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Gone, Gone… Go-ah!

Goa’s ad hoc, inconsistent and dishonest mining policies are destroying its celebrated beauty much rapidly

Hartman De Souza
Publish Date: Nov 23 2016 11:49AM | Updated Date: Nov 23 2016 11:50AM

Gone, Gone… Go-ah!

Goa’s ad hoc, inconsistent and dishonest mining policies are destroying its celebrated beauty more rapidly than the downy clouds flitting across its blue sky. A blanket ban on mining and a coherent tourism policy need implementation instead 

 
When they visit Goa, tourists head straight from either airport, railway station or  bus-stand, to the nearest beach and one of resorts mushrooming along the coast. They check in, unpack, change into swimming costumes, grab chilled beers from the bar – maybe even a 'breezer' or two – and sprint to the beach laughing like happy children. Just like in the ads on TV.
 
They book deck-chairs and umbrellas, spread towels, and rub lotion on each other's backs. Taking long swigs from their bottles and hungrily sniffing the tart sea breeze, they place an order for exotic cocktails, order jumbo prawns sautéed in fiery hot recheado masala, then run to the water, plunging in and gambolling. Over a weekend, over a week, whatever, they re-enact stereotypes they themselves have created about Goa and holiday over, head out. 
 
Those visiting Goa between 2005-2012, crossing the Western Ghats on its eastern borders, may not have asked themselves what the large orange-red blotches in the middle of all the vast greenery they saw from their windows, signified. 
 
They did not know the blotches were the result of illegal mining operations that, literally, uprooted trees, dug out moist, rich, fragrant top soil – 'waste' to miners – and ate into the earth, destroying in the process aquifers of fossil water that could have been there centuries hence.  During this 'Age of Greed' as I have referred to it elsewhere, those blotches – though 'wounds' would be more appropriate – grew wider and went even deeper. 
 
Between 2005 and 2012 when these Ghats were upended in a frenzy fuelled by greed, Goans themselves – living not even 10 kilometres from where their ecologically rich eastern borders were being devoured – chose to look the other way. 
 
They believed not seeing a mine, made it illusory. They swallowed the lie that mining was the backbone of the Goan economy, forgetting that Goa was 100 km long and 40 km wide – less than 1 per cent of the country’s land mass, yet accounting for 40 per cent of our iron ore exports. While Goa's policy makers decried 'illegal mining' – vaguely recognizing its existence, not necessarily wanting to take action – they prattled about 'legal mining'. 
 
Neither they nor the general public considered whether it was actually 'legal'. Like almost every educated middle-class Indian with 'aspirations', Goans willingly acquiesced to the fallaciously premised argument that they had the right to speak on behalf of the earth, and magnanimously proclaimed that “this much environment must go for this much of development to happen”. 
 
And why wouldn't Goans have embraced this specious argument? By 2012, Goans topped the country's per capita income index taking home Rs. 192, 652 on an average per year. Bihar, languishing at the bottom, stood at a mere Rs. 24,681 a year. There was reason enough to admit being blind. 
 
It was only in March 2012, that a judicial commission headed by Justice M.B. Shah blew away the myth that mining in Goa – and indeed many other states in the country – was 'legal'. 
 
The commission was set up in November 2010 and as if poetic justice, Justice Shah inducted into the investigating team U.V. Singh, once Karnataka's chief conservator of forests. Not many know that in open recognition of Singh's integrity, he had been earlier appointed the chief investigating officer of Justice Santosh Hegde, the fiery and conscientious Peoples' Judge from Karnataka. 
 
One must emphatically assert that had it not been for Justice Hegde's first report on illegal mining in Karnataka's Bellary District – submitted as far back as December 2008 – governments at the centre as well as several states across party lines would not have been shamed into appointing a commission to look into plunder elsewhere.
 
Justice Shah's report on Goa was damning, U.V. Singh did not let his mentor down. Politicians and mining companies were hard put to find blankets of untruth under which they could hide. 
 
The report charged mining companies in Goa with operating illegally – without licenses and requisite approvals, forging permits, tampering with land records, and ignoring state and central laws pertaining to mining. Rampant mining had led to severe environmental damage, polluting the air, destroying water sources and causing untold damage to precious ecological systems. 
 
Justice Shah  also declared that “iron ore worth Rs. 35,000 crore was plundered by the mining companies, committing theft of Government property.” This figure may just be the tip of the iceberg.  The Goa Foundation – the NGO fighting the case in court – by their own 'conservative estimates' puts the loot  at Rs. 1, 18, 661 crore!
 
Following the tabling of Justice Shah's report in September 2012, the court duly petitioned,  the Goa government banned all mining activities in the state – an order later reinforced by the Supreme Court. 
 
Those who celebrated this historic judgement understood the importance of keeping these Ghats on our western borders as a 'lung' – not just to combat the real horror of climate change, but even, in the short term, to mitigate the effects of rampant, unthoughtful, totally unplanned and unregulated urban and industrial sprawl that has taken over every city and town in close proximity to these magnificent, cloud-gathering range of thick forested hills. 
 
If the battle could be won in Goa such idealists thought, it could be won in southern Gujarat, in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala. They dreamt some more. If the battle crossed over and joined those parts of the Eastern Ghats not yet destroyed in the quest for mineral and other industrial resources, this country could get both its 'lungs' back. 
 
And not of course to forget the primary players who ought to be closer to our hearts than shall we say, a tree cut here and a tree cut there – other human beings who've been living in consonance in these Ghats before the rest of us arrived to make a country that, tragically, does not include or even consider them. These are India's Adivasis, our indigenous and forgotten people whom we may have, in Chomsky's words, just “unpeopled”.  
 
The idealists' dreams of course, were just that. They were left with the tattered shreds of a moral victory and the acrid after taste of bile. They were to know, first hand, that the Ghats would be left without an advocate; that when high growth rates were given priority over centuries old aquifers of fossil water, when people living in a forest for centuries can be displaced because of a dam, a power plant, a mine or even a manufactured city, there will be only one winner. 
 
In April 2014, for reasons best known to the honourable justices who made that judgement, the Supreme Court revoked its earlier order and lifted the ban on mining in Goa. 
 
On August 10, 2015, the day after what we once celebrated as 'Quit India Day', Goa's latest CM, Laxmikant Parsekar – a man hand -picked as a capable shadow by the former CM, Manohar Parrikar, after he had been inducted into the central government – duly broke  a coconut at the gates of Vedanta Resources, a British multinational. The empire had struck back. In London its stock took an up. 
 
Sadly, the mining has come back, but not on the scale seen between 2005 and 2012. At siege now are much older mining operations in north Goa – barely 15 or so kilometres from Calangute Beach, perhaps 20 if you drive in from Curley's. 
 
This is where Goa's family-run mining companies first bit their teeth into the earth in the 1950s. If one drives eastwards, and head south towards the source of the Zuari river, you will see how they  destroyed more than 12 kilometres of interconnected forest and hill. This area of Goa has already been eaten to the bone. The village of Siridao for instance from where this destruction began before they dug eastwards, has no water table. One mine not even a quarter of a kilometre away, has a mining pit that goes 37 metres sea level. When water collects there, as it will, giant pumps bring it to the surface to run free down hill. When the village deity, Lehrai, worshipped because of her proximity of water, has to be venerated, mining companies duly fill the temple well with water brought in by tankers. 
 
Now, since the mining has come back to this part, they will even eat the carcass that remains, leaving behind a surrealistic lunar-like landscape that burns bright under a hot sun. If it's a multinational enterprise, British, home-grown, whatever, what guarantees does anyone have that when their food is over here, they will not move to where there is more to gobble up in Goa. 
 
As yet the mining has only begun again in north Goa and moving southwards to older mining operations close to the mining 'capital' of south Goa, Sanvordem. As yet they have not re-started abandoned operations in the more lush, more verdant foothills south of Sanvordem. The low price of ore in the world market does not make it profitable for Goa's mining families to get back to eating up Goa's forests. The minute it does, they will arrive in full force. The fact that the mining will then come perilously close to the Selaulim Dam that provides drinking water to south Goa's villages, towns and cities in the making, will be conveniently ignored. They're already cut forest for the new mining 'bypass'.  
 
None of this means that those in government intent on protecting those who looted Goa have really thought through the red herrings they will throw our way. The proposed fund is spearheaded by a former Enron executive now settled in Goa and discovering his sense of ‘corporate social responsibility'. It now claims that mining can be fair and ‘ethical greed’ is acceptable as long as everyone can make a profit out of it.
 
Thus far, only bit players figure: the CEO of a Canadian multinational charged with impersonating the Revenue Secretary, Government of India, calling the Income Tax authorities in Goa to demand an investigation into the assets of the person whose mining lease his company had procured. He was not charged for operating an illegal mining operation from 2005 to 2012, that saw his company reward him with  $319,244 at the end of 2011 which included a salary of $ 89,224 and an additional $230,020 by was of annual incentives he was entitled to. This, from overseeing mining operations in the cusp between two  small villages in south Goa, once the abode of an Adivasi deity who legend was born from a spring, and where, this May, water had to be brought in by tankers.   
 
Also nabbed was a mining magnate who recently passed away – chosen by lot perhaps –   to willingly admit transgression and take the heat away; another politician 'nabbed' because he had taken permission to dig a well on his vast property, but was actually mining for ore. The fines both paid were laughable.  Our governments to day, state or central, bank on us to forget. Perhaps we will. Life defined by the big picture is what will remain. 
 
To say the earth has a future, is to be ridiculously optimistic. In an interview to Frontline magazine in September 2014, Dr. Claude Alvares of the Goa Foundation rubbished the Goa government's efforts to distinguish illegal mining from that legal and went on to add  that he had yet to discover any aspect of mining in Goa in the past ten years that was legal. Citing mining acts that called on governments to punish people involved in illegal mining, Dr. Alvares expressed astonishment that the government wanted to restart mining operations with the same companies. As has been his wont, he threatened to approach the courts. 
 
Such bravado apart, there are some who argue that Goa was bartered. The Goa Foundation, once in the forefront to save Goa's environment, took the endorsement of four Goans awarded the Padma Shri and floated the Goenchi Mati (Goan Soil) Permanent Fund. They argued that the people of Goa were the real owners of the ore and the Rs. 404,460 crore worth of 1.3 billion tonnes of Goan mud accrue to the Goan people and not the mining barons. They argued with the Supreme Court that fifty per cent be the amount set aside for the Goan people, but settled for ten. 
 
Spearheaded by a former Enron executive now settled in Goa and discovering his sense of ‘corporate social responsibility', the fund claims that mining can be fair and ‘ethical greed’ is acceptable as long as everyone can make a profit out of it.
 
Launched with the requisite publicity, with consultations at the International Centre, Goa; at alternative think-tanks like the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi; and in various informal but largely urban settings – who is to say that Goa's 'Mud Fund' will not take off and be a great success. Once you had Goans who pretended not to see the mines, now they will see them and willingly settle for coin. 
 
Not that this will ensure that greed, ethical or otherwise, will not be more nuanced. In at least three villages in South Goa, home to verdant and thick forest, but, alas, with reserves of ore below, villages are demanding they re-start the mining as co-operative ventures. They have the backing of no less a well-renowned environmentalist, Dr. Madhav Gadgil, who once chaired an expert panel to safeguard these same Ghats. 
 
As far as 'policy' goes – as many of us discovered in Goa – don't look for it. Whether it's mining in Goa or Odisha, land being given to industry and the creation of ancillary infrastructure and trade, when asked, authorities and governments are apt to go into the closet and emerge with an 'ad hoc policy'. 
 
Hartman De Souza is author of Eat Dust : Mining and Greed in Goa