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The ban on iron mining in Goa

On 5th October 2012, iron mining was banned by the Supreme Court of India in the little state of Goa. The former Portuguese colony is divided into a prosperous coastal strip with many tourist visitors, and a mountainous area, belonging to the biologically rich Western Ghats from where the Mandovi and Zuari rivers come down. Iron mining is done in the area between the coast and the Western Ghats protected by a series of small contiguous national parks or wildlife sanctuaries. There were and still are some tribal populations in that area.

The iron mining ban in Goa is remarkable because open cast production was about 50 million tons of low grade iron per year in 2010 and 2011 (worth 4000 million US$), transported to jetties by a fleet of perhaps 20 000 trucks (owned by small contractors, often employing drivers from outside the state). The iron was loaded on barges at jetties and taken to the ships at the harbour at Mormugao. Most of the iron went to China. The huge dumps of mining overburden invade cultivated fields and forests, and the tailings are deposited in excavated pits with water. Mining produces large amounts of wastewater for washing the mineral. Such scars are very visible when one travels up to the Western Ghats through the mining belt although most tourists in Goa’s beaches (or importers of iron) have never seen them. Although total rainfall may reach 4000 mm per year, there is a long rainless period with high temperatures before the monsoon, with scarcity of water for the coastal area and for the farmers. Therefore the overuse and pollution of water by the mines are important issues.

The mining companies are of different size. At the end of 2012, in the main SESA Goa mine in Codli that produced 7 million tons of iron per year, its 800 employees still get their salaries but the large mining area and factory are totally silent. The trucks are parked in the villages. SESA Goa had belonged initially to Mitsui from Japan, and it was bought by Vedanta from London a few years ago. Vedanta is a famous company because of the clash with the Dongria Kondh over bauxite mining at the other extreme of India, in the Niyamgiri Hill in Orissa. Almost all other mines in Goa are Indian-owned and private.

Pani khay Khani

Goa’s population is about 1.5 million living in 3000 The birth rate is low but there is much immigration into this state. There is a vociferous mining lobby (The Herald, 22 Dec. 2012) that sees in iron exports the economic mainstay. Open questions are how much of the revenue from mining remains in Goa, what the local fiscal dues should be, who pays for the socio-environmental liabilities from mining (groundwater overuse and surface water pollution, encroachment on farming or protected areas, air pollution), who would pay for rehabilitation?

The Congress party (locally corrupt), the truck and barge owners, the anti-environmental Left, the Unions of bargemen, truckers and miners, all support mining. The companies themselves are somewhat divided. Some hope that they will be declared “legal” or at least less illegal than others, and will be able to resume mining. The present chief minister of Goa and the local government belong to the BJP, and some mining companies such as Vedanta itself in Bicholim are building new Hindu temples for the people. Companies claim with that they have invested a lot in other forms of social capital, like schools and hospitals.

The chief minister of the state, Manohar Parrikar, accepted without complaint the ban imposed by the Supreme Court after the reports of the Justice Shah Commission came out, and he sits on the fence. Manohar Parrrikar is in his third term in office, interrupted by spells in opposition. While in opposition he chaired the Public Accounts Committee, and gave to the press its provisional conclusions claiming that Goa government ministers were involved in illegal mining (Frontline, 28 (23), Nov. 2011). Afterwards he came back to power on a platform of cleaning up the environment, attacking the corruption nexus, and supporting the tourist sector. Meanwhile activists who coined the slogan Pani khay Khani (water or mines) are enjoying their triumph.

The mining ban will have measurable positive effects on traffic accidents and on other aspects of health. Before the mining ban there were complaints from tribals and poor farmers. In Cavorem in 2011 they mobilized against atrocities by mine owners and police and against the destruction of fields by mining. But this is not only an “environmentalism of the poor and indigenous”. Indeed, the tourist and building interests in the coastal area and an influential part of the media strongly support the ban on iron mining.

In India as a whole, while electoral politics focuses on religion, caste, the economy and welfare issues, and it is rather silent on the environment, there is however a lot of “judicial activism” by concerned citizens and environmental groups. In the case of Goa, given the public scandals, the Government of India had set up the Justice M.B. Shah Commission of Inquiry for Illegal Mining of Iron Ore and Manganese in November 2010. Its task was to determine the fiscal losses from illegal mining, also its negative effects on forest wealth, the damage to environment including water pollution, and the prejudice to livelihood and other rights of tribal peoples and other persons in the mining areas.

Then on 5th October 2012 the Supreme Court of India (its Forest Bench), relying on the findings of the Shah Commission, stopped the mining operations and transport in all iron ore leases in Goa after a petition had been submitted by the Goa Foundation (an environmental action group led by Claude Alvares) (The Hindu, 5 October 2012). All mines were halted. The Goa Foundation says that all 90 operating mines were to some extent “illegal”, if nothing else because of lack of compliance with rules regarding wildlife conservation.

The ban on iron mining in Goa followed that in Bellary, in the neighbouring state of Karnataka. The Supreme Court had a decisive role, together with environmental activists. The question is now whether the ban will last forever or only for a few years. Perhaps iron mining will start again (although world market prices came down in 2012). Goa’s low grade ores have demand in China but not in other countries or in India itself. Should the ban be permanent, or should there be a “resource cap” at 10 million tons per year or perhaps at 20 million tons together with an Environmental Rehabilitation Plan? Notice that 10 million tons still implies an extraordinary rate of Physical Exports of 7 tons per person per year.

Joan Martinez-Alier, with Aida Vila, Clara Solé, Eloi Puigdollers, Mireia Planell, Miriam Pablos, Xavier Llavina.

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