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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Goa landscape gets respite from destructive mining

Over the last two decades the iron ore mining industry has dramatically altered the Indian state, gouging deep pits in the earth and polluting rivers — but now a court order has halted that

An iron ore mine in seen here in Goa’s Codli village. Krishna Das / Reuters
An iron ore mine in seen here in Goa’s Codli village. Krishna Das / Reuters

Harish Parab, 43, has lived in the Goan village of Candola for his entire life. During that time he has seen the Mandovi river near his house gradually turn as red as dried blood.

Mr Parab, who earns his living as a fisherman at sea, used to go angling for fun on the river. But not any more.

“The red silt from the iron ore mines upriver has been dumped into the Mandovi all these years,” he told The National. “The barges carrying the ore come through here as well.”

“As a result, compared to when I was a child, there’s practically no fish left to catch in the river now.”

The Indian state of Goa advertises itself as a paradise destination for tourists and people wishing to escape the material world. But over the last two decades the mining industry has dramatically altered the landscape, gouging deep pits in the earth and polluting rivers in its pursuit to extract the 3 billion tons of iron ore estimated to lie under Goan soil.

The expansion of mining in Goa saw the state ship roughly half of India’s total iron ore exports — 31 million tons — in 2016-17, according to the Federation of Indian Mineral Industries. This is despite the fact that Goa occupies just 0.1 per cent of India’s land mass.

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The Mandovi has been one of the victims of this mining activity. Figures from the National Institute of Oceanography show that roughly 70,000 tons of iron particulate matter are dumped into it annually.

On Wednesday last week, however, India’s Supreme Court handed Goa a reprieve. It cancelled all 88 of the mining licences active in the state, ruling that they violated a 2012 Supreme Court order that had directed Goa to suspend all mining due to the associated environmental damage. According to that order, the state government was supposed to issue new permits by auction, with companies forced to apply for fresh environmental clearances. Instead, it simply renewed the old, lapsed licenses.

“Rapacious and rampant exploitation of our natural resources is the hallmark of our iron ore mining sector … coupled with a total lack of concern for the environment and the health and well-being of the denizens in the vicinity of the mines,” read the Supreme Court order.

Mining companies now have until March 15 to wind down their operations in Goa. After that, all mining activity must stop and the state government will have to begin auctioning new permits. Companies will also have to apply for environmental approvals.

Claude Alvares, who heads the non-profit Goa Foundation that filed a petition with the court over the mining licences, was optimistic that the ruling would bring some respite for the Goan landscape.

“Everything will come to a halt,” he said. “The auction process and the new clearances will hopefully take a very, very long time.”

It is not clear exactly how long it will take Goa to auction new permits and for mining to start back up again in the state but it is likely to be at least a year and a half.

Mr Alvares was hopeful the court’s judgment will break what he described as “the nexus between the past generation of mining companies and politicians”.

“Now the companies who get licenses after the auction will be cautious,” he said. “And it will at least take some time for a new nexus to be established.”

Critics of the order have pointed to the hit that Goa’s economy will take.

In 2016-17, the state government earned roughly 2.5 billion rupees in royalties from iron-ore exports. The government will now lose around 4-4.5 billion rupees in revenue over the next two years, according to PK Mukherjee, a former executive director of the Vedanta Group, which exports roughly a quarter of Goa’s iron ore.

But activists, including the Goa Foundation, have urged the government to make up for this loss by recovering from companies the value of iron ore that was extracted illegally — without the proper environmental clearances or permits — over the past decade.

Figures for this value vary, however. In August last year, the Indian government’s comptroller estimated that 19 billion rupees’ worth of iron ore was mined illegally between 2009 and 2016, while a 2012 government-commissioned report put the value of illegal extraction between 2006 and 2011 at 350 billion rupees.

Roughly 150,000 people in Goa depend upon the industry for their livelihood, while thousands more rely on the purchasing power that mining incomes bring to the state. The hiatus in mining will have “adverse repercussions” for everyone, the Goa Mineral Ore Exporters Association and the Goa Mining Association said in a joint statement issued after the ruling.

Representatives of both associations said they would not comment further.

Meanwhile, Sandeep Bhandare, the president of the Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry, predicted a distressed state economy over the next 18 months. Employment levels would be impacted, he said, along with transport businesses and real estate and automobile sales.

But Mr Alvares disagreed, arguing that the Goan economy could withstand a temporary halt in mining.

“This [decision] is a loss mainly for people who’re stealing these minerals,” he said. “The resources are still there, and they can be mined by sensible people, in a way that doesn’t have a cost upon the environment.”

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