x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Mining industry takes it toll on Goa

Mining boom in small Indian state has brought prosperity but also environmental damage and corruption that threaten its future.

Lake by Lamgo site of Sesa Goa iron ore mine.
Lake by Lamgo site of Sesa Goa iron ore mine.

BICHOLIM, INDIA // Environmental devastation and multi-million dollar corruption scandals have Goa's mining industry hanging in the balance, leaving an uncertain future for the thousands who depend on it.

Dinanath Gaonker remembers the days, only a few years ago, when there were just two trucks in his tiny picturesque village of Sirigo, tucked among the palm trees and tributaries of inland Goa.

Today there are over 70 trucks among a population of 1,650 - all of them shipping iron ore and manganese from one of three mines that have sprouted up around their houses.

"They have destroyed everything," said Mr Gaonker, a 55-year-old government official.

"All the paddy fields have been taken over by the mine. We had 100 natural springs around our village and 72 wells. Now they are all dry."

But despite the environmental damage, Mr Gaonker fights a lonely battle to have the mines closed down. Almost all his neighbours support the mines because they offer an annual compensation to the local farmers, even though it is far less than they once earned from their paddy fields.

"We used to get about ten times more from selling rice in the markets," he said. "But the mines provide easy money - people don't have to do anything, and they have become very lazy."

Known internationally for its paradisiacal beaches, trance parties and the leather-skinned survivors of the old 1960s hippie trail, Goa is also one of India's key mining export zones.

The tiny state, which measures barely 100 kilometres from top to bottom, handles almost half of the entire country's iron ore exports - 53 million tonnes last year.

The industry has exploded in the last decade thanks to the huge and increasing demand from China, whose ships line up off the coast in the Arabian Sea.

There are already around 100 official mines nestled among the state's eastern hills, and that could treble if all the pending leases turn into active mines. They provide an estimated 15,000 direct jobs and 65,000 indirect jobs, as well as roughly a third of the state's tax incomes.

But with the mining boom has come corruption. In September, a public accounts committee headed by the leader of Goa's political opposition claimed that around US$690 million (Dh2.5 billion) worth of iron ore had been exported illegally from the state in the past five years, evading royalty payments.

It indicted several senior politicians, including Goa's chief minister, Digambar Kamat, for direct involvement in facilitating the illegal trade. The committee attempted to table the report in parliament in October, but it was blocked by the ruling Congress party.

A new report, commissioned by the central government and due to go public this week, will not be so easily ignored.

Already leaked to the local media, the Shah Commission report is expected to say that at least half of Goa's mines have breached regulations - operating without proper clearances, going beyond the limits of their lease and violating environmental protection laws.

For Ramesh Gauns, a secondary schoolteacher from the town of Bicholim who has spearheaded the campaign against mining, even these findings underplay the damage being done to the state.

He has painstakingly documented the damage, collating thousands of photographs of lakes and tributaries turned to red sludge by the run-off from iron ore stockpiles.

"Every kilo of iron ore produced creates three kilos of waste, and there is hardly any monitoring of its impact. Water bodies, forests, wildlife habitats, public health - everything is being destroyed.

"From what I have seen, I will go on the record and say that every single mine in Goa is violating regulations in some way."

Allegations of involvement in illegal iron ore mining have already brought down one chief minister in India this year. In the neighbouring state of Karnataka, BS Yeddyurappa resigned in July and was later arrested along with mining baron and former minister Janardhan Reddy and several senior officials.

But while several of Goa's ministers anxiously await the findings of the Shah Commission report, the impact could be much worse for the hundreds of Goans who rely on the industry for their livelihood - particularly if the commission calls for a total ban on iron ore exports, as many expect.

"Without mining, the people of Goa would have nothing," said Vishnu Garekha, 40, a taxi driver who works part-time on ships taking iron ore from riversides to international vessels.

"I can earn up to Rs 7,000 (Dh514) for 15 days' work," he said. "That's four or five times what someone earns as a farmer. People know there is a problem with pollution, but they are more worried about money right now".

Mr Garekha also speaks with pride about the skills he has learnt as a seaman and the certificate he has earned that allows him to work on ships anywhere in the world.

"I think of myself as a seaman and the crew are like my family," he said, and it is hard not to see the contrast with the Goans who rely on the tourism industry, plying rich Europeans with alcohol, and watching their beachfront turn into an endless strip of resorts.

Glenn Kalavampara, the secretary of the Goa Mineral Ore Exporters Association, says it would be dangerous to lump together technical irregularities with outright illegal mining.

"The increased demand for iron ore in recent years has prompted many people to enter mining that have no business being there, but if you punish everyone for the bad conduct of a few, there will be nothing to support the growing population of Goa."