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Mining: Decoding the Quiet

Silence hangs heavy over the otherwise boisterous mining belt in Goa’s hinterland. The incessant loud whir of heavy earthmoving machinery, marauding trucks and the thunderous pop of bursting dynamite, all synonymous with mines, has been absent for over a month now, after the Supreme Court banned mining in Goa on October 5, pending an enquiry. This silence has presented Goa with what seems like a terrible dilemma: Do we ban mining and threaten the economy, or do we allow it and threaten the environment? The answer is clearly somewhere in the middle.

Rapacious mining in Goa is a major threat to the countryside and to sources of clean drinking water. Much of it has taken place without proper permission, with powerful mining interests skirting the law with impunity. Both industry leaders and environmentalists may find that the best way to move forward would be to cap Goa’s mining output at a level that allows the state to achieve the dual goals of generating mining revenue without forsaking the environment.

One of the keys to understanding what’s at stake is a slim report authored by the state government’s department of mining and geology. The report says that in 2010-11 fiscal alone, Goa exported nearly 54 million tons of iron ore, worth Rs 21,600 crore in the international iron ore market, a figure which is nearly twice the Goa government’s total annual budget of about Rs 9,500 crore.

By any measure, even a temporary halt in mining activity is sure to have profound economic implications for the state. Streets has learned that the crisis has now reached the point where barge owners are preparing to leave Goa, and owners of barges and mining trucks find themselves unable to repay bank loans. That’s in addition to the thousands of out-of-work miners and all those who earn a living supporting them.

Another key is the palpable relief in the voice of Ramesh Gauns, a teacher and activist who has been taking on illegal mining for nearly two decades.

Gauns says the mining ban will give the state and the mining industry time to soul-search and put in corrective measures to curb illegal and indiscriminate mining. “Even if the Supreme Court ban is only temporary, it has at least given us the opportunity to revisit the issue and get the act cleaned up before it’s too late,” Gauns told Streets.

Gauns shares a quirky example of a government school that has benefited from the silence following the ban on mining in Sanguem, in Goa’s southeastern mining belt. With a major mining operation located a few hundred metres away, the teacher had to shout to get his points across amidst the drilling and blasting. “Also the dust used to layer everything in the class, books, the blackboard, tiffins. But for the last one month things have been good for them. The teacher only has to shout when a pupil misbehaves now,” Gauns said.

From the time Goa was liberated from Portuguese rule in 1961, the sun has never set on the state’s mining industry, controlled by a few powerful magnates who have defined policy, legislation, perhaps even the colour of the chief minister’s seat cushion, if they were of mind to.

“… I’ve realised one thing. There’s no government on one side and the mining industry on the other. They are both one and the same,” Gauns says, adding that neither Congress nor BJP have cared to act against illegal mining. In the last decade, when illegal mining reached its peak, most police action has been against people protesting illegal mining rather than miners, irrespective of the government in charge.

The case of 24-year-old Nilesh Gaonkar was especially chilling. After protesting against an illegal mine at his village in Cavrem, 70 kms from here, Nilesh, who has a diploma in engineering, was beaten up by toughies allegedly employed by the mine owner.

The police first refused to register the complaint. They instead asked me to stop protesting,” Gaonkar said. But Nilesh’s protest was vindicated when the Cavrem mining operation was indicted in a government report which exposed a Rs 35,000 crore scam.

Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, who also holds the portfolio of mines minister, predicts that the mining ban will suck out nearly 21 per cent of the state’s GDP. “No government, not even that of the United States of America, can cope with a situation where a sector which contributes 21 percent of its GDP is abruptly cut off from the economy,”

Parrikar told Streets a few days after the ban was announced. The tell-tale signs of worry are showing in the mining industry, if one takes a step back from the breathless media coverage.

James Braganza, head of the Captain of Ports Department, says that barge owners are now keen on moving to Maharashtra, Karnataka, even Sri Lanka with their vessels. “We have received over two dozen applications from barge owners asking for no objection certificates to relocate from Goa for business opportunities,” Braganza said.

The ports department regulates all inland water traffic in Goa, especially the 400-odd river barges transporting iron ore from loading docks deep in the mining belt to the Mormugao Port Trust, from where the ore is exported in cargo vessels. “It has almost been one month of no mining. Our monthly loan repayment instalment to the bank is about Rs 40,000 per barge. We have to find business wherever it takes us,” says Harish

Gawas, a barge owner who is relocating to coastal Maharashtra, where mining is just picking up. Both the Goa government and trade organisations are now lobbying banks to restructure loans to operators of barges and mining trucks, because the ban has made it impossible to repay the loans on time.

Around 20,000 mining trucks operate throughout the mining belt from Sattari in northeastern Goa to Sanguem in the south. “The total outstanding loans taken by the truck and barge operators are to the tune of Rs 1,500 crore. We have asked the Reserve Bank of India to direct the banks to restructure the loans and show some leniency to the borrowers,” Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry president

Manguirish Pai Raikar said. Did anyone feel this doom coming? Industry insider Harish Melwani blames it on that one human trait: Greed. “I feel we’ve (mining industry) been greedy. Now, we are like the proverbial monkey with our hand stuck in a jar of cookies. We can’t get our hands out, and neither are we willing to let go of the cookies,” Melwani told Streets, calling the mining frenzy of recent years a senseless “overload.”

The qualified engineer operates a mining lease spread over 85 acres in Harvalem, 45 kms from Panjim, which has also shut down following the mining ban. One way to stop volume-based mining, according to Melwani, is to invest in research and development. It paid off for him, when R & D helped show that rejected ore from his mines yielded commercial minerals like Bentonite, a clay used to rejuvenate degraded soil, and Dolomite, which has mild radioactive qualities.

“We had been seriously re-investing almost 80 per cent of our profits in research for several years now. We have our own state-of-the-art lab where we first identified, and later mined useful minerals such as Bentonite and Dolomite, from our iron ore mining rejects,” he explained, adding that one of the lessons the industry now has to learn is capping ore extraction to around 15 million tonnes.

Capping of ore production, as suggested by Melwani, has found favour with environmentalists like Claude Alvares, whose petition in the Supreme Court last month led to the mining ban.

Alvares feels that the ban could stretch for up to a year, like in case of the ban on mining in Bellary district of Karnataka, where illegal mining had played havoc. Until then, a silence will loom over Goa’s mining belt. While some call it ominous, others rejoice in being able to hear the birds sing.