Hartman de Souza taps into the public mood over what mining companies and other vested interests are doing to the environment of this tiny state...

To fully comprehend the grip of mining in Goa, it would require several commissions of enquiry, or, as they say in the local tavern in the village I am visiting — one for every decade since mining started in the 1940s, with Goan mining families becoming rich willingly supporting and taking orders from the dispensation of the day.

This village is in close proximity to the mining operations in the north, around the mining town of Bicholim, where one pit in the village of Sirigao is now infamous for being 37 metres below sea level, and that too in the home of the shrine to Lehrai, a Goan deity venerated because of her proximity to water and where she now suffers the fate of being a silent spectator to wells long dried.

Just take a walk up the hill, above the church, passing so many trees well over a hundred years old perhaps, and such lush, thick, luxuriant undergrowth with the monsoons having done their work, Goans can be forgiven for having taken this beauty for granted.

Not a pleasant sight

From the top of the rise in the village, the view eastwards, where the foothills of the Western Ghats break, where, perversely, all the mining companies abound, the sight is anything but pleasant. A skeleton of hills some kilometres long, once probably thicker with trees and water than the hills of this very village, now shorn bare, and, regardless of which part of the day you view them, standing as mute as the carcass of a giant animal left to rot in perpetual sunset.

Goans have many such views in this state barely a 100 or so kilometres at its longest, 45 or so at its widest, where the so-called ‘mining corridor' runs 95 kilometres north to south down the slopes of the Western Ghats, sharing borders, ironically, with notified wildlife sanctuaries. But then again, this is Goa where everyone with a stake in mining will tell you smiling: “You see Goa is such a tiny place…how we can have a 10 kilometre buffer zone around the sanctuary?”

So maybe a tavern is a fitting place to sense the public pulse and outrage, now that the Justice M.B. Shah Commission on illegal mining has come and gone — an initiative in itself that most here also find somewhat paradoxical, or as they more succinctly put it with the third sip, “damn stupid if you ask me man, the congress fellows in Delhi trying to catch their own bloody crooks here in Goa! If you really go to see, the crooks are the same only…”

Everyone in Goa knows that the ore here was of such low content the mining industry was in a slump. As the Goa Mineral Ore Exporters Association (GMOEA) or Goa Miners' Club as it's referred to in some taverns, put it somewhat flamboyantly in a recent press note (sic):

“Goa has a long history of being an internationally competitive iron ore industry beginning from the 1940s. Being endowed with poor quality ore reserves, the Industry has been able to survive through times of highly controlled economic environment, exorbitant machinery import duty, controlling exchange rates with investments in value addition technology and unique infrastructure solutions in an ever increasing highly challenging competitive environment internationally. Over the last 6-7 years, due to the surge in demand from China for various raw materials, one of which was iron ore, started a clamour for iron ore business that initially felt like an economic boom but of late has translated into an erosion of the reputation of the mineral industry.”

But at least one company, its operations on the edge of the Selaulim Dam in south Goa, had had its loans waived by a bank. In October 2009, the Central government lowered the threshold value of iron ores from 55%Fe to 45% Fe, but barely six years earlier, with the Chinese build up to the Olympics they hosted, was a Kingdom of Bellary created almost overnight in Goa. This has translated into one mine owner mooring his six-crore yacht in the Mandovi River, a helipad in Quepem, and the small mining town of Sanvordem with its disproportionately high number of luxury vehicles, any number of BMWs and Audis and even a Bentley and a Ducati motorcycle costing over one crore.

In the bars close to mining operations, the older men are disgusted but alas, resigned to the fate of not knowing better. They were told and bought the argument that ‘mining is the backbone of the Goan economy', which for the mining industry meant doling out loans to able-bodied men to own and even drive their own truck. Pro-environment activists and believers have given up trying to compute the exact number of trucks in the mining areas. The GMOEA translates this into (sic):

“The Mining companies of Goa have also engaged stakeholders like villagers, whereby all transport are carried out by villagers, and this model has proven to be great distributor of wealth, which is unique in the country.”

To those older who fell for this tasteless perspective, in the mining affected villages it has meant a strange kind of red fog that descends on their dwellings, the village shops, the school, the roadside trees, the orchards and their fields, slowly but surely encrusting everything in red dust, which, mixed with an early morning dew and then baked in the hot sun, creates a harsh and impermeable veneer.

Humour to the rescue

In tavern after tavern, regardless of creed, Goan men can be heard saying that earlier Goan politicians in the 1960s and well into the 90s looted the exchequer but at least gave half back; that these days the “fellows eat up everything they can for themselves and for their children and their bloody children's children”. At hand is a quirky brand of humour that provides the needed release and gives all the feeling that the issue has been postponed, at least for the night: so therefore wittily re-defining democracy in Goa as “a government far from the people man, totally buy the damn people, and bloody off the people completely!”

The pro-environment lobby in Goa has been emphasising that the Justice M.B. Shah Commission could not have come at a better time. It is time for the change. They know that the enquiry will compliment a study on the environmental impact of mining in Goa commissioned by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF); and a report on the protection of the Western Ghats conducted by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel constituted by the MoEF; and, if that's not enough, a comprehensive study on the same issue recently commissioned by civil society groups. Everyone now wants to know how much mining (and real estate, one may add) have contributed to worsening Goa's self-reliance in food production.

Pro-environment activists across the board, and economists and statisticians also challenge the mining industry claims that it gives employment to 75,000 people. One independent researcher says it is closer to 27,000 and that most of this work is seasonal.

In some taverns they insist that it is sad that even though most Goans understand the value of the iron ore more clearly than the value of the forests and water, they do not know this belongs to them.

As one such maverick thinker's cogent syllogism goes: “The iron ore is the property of the state of Goa...the mining companies are permitted to extract and sell a certain amount after paying royalty and making investments....they do not have a natural ownership right to the ore...”

Therefore he concludes, “when mining is outside the law, whether illegal or irregular, it is a theft of the Goan people. Mere payment of royalty is not enough. They need to repay the entire amount.”

Before the evening ends, everyone is are far less subtle. They say there is nothing legal in destroying Goa's forests and water. They want the old mines to be brought back to their natural state. It only takes thirty years to do so, they say.

Or, as wags put it, then give them their ton of flesh back. “The money skimmed from mining is how much? Say 2500 crore. As per the 2011 census there are 1,457,723 individuals in Goa, say 1,500,000 by now...2,500,00,00,000 rupees divided by 1,500,000 works out to Rs. 16,667 for each man, woman or child in Goa. For a four-person household, this around Rs. 66,666. Who'll say no to that?”

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