Mint has correctly described the suspension of iron ore mining in Goa this past week as a case of political one-upmanship, with the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Goa followed by the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance government’s minister for environment and forests reinforcing the ban. This ongoing episode is part of the battle for moral high ground in several upcoming assembly elections and the 2014 general elections. But the ban in the wake of tabling of retired judge M.B. Shah Commission’s report on mining irregularities in Parliament last week—the Goa segment; audits on mining in Jharkhand, Orissa, Karnataka and elsewhere will follow—showcases more than the politics of it.
Goa is a crucible where illegality in business and political corruption that feeds on it, and increasing public anger that is rebelling against these, are at war. It’s a story beyond the stunning news that Goa’s nearly hundred mining operations are now stalled, including those of heavyweights Sesa Sterlite, V.M. Salgaocar and Bro Pvt. Ltd, Sociedade De Fomento Industries Pvt. Ltd, Chowgule and Co. Pvt. Ltd and firms controlled by politically prominent families like the Kakodkars, Alemaos, Tarcars and Sinais. They variously stand accused by the Shah Commission’s report of illegalities of one kind or another, from that of simple procedure to intolerable pollution and outright encroachment.
I have for long marvelled at how tiny Goa excels in denial of its ills. It doesn’t possess the expansive geography of Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand to hide mining and land acquisition dirt from public scrutiny. But much like the prophylactic of information technology that for years masked wrongdoing in Karnataka, and remoteness from metropolitan consciousness masked similar activities in the other three states, hyped tourism camouflaged Goa.
Here lies an irony. An explosion in tourism this past decade directly fuelled a real estate and construction boom with a rush for tourism-related properties, vacation and retirement homes, and opportunities to park funds. This period also saw a coincidental boom in iron-ore exports to Japan and China. There was such profit to be made that export tonnage from Goa’s port soon, and by far, exceeded—according to the state government’s own data—the tonnage mined and officially recorded. (The Shah Commission puts the quantum of illegal mining between 2006 and 2011 at Rs.35,000 crore, or over $6 billion, the years Congress chief ministers Pratapsingh Rane but largely, Digambar Kamat led the state; Kamat also held the mines portfolio.)
From 2005, instances of strong-arm tactics by construction interests surfaced in local media. This was followed by news of similar instances in the iron-ore mining areas of southern and eastern Goa. Relatively isolated public anger coalesced into mass outrage with the outing of the Goa Regional Plan 2011, over 2008-09, which activists exposed as a brazen attempt by both construction and mining lobbies—endorsed by government—to grab land. Meticulous investigation by activists showed wholesale marking of arable, community and forested lands as being suitable for construction and mining.
Massive public protests led to the scrapping of that plan. The modified Regional Plan 2021, also riddled with irregularities, is now on ice.
The extent to which the rot has spread is indicated by the Commission’s report, which contends that nearly 2,800 hectares of land has already been encroached by mining interests, of which about 580 hectares is being used for illegally extracting iron ore.
Corruption formed the core plank of Goa’s assembly elections held on 3 March this year, and the BJP—and its chief ministerial face Manohar Parrikar—won on that account. I have written in this column that Parrikar would find it difficult to turn his back on mining and construction interests. Sure enough, over July and August he announced there was no illegal mining in Goa, highlighted by partisan media. (Goa’s mining interests and their political sponsors routinely silence news adverse to their interests; even in some national media that otherwise champion morality and human rights.)
This bluff of omission and commission is now called by the Shah Commission, which underscores the stand of resolute activists and a gutsy handful of media who do not hesitate to call an excavator a spade. With the publication of the report, Parrikar had no choice but to trigger an announcement by the state mines department for stalling mining operations—a stand that quickly usurped the central ministry of environment and forests.
This covering of flanks could ensure that good public policy may yet emerge from this episode, but I fear the time-honoured Indian practice of regularizing an irregularity will sabotage such a future.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.
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