As mining in Goa steadily picks up pace after a four-and-a-half-year hiatus brought about by a mining ban imposed in 2012, the resumption of iron ore extraction has brought back the old problems faced by residents living in the coastal state’s mining zones.

Though the ban was lifted in 2014, extraction only commenced in earnest late last year. Business is not as robust as before though – it has halved – due to to the imposition of an annual mining quota of 20 million metric tonnes of ore. Before the ban, Goa had been exporting an average of 40 million tonnes a year, or 40% of India’s iron ore exports.

Following the lifting of the ban, as heavy equipment roared to life at quarries, and transport trucks started running again, villagers living near Goa’s mines have found themselves again faced with congested roads, a high risk of accidents and relentless dust and noise pollution. The trucks ferry ore from interior mine sites, through narrow village roads, to small jetties on the banks of the region’s scenic backwaters, where the ore is loaded onto river barges for transfer at ports downstream.

In January, the Adivasi residents of Sonshi village in northeastern Goa’s Sattari taluka petitioned mining companies and authorities to address the problem of dust pollution in their area, as well as to re-employ the village youth in mining operations. Iron ore extraction restarted at six mines in the vicinity in the September-November period.

Earlier this month, the village made it to the state and national headlines when the local police arrested 45 villagers on April 11 for blocking the passage of trucks carrying iron ore along the road that runs past their village. The villagers refused bail initially, and 22 women and 23 men spent 12 days in jail. Pressure on the state government mounted with the High Court taking note of the events, and a lawyer petitioning the Goa Human Rights Commission regarding the violation of the villagers’ rights. The state and mining firms were put on the defensive when Opposition parties hotfooted it to the village, and local and national media highlighted the pitiful conditions there.

The dust eaters

With 52 households, Sonshi is one of the few inhabited villages in this mining belt. It is surrounded by mine pits and a pig iron plant. On the road, trucks ply in a haze of red dust. The government primary Marathi-medium school, from where the constant drone of trucks can be heard, has just seven students. Most parents who can afford the higher tuition fee prefer to send their children to the private English-medium schools in neighbouring Sanquelim town, eight km away. That is also where the nearest healthcare facility is located.

“We have to literally eat dust,” said Surendra Gawde, 25, a village resident. “Twelve hundred trucks go to and from the mines on this small road, non-stop. Earlier there were only two mines operating nearby and there were 300 to 400 trucks passing by. With six mines now working around us, the number of trucks has gone up.”

Trucks at the mine site. (Photo credit: Pamela D’Mello).

Surendra Gawde said that the villagers decided to take to the streets when they learnt that the mining companies were preparing to deploy an additional 400 trucks on the route.

Villagers also complain that the mining activity has had an adverse affect on the availability of clean water in the area. “By March, our well runs dry,” said a female resident of Sonshi. “The mining companies give us water we store in drums, but that is hardly enough.”

Drums to collect tanker water at Sonshi village. (Photo credit: Pamela D’Mello).

The arrested villagers were released last week when the government intervened to defuse the escalating negative publicity the arrests led to – which the mining industry can ill afford. Mining traffic was diverted away from the immediate vicinity of Sonshi village and the mining companies paid the bail bonds of Rs 4.5 lakh, or Rs 10,000 each. The issue is far from resolved though, as activists keep up the pressure, holding demonstrations where they point to the violation of laws.

No jobs for locals

In the past, mining companies have been known to manage dust pollution and its attendant problems by giving a section of villagers a stake in the industry. The companies employed villagers, and hired trucks from them. The companies even extended loans to villagers to enable them to buy the trucks. However, this time, villagers claim that mining companies have been hiring people from elsewhere.

“I worked for eight years as a spotter in the mine down the road,” said Sonshi villager Santosh Gawde. “As soon as the mining stopped, 40 of us from the village lost our jobs. I’ve been without a job for the past four years. Now they should take us all back, instead of hiring people from elsewhere.”

Surendra Gawde accused one mining company of favouring transport contractors who have hydraulic tipper trucks from the neighbouring towns of Mapusa and Bicholim. “Our main demand now is they are not giving us work,” he said.

When mining operations resumed, firms moving larger volumes shifted to bigger, hydraulic tippers to speed up operations. The transition has left non-hydraulic tipper truck owners with no business and has jeopardised the joint stakeholder system that had been built up earlier.

“Why should we eat their dust?” said Sheetal Gawde, another village resident. “The company gives us only temporary work. They should at least take back the educated among us.”

The arrested villagers said that they agreed to be released on bail after being promised that their demands for employment and the provision of health services in the village would be met. “We were assured our demands would be met, so we accepted bail and came out of prison,” said Shobhavati Gawde, 51, one of those who was arrested.

Employees of mining companies clear the debris near the road after villagers protested. (Photo credit: Pamela D'Mello).

However, representatives of mining companies told this reporter that the villagers were demanding permanent employment with their companies, but did not have the necessary qualifications. They said that the village had come up after mines had started operations in Sonshi. The companies claim that the villagers were presenting the issue as one of pollution but the real reason for the conflict between the village and the mining firms was economic.

Balancing interests

Mining was suspended in Goa from 2012 to 2014 by the state and central government and the Supreme Court, following the listing of violations by the apex court appointed Central Empowered Committee and the Justice MB Shah Commission report – which exposed an alleged Rs 35,000-crore scam involving top mining companies, politicians and bureaucrats.

The ban was partially lifted in April 2014 with the Supreme Court imposing the 20,000-million-tonne cap on extraction per year. Mining did not restart immediately due to depressed international demand and low iron ore prices prevailing at the time. Extraction only commenced in earnest between September and November, when prices improved.

Sonshi mine. (Photo credit: Pamela D'Mello).

The government allocated quotas to 30 license holders to keep mining within the cap of 20 million tonnes – a process that left many unhappy. For instance, Vedanta Ltd, the largest miner in the state, was allotted an annual quota of 5.5 million tonnes, down from 12 million tonnes, which was its peak output before 2012.

Balancing out the quota over the eight dry months, miners have been asked to target the movement of eight million tonnes in two months from April to May before the rains hit the state in June. This month, the state is preparing to appeal to the Supreme Court to increase the cap on tonnage to between 30 million tonnes and 36 million tonnes per annum.

Before 2012, Goa exported some 40 million tonnes of iron ore. Because of the quota, mining companies are hiring only some of the hundreds of trucks that residents in the mine areas own. This has also triggered a battle between truck owners for the limited business.

“Before the ban, I earned around Rs 85,000 to Rs 90,000 a month on my truck, minus the diesel cost,” said Chandrakant Vernekar, a truck owner. “Now I get just Rs 45,000 worth of business, basically just doing short trips taking reject mud from the mine to the reject dump site. That too my truck has just started operating from February.”

Vernekar considers himself lucky to get business for his single truck that was lying idle for close to four years. Many others have still not got any business yet, he told this reporter.

Truck owner Raju Gaonkar echoed the representatives of the mining companies when he implied that the conflict between villagers and mining companies was linked to economic reasons. “The problem at Sonshi occurred because the companies are employing people from outside the village and not from the village,” he said.

Anti-mining activist and teacher Ramesh Gauns said that mining companies first hire the politically powerful transport contractor, while those less powerful find other ways to make themselves heard.

“Over the decades, the mining industry has divided villagers by incorporating and paying off a section, so there will always be vested interests,” said Gauns. “But that is not the point. The point is that in a mining village like Shirgao [in Bicholim, North Goa], two [sq km] of the three sq km village is under mining. One hundred and thirty-six acres of its paddy fields are uncultivable, 76 wells have dried up and all the springs are dead. That is the damage you are looking at.”

Gauns said that he is worried that conditions near the mines could well slip back to pre-ban conditions.

Administrative nightmare

The BJP-led government and industry is worried at the prospect of the eruption of any unrest, which it can ill afford. The cash-strapped state government could do with the revenue from mining. Last year, former Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar said that the state had lost around Rs 5,000 crore as revenue due to the mining ban. It is a pressure cooker situation, and the government is hard-pressed to balance competing interests.

Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar reportedly asked miners in Sonshi to give business to trucks owned by village residents and control the pollution or face closure. “But then, I don’t want people to come to me complaining about no business and that their livelihood is affected and that they should be given grants,” Parrikar was quoted as saying.

Shobhavati Gawade and her son Surendra Gawade. (Photo credit: Pamela D’Mello).

The unrest at Sonshi was not an isolated case either. In early April, local panchayat representatives blocked the transportation of ore in Rivona, in South Goa’s Quepem taluka, following a mining-related road accident. At that time, the Director of Mines and Geology called a meeting of miners and urged greater precaution while ferrying ore.

With no dedicated mining road corridor or bypass, iron ore is transported mainly through Goa’s two-lane village roads, exposing residents to risk, and companies to potential arm-twisting. A Rs 200-crore mining corridor road has been shelved for the moment due to uncertainty over the resumption of mining, and its profitability.

The administration is talking tough to ensure compliance from miners and truckers with respect to the speed of trucks and pollution. It has advocated zero tolerance towards accidents and asked miners to deposit Rs 10 lakh within two days towards compensation to the victim’s family in case of accident deaths. It has also threatened to cut one lakh tonnes from a company’s quota for any road accident by company-hired trucks.

This correspondent saw a single motorcyclist with no apparent damage to himself or his vehicle, hold up a long line of trucks as he argued with a nervous elderly mining truck driver on a Goa road. Seemingly just the tip of an administrative nightmare.

(Photo credit: Pamela D’Mello).