Opening up mining in Goa is not going to be easy; there are wheels within wheels, in an issue that is mostly misunderstood
Did Goa’s decade-old mining logjam punish the ruling party in its attempt to return to power? The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to win 20 seats in the 40-member Assembly, but with some impact from the mining belt. The party now has its work cut out for it, in finding a solution to the issue it contributed to creating.
Speculation prior to the elections suggested that the BJP’s ‘indecision’ on its mining policy could hurt the ruling party in Goa. The party continued to win seats in the mining belt of interior Goa, its traditional stronghold, but not without glitches.
The Deputy Chief Minister, Babu Kavlekar, lost his seat in Quepem constituency. Chief Minister Pramod Sawant was trailing in his Sanquelim constituency for part of the counting March 10, 2022. He won by a narrow 666-vote margin and was obviously unhappy with the result.
In Bicholim, the BJP’s speaker stood third in the race, but in nearby Mayem, the ruling party’s candidate won. Poriem and Valpoi were contested by Vishwajit Rane and his wife Divya on BJP tickets. Both won by relatively huge margins. Nilesh Cabral in Curchorem, also a BJP leader, won by a few hundred votes, nearly one-tenth of his earlier margin.
Political speculation earlier tried to read the message in the high voting percentage in Goa’s mining belt (in seats like Sanvordem, Sanguem, Quepem, Maem, Bicholim, Sanquelim and Curchorem). It was between 80.2 to 89.6 per cent, significantly higher than the 79 per cent overall Goa turnout.
Observers from the area said the BJP’s inability to sort out the mining imbroglio in the belt was fuelling ire against the ruling party. Though there are other factors that could explain this result, including possible local rivalries and dissidence within the party.
A complex issue
Goa’s mining issues are complex. The BJP had itself placed the topic on the agenda, prior to the 2012 Assembly elections here, knowing that some prominent Congress politicians were linked to that sector.
The issue of multi-crore scams were raised. Environmental campaigners, who have been raising mining issues for decades now, also took up the issue. But, on coming to power in 2012, the BJP was unable to sort it out, one way or the other. The issue got stuck amid environmental laws and court judgements.
The BJP, then headed by its larger-than-life leader Manohar Parrikar in Goa (who died while in office in March 2019 of cancer), earned political capital from the issue of ‘mining scams’. His government ordered a ‘temporary’ closure of mining leases.
This came after the Justice MB Shah Commission said the loss to the exchequer was Rs 35,000 crore. The Centre then entered the issue, with the Supreme Court following suit.
The Supreme Court ban was lifted in 2014, but another ban came about in 2018. Later, there were attempts by the local BJP to distance themselves from their actions which led to the stopping of mining in Goa.
In its elections for 2022, the BJP promised the “resumption of mining in six months”. In its 2017 pre-poll alliances too, the BJP had promised to resume mining operations in a ‘sustainable’ manner; so far, this hasn’t happened. It should also been noted here that the lack of revenues from mining was also affecting Goa.
In the past few weeks, perhaps sensitive to the concerns from the mining belt, the Goa government — between polling day and results — announced a policy to “handle low-grade iron ore”.
It says low-grade ore “generated” between 2007 and 2012 “shall be disposed off as may be determined by the state government, including auctioning as per (the) existing e-auction policy of state government.” Goa’s Mining Dump Policy was approved in December 2021, just before the pre-election code of conduct came into force. It was notified in March.
Opening up mining in Goa is not going to be easy. There are wheels within wheels, in an issue that is mostly misunderstood. Diverse conflicting interests have come into play here — the local BJP’s party interest and electoral fortunes, as against those of its national leadership.
The interests of local mineowners are pitted against major Indian players in the iron and steel sector. The latter might prefer the ore processed within the economy. But for those exporting the ore, the foreign earnings have represented an easy bounty at times.
There are various perspectives on this issue.
On the one-hand, Goa’s open-cast and export-oriented iron ore mining (and earlier manganese too) is an environmental disaster. It has damaged fertile fields, water tables and agricultural-horticultural areas.
But, at the same time, mining has also made many dependent on it, for jobs, the trucking business, vehicle repair garages, and, for a few family-run companies, big-time export businesses.
Mining has long been an influential player in Goan life. It has influenced local politics and the media. It was started in Portuguese colonial times on a low-level. The first explorations began here at the start of the 20th century.
After the 1940s, exports picked up to countries like West Germany and Japan, that were rebuilding their war-shattered economies. It reached a new high in the early 21st century to cope with the Chinese hunger for iron ore, fuelling the field to dizzying levels of activity and village roads with seemingly never-ending queues of trucks.
It can be hard to distinguish between the genuine concerns of the affected villagers and the campaigns mounted by lobbyists wanting to restart the sector which has been embroiled in controversy, at any cost.
Goa was just one of five states going to the polls this time round, so it got quite a bit of media attention countrywide. Its small size and unusual nature drew attention. For a change, journalists toured the mining areas and video reportage offered insights to the issues.
Prior to this election, the Congress went on the offensive, charging the BJP with raking up non-issues about scams in mining and being unable to prove their charges despite being in office for a decade.
Both, the BJP and the Congress promised a “resumption of mining” just days before the February 14, 2022 elections. Rahul Gandhi’s attempts to draw voters in Goa’s mining belt were noticed here. The Aam Aadmi Party charged that there was “no guarantee” that the BJP would restart mining.
Besides this, there were other green issues on Goa’s agenda, waiting to be addressed.
Outspoken priest Father Bolmax Pereira listed the three linear projects tunneling through the Mollem eco-sensitive forests (double-tracking a rail track, a 400 kilovolt transmission line and extenxion of the roadways); Goa's contentious Coastal Zone Management Plan; the Major Ports Authority Act being extended to large areas of coastal Goa; ‘nationalisation’ of Goa’s rivers; a manipulative real-estate sector; rampant deforestation; and garbage mismanagement.
Frederick Noronha is a Goa-based journalist
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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