As ordered by the Supreme Court last month, Goa sealed all its iron ore mines on Friday. The government, however, allowed the lease holders to carry out “safety works” to prevent the mines from caving in. It also told them to ensure security at the sites, presumably to guard the extracted ore, which is now state property.

On February 7, the Supreme Court had quashed the state government’s order to renew leases of mining companies and set March 16 as the deadline to stop all mining activity.

The miners had moved out machinery and personnel on Thursday. In eastern Goa, the centre of the mining, around 2,500 trucks and heavy excavators are lined up outside their owners’ homes, signalling the absence of any mining activity.

Put out of work suddenly, associations of workers, truckers and others associated with mining have called meetings at several places over the next few days to discuss the situation. Some of them have already met legislators over the past two weeks, threatening to “paralyse the state” if mining was not resumed and the government did not find a political solution to the impasse. They are expected to organise a march to the capital Panaji on March 19.

After the Supreme Court delivered its order, excavation was cranked up. As a result, ore production for this year jumped from six million metric tonnes in early February to 10 million metric tonnes now. This is half the annual cap of 20 million tonnes fixed by the apex court. Some companies hurried to transport the ore out to jetties and dumping grounds as the state government interpreted the court order to mean that while excavation would stop in mid-March, exports would continue till the end of May, when the industry took an annual break. Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar had said a solution would be worked out during the six-month monsoon break.

Seeking a way out

Though the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been pointing out that the impasse is a result of the apex court’s order, thereby suggesting it can do little about it, the party has been at work trying to find a way out. It has already sent two delegations to meet Union Mines Minister Nitin Gadkari and plead that the Supreme Court’s order be negated through an ordinance or by amending the Goa Abolition of Mining Leases Act of 1987 to allow for extending initial mining leases until 2030. Both returned without any assurance. Gadkari, though, is expected to arrive in Panaji for talks with “all stakeholders” on March 20. But he would first have to calm down his party’s leaders, who are growing restive in the absence of the ailing chief minister, who is in the United States to treat an undisclosed ailment.

A three-member Cabinet Advisory Committee that Parrikar has formed to oversee the government in his absence this week proposed filing a curative petition in the Supreme Court, asking that it allow mining to continue “to safeguard livelihoods” until the state auctions the mines as per the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation Act of 2015. The government had earlier indicated it did not favour running the mining industry through a public sector corporation. Since the committee is only an advisory body, the proposal has to be vetted by the chief minister.

The previous BJP government had hastily renewed 88 private mining leases, with retrospective effect from 2007, just days before the Act came into force in January 2015. This, the apex court observed last month, was meant to benefit private mining firms and avoid auctioning mining licences for notified minerals like iron ore as mandated by the law. Since then, the government has been under pressure to auction the mines, though the court has left it to the state and not specifically asked for an auction.

Several MLAs have argued that Goa’s 60-year-old history of private mining has a different trajectory from the rest of India. Public Works Minister Ramkrishna Sudin Dhavalikar said stopping the mining would cost the state two lakh jobs and Rs 3,500 crore in income. The Congress has supported the government’s effort to keep the industry going. The Aam Aadmi Party, on the other hand, has said the government should implement the court’s order but compensate the affected people using money from the District Mineral Foundation Fund. The party alleged that legislators with interests in mining had united across party lines to ensure mining was not stopped for good.

This allegation was repeated by Goa Foundation, the non-profit whose petitions to the Supreme Court led to the mines being shut down today. It charged that the cross-party efforts to keep the mining going pointed to a miner-politician nexus.

Tough times

Mining and export of iron ore was one of Goa’s major income-earners until 2012. That year, the Shah Commission found large-scale irregularities in how the industry was run, leading to the apex court banning it. When the court lifted the ban in 2014, it capped extraction at 20 million tonnes per year. The industry never recovered from the ban. Now comes another shutdown, which Goa Mineral Ore Exporters Association president Ambar Timblo described as the shutdown the worst economic event in the state’s recent history.

Goa Alloy and Steel Manufacturers Association, meanwhile, said the shutdown will disrupt raw material supply to at least one large pig iron plant, four sponge iron units and 39 secondary steel producers.