Mapusa/Bicholim: Claude Alvares, 63, likens himself to a mosquito biting away at Goa’s powerful miners, whom he blames for damaging the environment, overproduction and the loss of livelihood to thousands of farmers.
Alvares—who set up the Goa Foundation in 1986 after his stint as a lecturer at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai and reporting for the Illustrated Weekly of India and The Indian Express— and other prominent activists, including Ramesh Gauns, are battling to stop rampant mining that has threatened the forest cover and farming, and has posed serious health and safety hazards to the local people.
Alvares and Gauns are using a combination of detailed research, global networking with experts, and frequent lawsuits to counter the Goan miners, who have used the windfall profits from a surge in demand for the state’s low-grade iron ore from China to gain clout with government officials and breach environment and safety norms.
Small steps: Claude Alvares of the Goa Foundation says he has had several victories, including the closure of a beneficiation plant in a forest, apart from mines involved in accidents. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
“Earlier activists used to do charity work like dig wells,” said Alvares, explaining how their activities have expanded to resist illegal mining. “Now we are all nicely balanced out. And like mosquitoes, we’ll keep biting.”
Alvares has reasons to feel pleased. Exposes by him and other activists to a great extent forced the government to stop issuing new mining leases in February 2010 and to order an investigation by the Justice M.B. Shah Commission later in the year.
Activist Claude Alvares says it is essential to stop to mining in the state and export of iron ore to China should not be permitted.
Still, Gauns and Alvares aren’t ready to claim victory. They are filing a steady stream of lawsuits aimed at restoring Goa’s environment and its way of living. Already, Alvares says, he has had several victories, including the closure of a beneficiation plant in a forest, apart from mines that were involved in accidents.
“Courts have passed orders granting huge amounts of compensation,” said Alvares, sitting in his office lined with files from floor to ceiling. The cases relate to violations of norms by mines that have resulted in villages going without water for paddy fields and silting of rivers.
In Goa, miners have overproduced ore as demand from China surged in 2005. The number of mines has also increased as new leases were granted and illegal mines mushroomed in the coastal state.
As a result, about 95 mines produced 750 million tonnes (mt) of dumps, or low-grade iron ore rejects, that lie scattered across the state, threatening the environment and the safety of people who live around the mines. The huge dumps have piled up as the miners typically reject 75% of the earth dug up. Six decades of mining have lowered the grade of the state’s iron ore reserves, which means the remaining ore is of a poorer quality.
Ageing mines also mean that miners have to dig deeper, lowering water tables—bad news for a growing population that has seen boundaries of villages merging with those of the mines.
For Gauns, the turning point in his life came when a mining lease was granted four years ago to Zantye and Co. in Sarvan in Bicholim, close to the school where he taught. Gauns, a 60-year-old teacher at the Govind Gunaji Sawant High School, read up mining and environment laws to prepare himself to fight the establishment of the mine.
Local agitation: Activist Ramesh Gauns says he is convinced the environment ministry had granted clearances without knowing the grass-roots reality in Bicholim and why the villagers were opposing it. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
“I then realized that having a mine in the school’s vicinity was a big blunder,” Gauns said. “I had a basic question—if a mine can be allowed to come up near the flood-prone Bicholim river, then will it not be a free-for-all in Goa?”
Gauns said he was convinced the environment ministry had granted clearances without knowing the grassroots reality of the region and why villagers were opposing it. He added geological studies to his research that showed to him that it was wrong to have mines that run north to south, crisscrossing Goa’s 11 rivers that flow from east to west.
Mines in such river basins could tamper with the flow of a river and even carry the risk of bringing in seawater inland, he said, though geologists haven’t substantiated the claim.
Alvares and Gauns took up the fight against the miners in Goa when faced with their moment of truth.
“I used to report very graphically the trouble of the people and I knew I wasn’t an objective journalist. For me, corporates were just a bunch of smooth liars,” Alvares said.
Companies such as Sesa Goa Ltd, Fomento Resources and Chowgule and Co. have not escaped Alvares’s wrath and a host of long-drawn items of litigation come up for hearing nearly every day involving these prominent miners.
In September, 40 mining leases were suspended for not conforming with air and water laws.
Goa’s big miners deny that they have broken rules or mined illegally. They have, however, said that some errors may have been made inadvertently.
“At the most, there could have been irregularities,” P.K. Mukherjee, managing director of Sesa Goa, the largest miner in the state, told reporters recently. “But these are not mala fide.”
Mukherjee, who is also president of the Federation of Indian Mineral Industries, did not say how Sesa Goa or other miners have made those errors. Activists said three big accidents in the past two years, including one at Fomento Resources’ mine, which took three lives pointed to bad practices.
People’s awareness of their rights has also aided the activists in fighting the spread of the mines in India’s richest state.
“We used to have a field where we grew rice. One year’s crop would give us a supply of rice for two years,” said Anand Gaokar, a 40-year-old farmer in Sirigao village, where the water table has sunk, destroying fields and wells due to mining. Sesa Goa, Rajaram Bandekar and Chowgule have mines in the vicinity. “Now we have no income and no water, and we have to buy rice.”
Norma, Alvares’ lawyer wife, is fighting Gaokar’s case to seek closure of the mines.
“People are quick to pick up the phone and dial the numbers of the authorities even if a bulldozer is simply levelling a field,” said an official in Goa’s mines ministry, who declined to be named.
With the Shah commission report due, a set of recommendations to clean up Goa’s mining industry may soon be a reality, activists said.
Faced with an adversary that has substantial resources, activists are using research more than ever before. Alvares has two researchers who pore over data and statements in balance sheets, reports of the Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM) and other government mining regulators, and speeches of lawmakers in the assembly and Parliament to pick out discrepancies.
They also use the government’s own statements from various quarters to highlight errors and inefficiencies.
“The government took the point of view of the high court in an affidavit, saying that we have done our investigation and only one mine in 2010-11 produced 6,000 tonnes in excess of environmental clearance. This was said on oath by the mines director,” Alvares said, recounting a recent case. “Now the latest data from IBM says 31 mines are in violation of their limits.”
The Goa Foundation’s own calculations show 35 mt out of total exports of 55 mt in 2010-11 was illegally extracted, according to Alvares.
“We keep on filing cases continuously, practically one every week. Each case takes a lot of preparation and documentation, but they (companies) know that they are going to have to explain,” says Alvares, whose latest strategy has been to file lawsuits targeting the entire mining industry.
With action on miners imminent, the two activists want restorative work to be paid for by the miners.
Gauns and Alvares have varying views when asked if they want the mines to be shut permanently or just exports to be halted, or whether they just want the miners to carry on mining at a more measured pace as was the case in the past.
One point they are unanimous on is the export of iron ore.
“There has to be an export ban. They can do production on a low scale without over-the-ground mining,” Alvares said.
Gauns said he is not against industrialization and the use of metals for infrastructure development, but Goa needs to be left alone.
“Goa’s miners have gathered enough wealth and done enough damage for six decades and it is time to pull the curtains on them,” said Gauns.
This is the concluding story of a six-part series examining Goa’s mining industry.