Chaos in the iron age
Bellary district of Karnataka and Goa portray India’s very own gold rush. Today, they are the bywords for rampant violation of mining and environmental laws, unscientific depletion of resources and concentration of mining profits in the hands of a few. The plunder has also spread to other iron ore-rich states of the country.
It all started around 2003-04 with China going on a construction spree in the run up to the 2008 Olympics.
China is the principal importer of Indian iron ore and procures 91 per cent of what India exports, according to the Indian Bureau of Mines. (Interactive graphic: India's iron ore exports to various countries over the years)
Before 2003, it used to buy only high-grade iron ore, with at least 58 per cent iron content. But with the Olympics approaching, it started procuring even fines (ore in powder form) and ores with as low as 45 per cent of iron content. The Chinese developed technology that enabled them to mix this low-grade ore with very high-grade ore imported from Brazil and Australia. The Chinese demand also pushed up the international prices of iron ore.
This paved the way for chaos and scams that India’s iron ore-rich states witness today. Everyone hoped for a windfall from the sudden demand. Those who owned mines and those who did not mined without clearances, encroached upon forest and other’s lease areas; and excavated, transported and exported more than permitted. No one stuck to the approved mining plan. They even extracted minerals from waste dumps. It was a colossal plunder in connivance with the state governments, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and IBM. The states lost revenue and the nation its rich resources. In the process of reckless mining, forests were cleared, hills were ravaged, farmlands were destroyed, streams and rivers were polluted, groundwater got contaminated, and the health of people and livestock was compromised.
Government-appointed committees entered the scene and unearthed shocking stories of illegalities and loot of iron ore. They also brought to the fore the intertwined interests of politicians and industry and the failure of the authorities to regulate mining.
Karnataka and Goa were the first ones to come under scanner. In Karnataka, the Lokayukta, the state’s ombudsman, estimated in its July 2011 report the total loss to the state exchequer at Rs 16,085 crore. The Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee’s (CEC) interim report on Bellary in April 2011 estimated that between 2003 and 2010, Rs 15,245 crore worth of iron ore was illegally exported from the region. It recommended a ban on mining in the region.
But in its February 2012 report, CEC backtracked and recommended resuming iron ore mining in Bellary and two other districts subject to conditions. It prescribed a model on the basis of which legality of mines can be categorised and they can be allowed to operate. It also suggested ways to restore the devastated ecology of the region (see ‘Bellary to bleed again’).
Mining companies in Goa are now going through the tests that Bellary was put through in the last two years. Surveys are under way, data is being compiled, accounts are being audited. Justice M B Shah Commission, constituted by the Centre in 2010 to probe illegal mining of iron and manganese ore in the country, has submitted its report, following which the Goan government has imposed a ban on mining of iron ore in the state. One of the key findings of the Shah Commission is that the state is incurring losses to the tune of Rs 35,000 crore due to illegal iron ore mining. The Supreme Court is also hearing the matter. As CEC is estimating losses from illegal mining in Goa, the mining industry in the state is under constant fear that CEC might recommend the Bellary model for Goa’s mines (see ‘Goa next’).
The next in line is Odisha. The 2010-11 report of IBM shows Odisha produces the maximum 37 per cent of iron ore in the country, followed by Karnataka and Goa (see graph). The Shah Commission has already heard mining companies and is preparing its report on the extent of illegalities in the state.
The Supreme Court’s Bellary judgement is the first of its kind in a mining case involving illegalities, irregularities, criminalities and corruption of unbelievable magnitude, and sets a precedent for all cases related to illegal mining, be it in Goa, Odisha, Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand.
M Suchitra from Bellary and Sugandh Juneja from Goa analyse whether it is possible to safeguard the environment while keeping the industry happy and if the Supreme Court order for Karnataka can be a one-size-fits-all policy.