Saturday, January 30, 2010

Goa mining story that remained untold so far

I have been to Goa twice to do a story on mining. The first time i was 'held captive' on a Fomento mine. Fomento, of course, gave a public statement that i was 'trespassing' on Fomento property, and other baseless allegations.

There was no board which announced that the said property was 'private property' or 'tresspassers not allowed', there was no security personnel, so we-i was accompanied by Mr Rajendra Kerkar and my driver- entered what I was later informed, was Fomento premises. I must have gone in about 50 metres of what appeared to be-and later confirmed-to be a mining dump, I took about three pictures, when a security guard came and started getting abusive, he demanded my camera, and asked us to "get out." I calmly agreed--but with my camera. By which time, three other security gaurds had joined us-and demanded my camera. Their language was rough, and abusive. I not allowed to leave, our exit was physically blocked. By then, about 20 more and they got abusive, using language best not repeated in polite company.
They tried to snatch the car keys, even though we were standing quietly, making no attempts to leave. I requested them not to snatch the keys, but they persisted. And at this point , I decided to call the police-there is no irony in this, as the 'honourable' chairman of the company points out.

however, my story was not carried by the press--and here it is:

prerna singh bindra


It’s the Other Goa. The one you don’t know. Don’t want to know. Just a small step--and a long effort--away from sun-kissed beaches, flea markets, rave parties.
The land is scarred, the earth, ravaged; and the mountains—gouged and flattened ooze tears of blood, the mining waste pouring down the streams, till they are nothing but sludgy, silted drains.

Goa’s vast deposits of iron ore are playing havoc with it’s environment. First, let’s get a perspective of the mining industry. Goa has four per cent of India’s reserves producing more than 15 per cent of total iron ore. It is demand from China, and, Japan that is driving the mineral industry. According to the Goa Mineral Ore Exporters Association in 2008-2009, this tiny state contributed about 43 per cent of the total exports valued at about 38 million tonnes.

Take a look at Goa’s map, run a cursory glance along its 105 km lengh-95 km of this constitutes the mining belt. All of it on the plateaus of the Western Ghats—classified as a top biodiversity hotspot—from where more 42 rivers and tributaries’ flow, feeding the plains below. All of it doomed—if the rape of the mountains continues. Currently, about eight per cent of Goa is under mining. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, if all the mining lease applications are granted, which most probably they will be, more than one-fourth of the state would go under mining –a recipe for ecological disaster.

Mining has devastated Goa’s lifelines—fields, forests, air, ground water. The open cast mining practised in Goa is considered environmentally most damaging, ripping out the top soil to get to the ore seams. It generates huge amounts of wastes—to the tune of 25-30 million tons of mining rejects annually—most of which percolates down to the waterways. Mandovi is estimated to carry 2,00,000 metric tonnes of sediment every year. That’s the fate of almost all of Goa’s water sources—Khushawati, Kalay, Advoi, Bicholim. Visit the state in the monsoon—the blue waters of Goa’s rivers run a bloody red. This has destroyed the fish, all aquatic life, the National Institute of Oceanography in 1985 predicted a total extinction of estuarine life in the near future, unless the inflow of mining rejects was halted.

Groundwater is dipping fast—about ten tonnes of water is pumped out for every ton of iron ore. More than 10,000 trucks race to and fro in the mining areas to jetties connected by barges with Goa’s main port, Marmugao, spilling and spreading dust.

You can see the future of Goa in Pissurlem in Bicholim—one of the worst affected talukas. Red is the new green here-hills of waste stand instead of verdant mountains; trees, shrubs, grass don a coat of thick red. The residents have been relocated twice due to the mines, and are preparing themselves for yet another upheaval. In the land of the free, they have no choice. Mines are closing in on the village. Their 75-odd wells have dried up and the ground water has been ruined by mines. They are now dependent on tankers. They are breathing in mining dust, eating food laced with ore. Most children suffer from chronic diarrhoea, and respiratory diseases are on the rise. The land is chocked with silt. “Once,” says villager Ashok Chari, “our paddy fetched the highest price in the market. Now, we have lost both their Rabi and kharif crop. Our land is barren. A village elder confides that “our boys are finding it difficult to marry, People from non-mining villages are not responding to our marriage proposals.” In the southern tip of Goa, Devki Katu Veli in Colomb shows us the deep cracks in her house, caused by the constant blasting. She knows she invites wrath for going public, she has warned to “keep her mouth shut.” But she wonders, “what worse can they do?” Another resident mourns his home, which will be destroyed if the lease were to come through. As will the private forest that runs riot in his land. Go, see the village, while it stands, before it reduces to rubble. “1510 of the total 1929 hectares of land has been marked for mining,” informs Rama Valip, a farmer who has been battling against the mines, part of larger movement—a desperate fight for their home. A way of life. The easy-going, peace-loving Goan has taken to the streets to take on the powerful mining lobby.

Mining has completely desecrated Goa’s forests too. At least 18 per cent of Goa’s forests have been lost to mining, according to a report by the Delhi-based Energy and Resources Institute. Mines are closing in on Mollem and Nethravali wildlife sanctuaries.

Environmentalist Claude Alvares says that the mining holocaust of Goa can be largely blamed on the indiscriminate handing out of environment clearances by the MoEF.” Goa’s forest minister, Alexio Sequeira pretty much accuses the MoEF of the same in a letter written to the Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh dated August 8, 2009. “In spite of local, ecological, socio-economic and cultural objections, which are well-recorded during the Environmental Public Hearing, the Expert Appraisal Committee of the MoEF has chosen to grant clearances. The people say that Environment Impact Assessments are erroneous, misrepresenting information.” He also points out that there has been no monitoring of ambient air quality or ground water. The letter says that “except for two cases, all mines got the green signal by the MoEF.” Sequeira also points out that there is no combined EIA study—even though most mining leases are in clusters, clearances are given in an isolated, arbid manner.

Clearances were granted within one to three km of wildlife sanctuaries, to mines spilling into the river Khushavati. To a mine that will gouge out prehistoric rock paintings, a heritage site in Colomb. In Rivona, every single person at the Public Hearing objected to the mine, this was duly recorded—and then passed over. Ditto for the mines on the bank of the river at Bicholim-and so many others..

But then, can the state be trusted with the policing? Not when it allowed mining to continue in the heart of a sanctuary (Netravali), despite a Supreme Court Order. Not when it passed a motion in the cabinet to denotify 75 per cent of Madei and Netravali sanctuaries—ostensibly for ‘people rights’, but largely due to the pressure of the mining lobby, given that there are 62 dormant leases inside Netravali.

Illegal mines operate with impunity. According to the opposition BJP leader Manohar Parrikar has alleged that 18 per cent of the ore exported, worth about Rs.700 crore, is illegally mined. The Economic survey cites that more than 2.5 lakh hectares of government land has been taken over by illegal mining.

A recent state government report itself states that 35 of the 48 mining companies inspected have been operating illegally, but no action has been taken, since allegedly, the illicit activity has the backing of powerful politicians.

Speaking to Tehelka, the Chief Minister Digambar Kamat says that he is aware of the situation “and has appointed a committee to look into the issue of illegal mines.” His explanation to the devastation caused by the mines is the Draft Mineral Policy—a panacea for all ills if he is to be believed. Environmentalists, however, assert it will do more harm than good given that it serves the interest of the mining lobby, ignoring site-specific impacts on ecology, communities. Besides, it has no sharp guidelines about supervision, controls and monitoring and rehabilitation of exhausted mines are not dealt with.

Says Alvares, “Mining in Goa is an imbalanced and unjust model of economic activity in which the rewards are only for a select few, while the social and environmental costs are debited to society at large.”

Given the immense environmental and social costs, the economic benefits to the state border on the ridiculous-the industry contributes no more than one per cent to its avenue. Worse, mine owners themselves predict that ore reserves will be exhausted in 10 to 20 years. They will go then, the mines with the riches they have accrued leaving behind devastation-a scarred, ravaged, arid landscape, its people, paupered, it’s glorious past mere history.

Once was Goa.

Digambar Kamat, Chief Minister, Minister of Mines:

Mining has devastated Goa’s environment-ground water is getting depleted, mining wastes is silting the rivers and contaminating the soil. Agricultural production has crashed in mining areas. People are suffering from respiratory diseases. What do you have to say?

All that’s the past. Our government has drafted a Mineral Policy, which we threw open to the public for suggestion. We have received a lot of suggestions, and concerns have been raised, some on the issues you mention. We will now take these into consideration, and formulate a revised policy for mining in the state. It will also be in sync with the National Mining Policy.

But isn’t the policy biased, given that the committee had no representatives of local communities and environmentalists. For example, it advocates mining close to the states

I told you, we invited suggestions from everybody. Goa is a very small state, so we have to be rational about this—it has to be different for each sanctuary. For example, there is a bird sanctuary close to Panjim, the secretariat is about five km from there. So would you say, you can’t have that because it is close to the sanctuary?

So you are saying that mining may be allowed close to wildlife sanctuaries—you did give a statement in parliament saying that “there would be no mining in Western Ghats.”

No, no I am not saying that..we will take that aspect into consideration, and rationally decide the distance from sanctuaries.

Are you aware that in some cases almost entire villages go under mining—Colomb, Maina, in South Goa, some villages have as many as 23 leases. And you are aware people are opposing it.

No, no we won’t allow that to happen

Cheryl D’ Souza had to wait months to get permission to cut 16 trees (“there was no option, and we planted hundreds more) in her farm in Maina. There are different laws, or rather, no laws, for the miners. “Overnight,” she fumes, “ the mining companies raze forests and flatten mountains—and that’s fine?” Cheryl and her husband bought the farm, “after slogging and saving for years-because we were those foolish people who wanted to go back to the land. He loved it, Tony did and we struggled to make this place sustainable,” says she. Tony died in an accident three-years-back, and today Cheryl faces an unexpected, and vicious battle. She shows the farm—mango orchard, gurgling stream, and huge depressions on the sand--gaur, India’s rare wild oxen, classified as endangered under Indian law. All carry a sell-by date, most of Maina will be swallowed by the mines if the leases were to come through: the verdant hills around will be demolished, the stream reduced a turgid pool, the trees will choked by the dust. “And the gaurs—and the leopards,” she despairs, “where will they go?” The miners want her farm—and are willing to pay astronomical amounts. She refused. “What will I do with it? Go for cruises? How many cruises?” So they threatened her, “telling her to be sensible and do what is good for her and her eight-year-old daughter.” She, and her 83-year-old mother were roughed up by the police, and dragged to jail, when they protested by chaining themselves on the road to draw attention to illegal mining going on in her backyard. But the fight is not limited to her boundaries. It is a fight for water, for Goa, for her children. “This is not a sentimental fight for my home. It’s survival. We have to stand up, there is no choice. If we don’t, Goa is finished.”

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