick Noronha.