Iron ore mining: 4 years after SC ban, Goa is sinking back into the pre-2012 mess
In September 2012, the Justice MB Shah Commission submitted a report that made Goa's iron ore mining a household name. The commission found that millions of tonnes of iron ore was illegally mined in Goa by a dozen mining companies in collusion with the Congress government, including its then chief minister Digambar Kamat. It pegged the losses to the state at about Rs 35,000 crore. In October 2012, the Supreme Court suspended all iron ore mining and transportation in Goa.
Now, as iron ore mining slowly resumes after the apex court lifted the ban in 2014, questions are being raised over whether the root causes of the problem - over-extraction, opaqueness and a government-industry nexus - have really been solved.
With the same miners in operation, controlled by the same bureaucratic setup, and with loopholes similar to those that led to the Rs 35,000-crore scam, there's plenty of skepticism on the ground among villagers living near mines, and the activists who helped expose the scam.
What the Supreme Court said
The Supreme Court delivered its judgment in the mining case in April 2014, where it established that all mining in Goa from 2007 onwards was illegal as the leases had not been renewed. Lifting its interim ban of 2012, the court allowed the state to grant mining leases as per state policy.
The legal question of whether leases were secured was only one question of technicality. Much of the ore produced was exported without reporting. The Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee had estimated that out of the 1,949 million tonnes of ore mined between 2005 and 2011, 395 MT or 20% of the total was not reported.
Besides, the problem that had captured much of the public imagination and that affected people and the environment was the extraction of huge amount of ore that caused water tables to drop, agricultural fields to be covered in ore dust, and ravaged Goa's rich ecological landscape.
On recommendations from separate expert committees on environment and mining, the apex court had in its 2014 judgment limited yearly ore extraction to 20 million tonnes.
What the state did
In January 2015, the state government renewed 88 mining leases in the state, out of the 90 active when mining was banned in 2012. Of the 88 leases, the environmental clearance to 61 leases has been restored (the environment ministry had kept all clearances in abeyance in 2012 following the Shah commission report).
Between July 2015 and November 2016, these mining lease holders were given licenses to extract 16 MT in a year by the Goa State Pollution Control Board.
To ensure that these are complied with, the state has put in place several technology-enabled surveillance systems, outsourced to firms in Bengaluru.
All trucks carrying the ore are supposed to be GPS-enabled, and have to pass over weighing bridges at the mines. The weight is fed into a central database where each truck's weight, position and speed are tracked. There are proposals to expand this system to include payments of royalty and filing of export permits, according to a report in The Economic Times, which adds that around 7,000 trucks in the state have been networked into the system.
'Back to the same situation'
On the ground, however, nobody is convinced that these measures have solved the problems that led to the illegal mining of 2007-12. For one, few trucks are found driving below the 40 kmph speed limit.
"The GPS system and its data is controlled by a private firm. What's the guarantee they won't collude with the government? Isn't such a collusion exactly what happened during the scam? The Supreme Court may have said the mining was illegal, but nobody seems to have internalised its true meaning. The bureaucracy has remained the same. The Indian Bureau of Mines is the same," said Ramesh Gauns, a teacher from Bicholim, a mining area in North Goa. Gauns rose to prominence after his petition in the Supreme Court closed down the first mine in Goa, in 2011, near the school where he taught.
"Suppose a truck operates without a GPS. Who is there to check?" Gauns asked.
"There are no safeguards at all," said Claude Alvares, secretary of Goa Foundation, which had filed the Supreme Court case that led to the 2012 ban and the 2014 judgment.
"Staff at the mines department is still inadequate. I doubt the government knows how much ore is being taken out of stacks and how much from the ground. The government still depends on self-reporting from the mining companies and lease holders. This is unacceptable," Alvares said. "These resources are owned by the public. The government is proving to be an incompetent trustee."
With neither the miners, nor the the politicians and bureaucrats involved in the illegal mining punished, there is no more faith in the system than during the days of rampant mining.
While the BJP rode to power in 2012 on the promise of bringing corrupt officials to book, this hasn't happened. In 2015, the Anti Corruption Bureau closed its case against Digambar Kamat citing a technicality. Kamat, who got re-elected in 2012, has just filed his nomination as a Congress candidate from his Margao constituency.
Nor has the purported loss of Rs 35,000 crore been recovered from the mining companies. The major mining firms in Goa include Vedanta Resources-owned Sesa Goa, and local mining titans Dempo Mining, Fomento Group, Chowgule & Co, and Bandekar Brothers. According to the Shah commission's report, these firms owed an additional Rs 5,400 crore to the exchequer in unpaid royalties and unreported exports.
However, the Supreme Court in its 2014 judgment had held that the Shah commission report could not be the basis of acting against the miners since they were not given adequate representation by the commission. As a result, the companies have gotten away without even a slap on the wrist.
What seemed like an earnest beginning at cleaning up the mining mess in Goa appears to have come back full circle, or some would say, to square one.
"Of course, there's nothing to stop mining from taking place the way it did before 2012," said Rama Velip, a tribal farmer from Colomb in Sanguem taluka who is known as a prominent anti-mining activist in South Goa. "There has been no rehabilitation of mining-affected areas, except a school opened by the Mineral Foundation [an organisation funded by mining firms], a couple of computer classes, and some ambulances. We are back to the same situation as before," Velip said.
In Goa's mining belt - which stretches from North to South along the state's eastern end - the roads have been turned a shade of red with loaded trucks constantly passing by. Entrances to many mines that wore a deserted look last month have opened up. Local people say that although some mining began in late 2015, it has picked up in the last fortnight.
In Caurem, a village in Quepem taluka where villagers had been arrested several times for protesting against the mining, one out of five mines has reopened and is operating in full swing. Trucks laden with ore pass by once every four minutes or so. Villagers report that about a hundred trucks pass each way, every day.
During the mining boom, the roads would be jammed as 1,500 trucks passed in a day.
"That's what would happen if the rest of the mines also start here," said Tulshidas Velip, a Caurem resident. "We will have to take to the streets again. That time is coming."