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Will It, Won’t It?

The Unending Saga of Beginning Goa’s Mining All Over Again

Such was the joy at Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar’s recent announcement of the imminent resumption of iron-ore mining in Goa that sweets were handed out at the venue where the news was broken.

But one month on, the jubilation is already proving to be short-lived.

Yes, mining can resume, theoretically. But with the new Supreme Court-imposed annual cap of 20 metric tonnes, a precipitous decline in global iron-ore prices, Goa’s impending monsoons, and a strict tax regime that this time around is actually expected to be enforced, Goa’s top mining players are asking serious questions about whether a resumption can be profitable.

The ground realities are clearly working in favour of Goa’s seasoned anti-mining community, whose continued passionate opposition is another reason we might not see a restart any time soon.

The earliest anyone thinks mining could begin would be post monsoon. September will mark the third year since the Supreme Court imposed its ban on iron-ore mining, which had been Goa’s largest industry, employing some 150,000 people both directly and indirectly. It was also responsible for some of the worst corruption and environmental degradation the state has ever witnessed.

With hundreds of crores owed to banks in unpaid loans from the mining sector and the squelched livelihoods of tens of thousands of people who depended on the industry, the pressure to resume mining was formidable.

With impeccable timing, pretty much on the eve of the Zilla Parishad elections, where the ruling BJP had several candidates up, Chief Minister Parsekar called a press conference in March to announce mining’s imminent resumption.

“I just got off the phone with Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Prakash Javadekar,” gushed Parsekar, “and he has told me that the centre has decided to revoke the suspension of the environmental clearances.

“With this the role of the government in resolving the mining issue is complete,” Parsekar continued, “Now the ball is completely in the court of the miners.”

The next day’s dailies carried photos of delighted locals distributing sweets, even lighting firecrackers.  A month later, the announcement — and sweets — have left a bitter aftertaste, now that the euphoria has vaporised.

The mining companies themselves have remained resolutely mum on the subject of restarting operations. In addition to the tumbling iron-ore prices and the 20 metric tonne cap, the MoEFCC is requiring the state government to develop a credible mechanism to monitor operations and ensure that the 20-tonne cap is genuinely—and rigorously—implemented.  Industry insiders say the price of iron-ore should be around US $50 to $60 for a tonne of 58 percent grade iron ore to make extraction profitable, while today’s prices are hovering around $28.

Other conditions include prohibitions on dumping outside the lease area, or mining below the groundwater table, without prior permission.

For the miners, who in their heyday cowboyed through the pits, laying the laws down themselves, these restrictions will certainly be no cause for sweet-distribution or firecracker-lighting.

Claude Alvares, the Executive Director of the Goa Foundation, which filed the original petition in the high court seeking suspension of mining operations based on various illegalities, laughs off any talk of restarting mining. “Even if a rickshaw driver approaches the Supreme Court, the court will bring all the mining to a halt,” he guffawed, referring to what he terms as illegal mechanisms for the supposed resumption.

“They have renewed mining leases in Goa under a clause in the law that has since ceased to exist,” Alvares said. “I’m not too worried about what is going to happen. In any case, there is no chance of mining restarting before the rains. When the time comes, we will act.”

Representatives of the mining industry concur that no resumption will happen until after the monsoon.  In a dramatic U-Turn worthy of his predecessor, Parsekar has now stated the same.

Many of those most affected by the ban say they’ve lost their patience.

“We have been waiting for three long years and still there is uncertainty. The government is giving us empty promises. Nothing is going to happen unless we see it happening,” said Rohidas Gawas, a trucker from Pirna who is in his late sixties.

Amid the speculation about the restart’s timing, not far from Goans’ minds are the issues at the core of the opposition: environmental degradation, the estimated theft of some Rs 35,000 crore of what should have been the public’s patrimony, and the failure of the government to hold a fair and open public auction to determine who will have the right to dig in the future.

The original stakeholders who were re-granted their leases to avoid bringing in what officials called a new mining “mafia” are said to owe the government Rs 1.19 lakh crore, or Rs 1,190 billion, for the value of the iron ore they exported between November 2007 and September 2012, all of which has been deemed illegal by India’s Supreme Court.

Still, what’s done is done and it’s now clear the old players are also going to be the new ones.

These mining lessees have been asked to file six monthly compliance reports to the MoEFCC as well as the State Pollution Control Board, in addition to complying with the cap and all the other regulations.

Sure they can commence operations once all the conditions are met. But would they want to?

For long, miners have been lobbying to get the central government to reduce the 30% export duty imposed on-iron ore exports, a tax which was imposed in order to discourage exports and instead feed the domestic steel industry.

“I do not think mining is going to start. They are not going to get any profit out of it. I am not worried,” Claude Alvares said, in conclusion.

Perhaps the sweets and firecrackers were a tad premature. They certainly didn’t help the BJP’s prospects at the Zilla Parishad elections, where the ruling party swallowed an emphatic bitter pill.