By wading into the complex and slippery terrain of mining in Goa, Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal may have dug a pit for himself ahead of the assembly elections in the state next year.

Addressing a public meeting in the mining heartland of Usgao, 40 kilometres from state capital of Panaji on August 20, Kejriwal promised a that he would give a rehabilitation package to truck drivers who had been affected by the slowdown of mining activities in the state, within 10 days of coming to power.

Underscoring the importance of iron-ore mining for the state, Kejriwal further said the Aam Aadmi Party would work out a sustainable and scientific mining model for Goa.

Slippery slope

Truck drivers who transported mined iron ore have been demanding an increased compensation from the BJP-led state government and have alleged that while rich mining companies and truck owners have been compensated, they have been neglected.

Iron-ore mining was halted in the state in 2012, after the Supreme Court ordered a ban, based on the findings of the Justice MB Shah Commission report that alleged large-scale irregularities in the sector. The ban was lifted in 2014 but mining activities are yet to gather pace in the state.

But while Kejriwal may have pressed all the right buttons for his audience in Usgao, some of his promises on the vexed and complicated issue of Goa's mining have inadvertently put him on the wrong side of many others.

For instance, Kejirwal had assured those in Udgao that the AAP government would study and revisit the case for an increased cap on iron-ore extraction if voted to power. This has not gone down well with sections of Goa's intelligentsia.

While lifting the ban on mining in 2014, the Supreme Court had set a cap of 20 million tonnes a year on iron-ore extraction.

The mining industry of Goa, in its heydays, accounted for 40% of India’s iron-ore exports. In 2011, the state’s exports peaked at 54 million tonnes.

With the backing of the Goa government, the mining industry is lobbying to increase the cap on extraction and exports, suggesting that operations may be economically unviable otherwise.

By supporting mining activities and even advocating an increase in the cap, Kejriwal earned brickbats on social media for ostensibly supporting an industry that has been in the eye of the storm over irregularities and environmental degradation in Goa.

Tight-rope walk

AAP insiders claimed the media had misquoted Kejriwal. They said the AAP national convenor had assured mining dependents in Usgao that a case for increasing the cap would have to be made to the Supreme Court after scientifically assessing sustainability.

During the party’s Goa Dialogues outreach programme – similar to the exercise held in Delhi before the 2015 Assembly polls – truckers in mining areas had brought up their concerns, in response to which Kejriwal made his comment, said AAP spokesman Oscar Rebello.

Rebello said that the AAP government, if it comes to power, will probe the illegal mining allegations afresh, including the veracity of the Shah Commission’s claim that the irregularities cost the state Rs 35,000 crore. The party, however, ducked the tricky issue of auctioning of mines. In March, the state government announced that it would auction mining sites in Goa, instead of leasing them out again once the current lease expires in 2027.

"We are not experts, but have said we will study the issue, [hold a] dialogue with all stakeholders and come up with a plan,” Rebello said at a media conference. “In the mining dependent areas, there is palpable rage at the loss of livelihood and sections there are demanding the extra tonnage. People in urban drawing rooms may take a morally superior position and not like it.”

Balancing act

At the meeting, Kejriwal had declared that his party would win 35 out of 40 seats in Goa.

But his critics said that AAP could trip in its quest to strike a balance between miners and mining-dependents who want relaxed norms, and environment activists who want zero or tightly regulated mining activity.

However, Kejriwal’s foray into the mining belt – a BJP stronghold – has created disquiet in the ruling party.

The halt on mining activities has affected thousands of those who were employed by mining companies and the government has been under pressure to adequately rehabilitate them.

Over the last few years, the BJP has bought itself time by giving loan waivers and disbursals from the state exchequer to truck owners, barge and machinery owners. But patience is wearing thin in these areas and AAP's calculated outreach to a section that has purportedly been left out of the BJP government's payouts has clearly stung the ruling party.