In the run-up to the 2022 state elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Pramod Sawant-led state government has made a slew of announcements towards resuming iron ore mining in Goa: a new state-owned corporation, mineral exploration and its latest, a policy that would facilitate the auction of low-grade iron ore sitting in little hillocks created from unmarketable ore piled over decades. The chief minister who hails from the mining belt hoped this would see the state through the next few years.

“Of all the state government’s short-lived plans, this has to be the shortest,” said Claude Alvares of Goa Foundation in a press conference on December 31, 2021, the next day, responding to the government’s latest plan. The environmental group has led a decade-long battle against illegal mining that climaxed in the landmark 2014 Supreme Court judgement. The extraction and exports of iron ore, both bane and boon for this small coastal state, had already been stopped in 2012, resumed briefly in 2015, only to be stopped again in 2018.

The environmental activists say that the new policy was “unconstitutional and illegal” and in possible contempt of a high court order which, on November 27, 2021, stayed despatch from any dumps. “The so-called dump mining policy has been announced solely to salvage the reputation of the BJP government which is approaching assembly elections without any clue on how mining may restart in the state, after almost four years since it was halted by Supreme Court’s orders,” said Alvares.

And ill-timed too, he added, since it would lapse as soon as the code of conduct came into force, which it did a week later, on January 8 2022, when elections for Goa’s 40-member legislative assembly were announced. The voting will take place on February 14 this year while the results will be declared on March 10.

Goa has banked on its natural and logistical advantages to building an iron ore industry that was its economy’s mainstay until it discovered tourism, and more recently, casinos and real estate. The mining lobby has played a significant role in deciding the political fate of Goa, from before its liberation from Portuguese rule and since – in the choice of its first chief minister, its veto to a merger with Maharashtra, in the making and breaking of coalition governments.

Leading up to the historic 1967 opinion poll that voted for an independent Goa, three of the state’s biggest miners joined hands to produce an “anti-merger” Marathi newspaper. It had seen its share of highs and lows in a six-decade history. The seesaw ride of the last decade, however, has been particularly trying for the industry and Goa’s last three governments and four chief ministers.

In 2012, the late Manohar Parrikar, playing the anti-corruption crusader, led the BJP to its first majority in Goa. Driven by China’s insatiable appetite, annual exports had grown from about 16 million tonnes in 2000-2001 to 46.85 million tonnes in 2010-’11 overwhelming infrastructure, regulatory mechanism and locals were forced to put up with ore laden trucks, including some of their own, roaring past their homes round the clock.

Parrikar had promised to regulate the sector and reduce petrol prices. As opposition leader and chair of the Public Accounts Committee of Goa’s legislative assembly, he had accused the then Congress government of turning a blind eye and being complicit in these excesses. His report held the then Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, who was also the minister of mines, of being directly guilty in some instances.

A decade later, campaigning for his seventh consecutive term as Margao MLA, Kamat waives his vindication – a letter from the state’s mines and geology department he’s got through Right to Information Act that says, “There is no Public Accounts Committee report, as the draft report was not adopted by the committee and hence was not presented to the House.”

The document which had prompted the department to file police complaints, resulting in charges framed against the former chief minister, does not officially exist. “This is a fraud on the legislature, a fraud on the people of Goa,” Kamat told Mongabay-India.

The reason this report, drafted after 27 meetings of seven legislators from across parties, “does not exist” is because the then Congress speaker, Pratap Singh Rane (also indicted in this draft report) would not allow it to be tabled on grounds that four of the members had not signed on it. Media reports from that time claim Rane’s successor, BJP leader Rajendra Arlekar (now Governor of Himachal Pradesh) had accepted and forwarded this report to the government, which at the time was led by Parrikar.

“I have no idea about this (Arlekar accepting the report). That the Public Accounts Committee (report) did not exist was what the Legislature Secretariat told us in response to the former CM Kamat’s RTI request,” said Vivek HP, the Indian Administrative Service officer who heads the state’s Directorate of Mines and Geology department.

Politics of mining

Five-time CM and 11-time legislator from Poriem, Pratap Singh Rane is being persuaded to bring an end to his 50-year career and ceding control of his constituency by his son Viswajit Rane, Valpoi legislator and minister in the BJP government. Father and son were both in Congress when Goa police’s special investigation team decided to investigate a bribery allegation from a miner in 2014.

The case was closed for lack of evidence three years later. By then, junior Rane had dumped the Congress and returned after a bypoll as Parrikar’s health minister. Over the next two years, the BJP, which had only won 13 of 40 assembly seats, would welcome 12 Congress legislators into the party.

Poriem and Valpoi, are part of the western stretch that starts from the Bicholim in the north, runs through Mayem, CM Pramod Sawant’s constituency Sanqulim, Sanguem, Curchorem, Sanvordem and then to Cancona, rural constituencies whose significant population, including its politicians, are dependent on iron ore mining.

As port towns, Vasco and Mormugao would also count. However, exempting Ranes, who are influential landlords of their areas, neither 2012 nor 2017 suggests that mining impacted individual election outcomes here and 2022 may be no different.

One of Goa’s oldest jetties in Sanvordem, overgrown with shrubs, is now a local picnic spot. Photo credit: Meera Mohanty/Mongabay

Because Goa is essentially a republic of 40 independent constituencies, explains senior journalist Prakash Kamat, “elections here are not decided by issues but by personalities.”

“When you have constituencies consisting of only 20,000 – 30,000 voters and decided by the thinnest of margins, you can use your influence, money and the manipulations of caste and religion to see you through,” said Kamat. “It does not mean, mining that so many including the state were dependent on is not an issue.”

In its April 2014 order, the Supreme Court said Goa’s mining leases had lapsed in 2007, leaving an already frustrated Parrikar to deal with, not the clean-up he had promised to come to power, but the resumption of the sector that accounted for a third of the state’s revenues. In January 2015, the less than a year old Narendra Modi government at the Centre kept its poll promise and made auction mandatory for any grant of mineral rights.

Goa, despite being governed by the same party, was taken completely by surprise. It had managed to salvage 88 leases for the incumbent miners, including Anil Agarwal’s Sesa Goa before the law was amended. Half of these were operating, bound by a state-wide 2-crore cap, and Parrikar was now India’s defence minister when BJP lost the 2017 elections.

Despite the mandate – that many believed were for all the policy reversals of the BJP government, including holding the guilty of illegal mining accountable – the party persisted with forming an alliance government. Things unravelled soon enough though. First Parrikar, around whom they had rallied, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and then in February 2018, the SC struck down the “illegal” renewals. The dilemma for the Goa government has been, how does it move forward without compromising the interest of the old miners who claim hereditary rights.

Sawant, an Ayurveda doctor by profession and two-time legislator, who was picked as Parrikar’s replacement inherited the government of disparate egos and this problem. Sawant, whose newest opposition the All India Trinamool Congress claims has dabbled in some mining, has proved he is no pushover replacing challengers from the alliance and his party by more than a dozen defections. Congress lost 10 of their 15 legislators, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party two of three, including the Public Works Department Minister and Sanvordem MLA, Deepak Pauskar.

Pauskar has been part of every botched attempt to restart mining, including to plead with the PM for an amendment extending Goa’s leases. A bad idea, that he now blames Goa’s influential mining lobby for. He backs his CM’s ideas: a corporation, auction of dump, auction of free of claim, govt-owned land and not the contested 88 leases.

In any case, people have moved on to agriculture and tourism (in the Western Ghats), he claims. “This is the third election since mining was first stopped,” he told Mongabay-India. “People now want non-pollution industries … Of course, there will be some who will say, mining has not resumed, we will not vote for you. But that 10% would anyway not vote for me.”

His many trucks and earthmovers are now engaged in his construction business, his 22 employees gainfully employed in four restaurants he has set up.

Electoral currency

There are mines at about 10 km from Mapusa, but most Mapusa residents would probably not know that, said activist Ramesh Gauns about the rural-urban and coastal-hinterland divide.

Civil society activists say they believe this is reflective of a deeper problem. “Why should mining be an issue for voters when the fact that their elected candidate is here today, there tomorrow, and somewhere else the day after? Goa’s MLAs are like commodities in a market that any party can come bid for and take away,” Gauns told Mongabay-India expressing a cynicism shared by many Goan voters.

Peaceful river, Sal, by Mirabag village in Sanvordem, the heart of South Goa’s mining belt. Photo credit: Supriya Vohra

As of January 18, 27 or more than two-thirds of Goa’s assembly of 40 had changed parties according to the Association for Democratic Reforms. Curtorim MLA, Alexio Reginaldo Lourenco, quit the Congress to join the Trinamool Congress only to quit the latter too.

Speaking to Goa’s TV channel, Prudent Media, senior Congress leader and Indian National Congress’s election observer P Chidambaram, acknowledged this “common disease afflicting all parties in Goa” and regretted the “trust deficit” caused by his ex-colleagues mass defection in 2019. In an interview to the channel, Chidambaram said that he is dismayed by this phenomenon, and it is for the people of Goa to reflect on when to put an end to this. His party’s “5E” agenda covers the economy, employment, and the environment – a stop to the assault on Mollem National Park – but is understandably muted about mining.

Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal swears to protect from the doubling of a railway track to cope with the increasing traffic of coal imports through Goa. It has also promised to restart mining, number two on their agenda. The Aam Aadmi Party, which had embraced Goa Foundation’s ideas, now has trade union leader Puti Gaonkar as a member, who as the face of Goa Mining People’s Front had blamed Alvares and his Foundation for the impasse. His joining had prompted a section of truck owners to distance themselves saying that Gaonkar the politician could no longer speak for them. At the time of filing the story, Gaonkar had not been announced as one of Aam Aadmi Party’s candidates.

It is also unclear which Goa the All India Trinamool Congress speaks for. As part of its blitzkrieg on arriving in the state just three months before the election, the party announced it was embracing Goa Foundation and the Goenchi Mati’s manifesto for mining. The Foundation said they didn’t endorse any party, but this meant a lot.

The Trinamool Congress’s new righteousness is new, considering that in its first foray to Goa in 2012 it had backed a son of the late mining baron Anil Salgaocar whose mine features in the officially non-existent Public Accounts Committee report, and ten years later as the subject of Goa Foundation’s latest legal petition.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.