The pain on the faces of farmers in Goa's Sirigaon village tells a tale. A tale of ruin. Their wells and lakes have dried up. The soil has been corroded. Lush farms have become mere memories. Memories grimy with dirt from the iron mines.
“In our childhood, we used to play in the fields you now see a large crater. Today, children can't go anywhere near it,” says Dinanath Gaonkar, 50. “We used to grow ragi and vegetables there. Now, they are all gone. Half the village, including our 100-year-old temple, is under mining lease.”
The situation in Pisurli village is no different. While 74 wells in Sirigaon dried up, Pisurli lost 86. “Agriculture has come to a halt. Half the population of the village—like most others—has become financially dependent on the mining companies, as they took loans to buy trucks to transport the iron ore,” says Gaonkar. “Most drivers are from other states like Bihar and Chhattisgarh, and the owners drown in liquor shops.”
There are liquor shacks in almost every second building in these villages. Studies in Goa's mining belts say the percentage of widows in the 40-45 age group has gone up, courtesy rise in alcoholism.
“We used to welcome tourists to show our natural beauty and biodiversity. Future generations, I fear, will have just the devastation to show,” says Gaonkar, as he points to large craters left behind by excessive mining. Not many companies fill the pits after mining though it is mandatory.
The unfilled pits seem to be minor offences if one reads the Justice P.B. Shah Commission report on illegal mining in Goa. The report, a copy of which is with THE WEEK, points out gross violation of environment, forest and revenue laws by almost every single mine operating in the state. It says illegal mining has caused a loss of Rs35,000 crore to the public exchequer.
“Decisions to renew the expired mining lease and licences were not taken promptly and hence, many lease/licence holders misused the concept of ‘deemed extension for a lease for unlimited period on the basis of Rule 24 A (6),” notes the report. “The companies not only kept on mining illegally but also encroached huge lands....”
The commission slams the rot: “There is enormous and large scale multi-state illegal mining of iron and manganese ore running into thousands of crore every year, having several pernicious evil effects on the national economy.... It has encouraged huge corruption at all different levels in public life, mafia in society and money power.”
Besides a detailed list of illegal mining activities in Goa, the report nails the lease holders who got their mining leases condoned—“illegally and arbitrarily”—and also the ministers who passed them, often overruling the mining secretary.
The report indicts former Congress chief ministers Pratapsingh Rane and Digambar Kamat, who handled the mines portfolio, for “illegally” condoning 30 and 10 mine leases, respectively. The commission says it is “amply clear that the honourable minister of mines and chief minister were aware of the non-compliance of conditions and other illegalities happening in the mining sector”.
In one case, an application for the renewal of the mining lease was submitted 706 days after its expiry. The petitioner claimed that a renewal fee of Rs500 had been paid through a bank challan at the time of expiry, and requested that his application be condoned.
The mining secretary, like his predecessor, rejected the application citing the delay and the “laxity on part of the petitioner”.
The matter was forwarded to the minister of mines, Kamat. He noted in his order: “Renewal fees should have been accepted only after receipt of renewal of application in Form 'J'. It was wrong on the part of the department... It is evident that the applicant had paid the application fees on 30/12/1998 [and this] goes to indicate that his clear intention was to have renewal of mining lease for further period. Only, there was lack of proper guidance to the applicant in the matter. ...since number of cases of delay in filing the application for renewal of mining lease have been considered favourably by the government in the past, the request of applicant for condonation of delay is allowed.”
In simple words, Rs500 was said to be paid in 1998; the application was filed in 2000; and the condonation was done in 2006. And till then, mining continued without any official monitoring.
The Shah commission makes the following observations:
* The application was rejected by the Centre, the ultimate authority
* The payment of fees was not brought to the notice of the state mines department, and its genuineness had not been verified. Hence, the issue of the department “accepting payment” does not arise
* It is unclear under which “provisions and powers under mining laws” the mines minister “heard the matter”
* The delay condonation by the minister is “against the law and abuse of power”, as it was “against the order of the Central government”
In the case of the lease of D.M. Naigue, it had expired in 1988 and the renewal application was filed in 1997! Yet, the delay was condoned, again “illegally”. Furthermore, the lessee continued mining without environment clearance.
“The leased area is at a distance of less than 1km from the Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary,” notes the commission. “Illegal mining in the leased area was in the full knowledge of Director (Mines) and other officials of the Mines Department and Forest Department. No action has been taken against the lessee as could be seen from the file. This can only happen by adopting corrupt practice. Action has to be initiated against all the officers concerned....”
There are at least 40 such cases, including ones where mining continued for years even after the formal surrender of the land. The commission's report also mentions cases where the mandatory mine plan—with details of pit size, its refilling and aforestaion—was not submitted to the Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM).
The commission mentions the 16 lease holders operating 44 different lease rights, though no lease holder is allowed to further sub-lease the mining rights. “Today, almost 50 per cent of the mining in Goa is done by the Vedanta group and other players have given it their leases. This is illegal, but every political leader keeps mum,” alleges Claude Alvares of Goa Foundation, which has been fighting legal battles against mining.
The foundation's latest petition in the Supreme Court was filed by activist-advocate Prashant Bhushan. It seeks restraining of resumption of mining in Goa, as almost all mines in the state were functioning without clearances from the National Board of Wildlife. And of 93 mines, 33 fall within 1.5km range of wildlife sanctuaries, despite the NBWL marking off a 10km radius as eco-sensitive zone.
Furthermore, many of the mining companies have been listed in the Shah Commission report for continuing illegal mining activities in the encroached areas. In fact, the commission, which visited many encroached sites, and bolstered its report with Google Earth images. “The total encroachment so identified is 2,796.24 ha.,” according to the report.
The commission concludes its report citing the loss to the public exchequer through illegal mining, since 2006: “By taking average export cost at $60 per metric tonne of iron ore from 2006 to 2011 with conversion rate of Rs47 per dollar, the total loss to the state... is almost Rs35,000 crore. This is calculated assuming that the depth of mining and extraction of iron ore is only 10m below the ground level but in reality, it's deeper than 50m.... And in such case, the extracted ore is far more than the calculated.”
Ramesh Gauns, school teacher and environmentalist, who has been opposing illegal mining for more than a decade, offers another calculation. “The Goa Mineral Ore Exporters Association's web site says in the past decade, on an average, 31 million tonnes of iron ore was exported every year. At an average export price and exchange rate the figure amounts to Rs1.4 lakh crore. Last year alone, the exports touched 54 million tonnes at an average price of Rs5,000 per tonne. Over 80 per cent of this went to China. The state exchequer got only Rs986 crore, thanks to illegal mining, bogus challans and duplicate invoicing,” says Gauns.
That's not it, says Alvares. “Not a single mining company has paid the lease stamp duty in the past 25 years. That will amount to another few thousand crores in the loss tally,” he says. “Not one authority has bothered ever to crosscheck this.”
The authorities have turned a blind eye even to surveys and reports by reputable agencies, adds Gauns. “For instance, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) submitted an extensive research report to the High Court, stating the depletion of ground water sources and land degradation in Sirigaon village, and nailed the illegal mining in the area, but the government shied away from taking action.”
Apparently, in a reply to an RTI application filed by Gauns, the water resource department concedes that it has no details on ground water status. “Of the 105km north-to-south stretch of Goa, 73km is under mining. And there are at least 60 mines on the 50km east-to-west stretch. Imagine the impact on the state's ecology and environment,” he says.
The largest 30 mines are situated in the catchment area of the Mandovi river. The Zuari river, too, has been highly silted with mining waste. “These two rivers are Goa's lifelines, accounting for 67 per cent of the state's freshwater sources,” says Gauns.
The issue of mining has muddied the waters on the political front, too, with the ruling BJP and the Congress engaged in a mudslinging contest.
Soon after the Shah Commission report was submitted in Parliament, Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar stopped all mining activities in the state through an ordinance, and promised to file FIRs against Rane and Kamat, and order criminal proceedings against all culprits.
Union Environment Minister Jayanti Natarajan soon landed in Goa to announce suspension of environmental clearances given to 93 mining leases in the state, and accused Parrikar of trying to score brownie points.
Under media pressure, Rane said at a press conference, “I demand an investigation team to be set up under the monitoring of Supreme Court on the basis of the recommendations of the Shah Commission. I am ready for the investigation.”
As the BJP tried to corner the opposition, Congress leader Jitendra Deshprabhu argued that Parrikar, too, should be charged since he was chief minister till 2005. The move boomeranged as Parrikar shot back that the mines ministry was headed by Kamat, who was then with the BJP. Incidentally, Deshprabhu was arrested in August 2011 for illegal mining!
The case hotted up further with the recent suicide of D. Bhave, a geologist in the mines and geology department. He was among a group of officials suspended for alleged involvement in the scam. Allegations of harassing officials to shield the real black sheep were hurled at Parrikar. A Congress leader went on to file an FIR against him for abetting suicide, though the party distanced itself from the move.
Interestingly, the BJP state unit directed its government to go after the “big fish as well as small fish”. The All-India Youth Front joined the protest, seeking action against mine owners and corrupt politicians. “Has the government got any guts to investigate these heavyweights? Suspension of a few employees will not curb illegal mining in Goa,” said AIYF state chief Suhaas Naik.
Currently, Parrikar is in a catch-22. On the one hand, he is under tremendous pressure to act against the powerful mining lobby. On the other, issues such as the livelihood of the thousands of people employed in the mining sector haunt him. For instance, reports say there are 22,000 trucks and 357 barges operating in the sector.
But activists say these excuses are a facade to let the big fish off the hook. “Initially, he promised stern action. But now his statements and actions speak differently,” says Alvares. “He has appointed a committee headed by [principal secretary] R.K. Verma to study the Shah Commission's report and decide on the actions to be taken. But Verma himself has been indicted by the commission!”
Alvares says Parrikar had stated in the Assembly that the Vedanta group had donated Rs800 crore to the Congress and Rs400 crore to the BJP. “Now, how can we expect a fair probe?”
Gauns says Parrikar has gone soft after a series of meeting with delegations of mining companies. “Now he has started talking about the so called stake holders like truck owners, barge owners, hoteliers and bar owners and says that their interests have to be considered,” says Gauns. “The chief minister has not bothered so far about the real stake owners—the farmers who lost their livelihood. He doesn't talk about the restoration of ecologically damaged regions. He does not talk about the recovery of restoration costs from the mining companies.”
Gauns also rubbishes Parrikar's claim that mining is the backbone of Goan economy. “Mining contributes only 6 per cent to the state GDP—the same as agriculture,” he points out.
About 400 million tonnes of iron ore has been extracted from Goa. Now hardly 300 million tonnes remain. At a rate of 50-60 million tonnes a year, mining can go on for a maximum of 10 years. After that, activists like Gauns fear, the companies will pack their bags. And the people of Goa?