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Sat22Nov2014

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Raising the dust on illegal mining in Goa

By Joseph Zuzarte

Only nine of the 90 active mining leases in Goa appear to be valid, preliminary investigations by the Justice MB Shah Commission reveal. The rest have been exploiting a legal loophole to extract upto 54 million metric tonnes of iron ore per year. Joseph Zuzarte reports on the dust that is, finally, being raised in the state about illegal mining

illegal mining in Goa

The arrival of the Justice MB Shah Commission, set up to inquire into illegal mining in the country, in Goa in September has opened up the proverbial can of worms. Interacting informally with the media on the sidelines of his meetings with Goa Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, and Chief Secretary Sanjiv Srivastava, members of the commission have revealed that preliminary investigations prima facie indicate that only nine mining leases out of a total of 336 in Goa, have valid licenses to operate. Considering that there are around 90 active mining leases in the state, this implies that around 90% of the mining leases in Goa are being operated illegally.

What’s more, of even these nine valid mining leases, some are said to be operating without the mandatory clearance from the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) required for carrying out mining within 10 km of a protected area.

Though this is preliminary information, the unearthing of the ambiguities under which most of the mines in Goa operate following the visit of Justice Shah and other members of his Commission to some of the largest mining areas in Goa last week – the visits are still going on – has the potential to deal a deathblow to mining operations in Goa. The findings of this same Shah Commission, which had also inquired into the illegal mining at Bellary in Karnataka, led to Karnataka Lok Ayukta’s damning report against the Yedyurappa government and the arrest of mining magnate and Tourism Minister Janardhana Reddy and his associates only recently.

According to information provided by the Goa Mineral Ore Exporters Association (GMOEA), 54.45 million metric tonnes of mineral ore were exported from Goa in 2010-11, the highest by any state in the country. In FY 2009-2010, 45.68 million metric tonnes were exported. Most of this is iron ore, with a small percentage of manganese and bauxite (less than 20%). Of the 54.45 million metric tonnes, 48.93 million metric tonnes were sent to China, followed by 3.4 million metric tonnes to Japan. The ore was also exported to South Korea, UAE, Qatar, Pakistan, Thailand, Netherlands, Romania and Italy.

Though most of this ore is of Goan origin, a small percentage comes from neighbouring Karnataka. In comparison, in 1995-96, 15.12 million metric tonnes were exported. The nearly four-fold growth in exports has been largely caused by the insatiable demand for ore from China.

Catering to this demand has led to an unprecedented boom in mining in Goa and consequently all legalities have been thrown to the winds in the rush to excavate the iron ore and export it. It’s been a win-win situation for many – the mining lease owners, owners of lands next to the mining leases, transporters of the ore and, most of all, the politicians and bureaucrats who have facilitated the large-scale mining by bending the rules and turning a blind eye to the flouting of all laws.

The history of the mining leases

To really understand what has happened, you need to go back in time a little, to the pre-1961 period when Goa – then known as Estado de India – was ruled by the Portuguese. At the invitation of the then colonial government, mineral prospectors from Japan surveyed the state and discovered huge reserves of iron ore, manganese and bauxite, mostly in the interior hilly areas of the tiny territory (Goa admeasures 3,720 sq km) in the foothills of the Western Ghats. The then colonial government consequently granted mining concessions in specified areas to explore and extract the mineral ore. In all, 336 mining leases were granted. Only a few were excavated over the years and many remained idle for want of demand because the iron ore was low-grade.

Though the Indian army invaded Goa in December 1961 and ‘liberated’ the territory from Portuguese rule, the status quo was maintained on these mining concessions and they were allowed to operate. It was only in May 1987 that the union government converted them into mining leases through an act of Parliament. In 1987, 336 lease holders applied for renewals of their leases and were renewed for 10 years at a time. But when these came up for renewal in 2007, only nine were renewed and notified by the union government under the Mineral Concession Rules, 1960. The approval period, initially for 10 years, has now been increased to 20 years, so the mines renewed in 2007 are valid till 2027.

Although only nine mining leases have been renewed, in reality there are around 90 mining leases which are being openly operated and which have exported the nearly 54.45 million metric tonnes of ore. This happened because of a legal loophole: lease holders whose applications for renewal have been pending since 2007, took advantage of a clause that their leases are deemed valid till the government decides either way on their applications for renewal of licenses.

This ambiguity led Justice Shah to pointedly ask the state authorities during his meeting with them on September 17, why mining companies were allowed to carry out mining without securing the requisite renewals. He also observed that the authorities could have fixed a timeframe to decide about the applications for renewal.

Talking to the media after Justice Shah’s meeting with him, the Chief Secretary of Goa, the top bureaucrat, said, “We did have a meeting with the Shah Commission, in which a few queries were raised. We will take all necessary steps to stop illegal mining in the state.”

That, however, could only be the tip of the iceberg. There are indications that one of the first high-profile casualties of the Shah Commission’s visit to Goa could be the sprawling Dempo Mines in Bicholim taluka, now owned by Sesa Resources, which in turn is owned by Vedanta. The Shah Commission, in the meeting with Chief Secretary Sanjiv Srivastava, raised questions regarding the transfer and operation of mining leases operated by the Sesa Group which were bought out by the Vedanta-owned Sesa Group in June 2009 from VS Dempo and Company.

Justice Shah has asked if the leases formerly operated by VS Dempo and Co Pvt Ltd have been transferred to Sesa Resources under Rule 37 of the Mineral Concession Rules 1960 after necessary permissions from the central and state governments. This is one of the mines that Justice Shah personally inspected last week. During his visit he inspected all documents and discovered that the Goa government had allowed mining in these leases without seeking permission from the centre to transfer the lease to the new company. Article 37 A also states that the government’s consent on the transfer of lease has to take place within three months from the date of application. The Sesa buyout of Dempo happened on June 12, 2009, more than two years ago.

The Shah Commission members are currently inspecting all the mines operating in Goa and have formed a number of teams comprising members from the union government and state officials to fan out all over the territory and verify all the documents. A clearer picture will emerge when they submit their findings after 45 days.

But on the other hand, if all these mines operating without licenses are now stopped, it will be a deathblow for the mining industry in Goa and have far-reaching consequences. Justice Shah along with other members of his Commission held a public hearing on Saturday, September 17, at the Secretariat, seat of the Goa government. The large pro-mining lobby came to the public hearing in strength and occupied most of the available space in the conference hall, all but shutting out those against mining. Whenever the anti-mining lobby tried to make a point, the pro-mining lobby shouted them down. The pro-mining lobby had one simple demand – legalise all illegal mining because the livelihood of thousands depends on it. To which Justice Shah, in his cool and calm manner, simply observed that legalising illegal mining was not within his jurisdiction. The findings of his Commission will be presented in a report to the central and state governments who will then decide whether to take any action. He reiterated that his findings are not binding and are only recommendatory in nature.

However, in Bellary, the findings of the same Shah Commission were used by the Lok Ayukta, which led to the closure of all mining activities there. A similar stoppage of all mining in Goa will have many ripple effects. For example, because of the boom in mining over the last few years, there are now around 22,000 trucks involved in the transportation of ore to the loading jetties, from where the ore is transported in barges to the ports; there are 357 barges operating at present – up from 136 barges in 1995-96. And that’s not counting the people actually working the mines and other ancillary services, all of whom now face an uncertain future.

Growing opposition

There was a time not too long ago when nobody in Goa would have dared raise their voice against mining activities. Anybody who did was simply smothered, isolated and turned into a social outcast for daring to stand up to the mighty. In fact the first chief minister of Goa after the state was ‘liberated’ from 450 years of Portuguese
rule in 1961, Dayanand Bandodkar, was himself a mining baron. He held absolute sway over Goa till his death in the mid-’70s, after which his daughter Shashikala Kakodkar became chief minister and stayed in office till the early-’80s.

The media too was partially owned by mining houses or those sympathetic to the mining lobby. Only the most sanitised, pro-mining reports ever appeared in the press, therefore, until more national dailies arrived in Goa a few years ago, along with a number of local, cable-based TV channels. Now hardly a week goes by without reports of people’s opposition to mining activities.

The real game-changer, though, was the arrival of mass tourism following the Commonwealth Heads of Government retreat in Goa in 1983, which put the state on the international tourism map. Over the years tourism has grown steadily and in 2008 emerged as the largest industry in Goa, knocking mining off the top spot it had
occupied for decades, ever since the Portuguese awarded mining leases back in the 1950s. Nowadays people are no longer scared to raise their voice against mining.

In the course of mining over the last five-six decades, mineral-rich mountains have simply disappeared, leaving behind huge mining pits, entire villages and communities completely destroyed. What was worse is that very little of the money earned by the big mining firms like the Dempos, Salgaocars, Chowgules, Timblos, Bandekars etc was
pumped back into the decimated villages. A benign mining policy ensured that the state too earned a negligible amount as royalty from the minerals extracted.

Resentment against this exploitative situation has been building up for years and, with the aid of a few committed activists like Claude Alvares of the Goa Foundation and the new media, this resentment has finally come to the surface.

A few months ago, for example, villagers in south Goa’s Quepem taluka halted all mining activities in a lease which involved the excavation of a huge mountain locally known as Dev Dongor (mountain of the gods) because it was sought to be operated without proper clearances.

Claude Alvares’ Goa Foundation has been at the legal forefront against illegal mines. In September the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court issued notices to three major mines which are operating in the buffer zone around wildlife sanctuaries. In December 2004 the Supreme Court had mandated that no mines can be operated in a 10-km buffer zone around wildlife sanctuaries. But the Goa government – the current Chief Minister Digambar Kamat has family links with mining barons; Kamat has also been the mines minister  for the last 11 years– has sought a zero-km buffer zone around the wildlife sanctuaries of Goa as a special case, a proposal unlikely to be granted by the union environment ministry.

There are six wildlife protected areas in Goa, all in the Western Ghats and its foothills. The northernmost is the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary. A little to its south is the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary, followed by the Mollem National Park, the Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary and the southernmost Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary. The tiny Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary in central Goa is surrounded by huge mining pits. The Mhadei is named after the Mhadei river, often described as the lifeline of north Goa because it supplies most of the drinking water in the north; the river originates in the Ghats there. The Mhadei downstream becomes the Mandovi river which is also fed by a number of other smaller rivers like the Volvonti and Surla which also originate in the Ghats. The Khandepar river originates in the Mollem National Park and feeds the Opa water treatment plant which supplies water to most parts of central Goa including the capital Panjim. The Netravali Sanctuary is where the water for the Selaulim Dam originates. There are a large number of mines in the vicinity of the Selaulim Dam The Chapoli Dam which supplies water to the southern-most parts of Goa receives its supplies from rivers which also originate in the Netravali and Cotigao forests.

Because of the large number of mines in the vicinity of the Dudhsagar-Khandepar river system which feeds the Opa water works, there is a perennially high level of turbidity in the water arriving there.

Following a directive from the MoEF earlier this year, 41 mines which operate in the buffer zone of protected areas were issued notices to obtain fresh environmental and forest clearances. However, only seven reverted with the required documents and their licences were renewed. The fate of the remaining 34 mines now hangs in the balance.

Besides the notices from the forest department of the Goa government, the Goa legislative assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, headed by the (BJP) leader of the opposition Manohar Parikar (a former CM) also issued, earlier in September, notices to 46 mines asking them about non-fulfillment of conditions for environmental clearance, including the mandatory NOCs under the Forest Conservation Act, certificates from the Chief Wildlife Warden and under the Air and Water Pollution Act. This effectively covers half the mining leases currently in operation in Goa. Ironically, it was this same Manohar Parrikar who, during his tenure as CM about a decade ago, tried to denotify the Mhadei and Netravali sanctuaries to benefit the mine owners. His attempts failed.

Apart from the forest department and PAC, the Goa State Pollution Control Board (GSPCB) has also issued notices to 30 mines and has suspended three mining leases. The Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM) has also, this month, suspended two mines and issued notices to 21 others for gross violation of the Mineral Conservation and Development Rules (MCDR) 1988. The violations include exceeding production capacity, operations beyond lease boundaries, failing to plant saplings as directed for using forest land, exceeding size of pits, etc.

Watch the Infochange film on the impact of mining in Goa: http://infochangeindia.org/infochange-documentary.html

(Joseph Zuzarte is an independent journalist based in Goa)

Infochange News & Features, September 2011