Sometimes, I head to a place in the Western Ghats for a walk in the woods. I watch birds, bear, bison, deer and the occasional leopard, swim in streams that become the Mandovi, emptying into the sea past Panaji, the capital of Goa, a mere two-hour drive west.
More precisely, I wander with guides in an ecology hot spot, an area of about 800 sq. km radiating southward from the junction of the borders of Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra. It is regarded as among the richest biodiversity zones in India, and is part of a wildlife corridor. My patch, as it were, is in Karnataka, roughly along a 22km stretch between the truck stop of Anmod Naka and Nerse village, towards Belgaum—less than an hour’s drive to the north.
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It is also a place for mining of iron ore, away from the purview of the newly, partially awakened ministry of environment and forests. I have seen strip-and-leave ore pits, and ore dumps. My acquaintances in the area, tribal and non-tribal, who know of active mines, have been threatened to stay quiet by forest officials and representatives of such mining interests.
There is company. The iron ore mining areas of Goa—legal and illegal—are neighbours to the west and south-west. The southern part of Sindhudurg district, the newest mining controversy region after a mid-October media exposé mentioned 32 leases for mining iron ore and bauxite had been approved in the eco hot-spot zone and wildlife corridor, is to the north-west in Maharashtra.
Bellary, Karnataka’s notorious mining district lies farther east. While much iron and steel industry does—and will—take sustenance from reserves in this district, an appreciable amount of iron and manganese ore, including that illegally mined there and to the west, arrive at dumps by rivers and backwaters in Goa.
Here, it is first loaded on barges and later transferred to ships, headed mostly to China and Japan.
This Ore Triangle will, in my opinion, sooner than later become a battle zone between business and politics on one side, and activists—and possibly, species charged with radical ideology, such as Maoists—on the other.
Bellary’s peccadilloes are getting better known, thanks in part to the government-girdling “Reddy Brothers” who operate here and adjacent Andhra Pradesh; and the recent high-profile rush by some transnational metals and mining corporations.
The battle in Maharashtra is joined.
Goa, blind to mining barons for decades has woken up to a reckoning. A survey by activists—including lawyers, ecologists, architects—discovered in 2006 that the Goa Regional Plan 2011 actively colluded to facilitate modern-day robber barons—new entrants as well as second- and third-generation inheritors of business and political families granted a flurry of mining leases in the last years of Portuguese rule.
A document published by Goa Foundation and publicized by Goa Bachao Abhiyan, a grouping of NGOs and citizens, clearly shows how mining leases were hidden in “surface utilization” maps. Investigation showed how proposed mining areas, more than a three fold increase compared to existing mining areas, would spread deeply into wildlife sanctuaries, community lands, and individual farm holdings.
Public outrage led to the plan, already notified, being withdrawn with retrospective effect in October 2006. Now the government, under pressure to accept and notify a more equitable model, the Goa Regional Plan 2021, is dragging its feet, as several mining and construction interests, meanwhile, benefit from loopholes in land conversion norms.
Horror stories abound: villages and villagers being surrounded by mines, mining waste and mining thugs; a landowner known to me in turn cajoled and threatened by representatives of a politician and mine lessee to sell out, and her car repeatedly run off the road by SUVs. She stopped protesting, after she was once jailed along with her octogenarian mother.
As these places in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa come closer by virtue of excavation and scrutiny—naturally, driven more by the public than government—this area will resemble an activism hot spot.
As for future Maoist presence: A respected Goa-based former mining executive and now consultant to local and global mining interests queried me over a fine meal in Panaji. They are already present in central and southern Karnataka. If they move north, I suggested, it would be a matter of their manpower, and you folks asking for it. Alas, it soured his wine.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.
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