Panjim/Bicholim: Goa’s prominent miners, including Sesa Goa Ltd, have been blamed by activists and villagers for environmental degradation and a series of accidents that have led to fatalities and devastation of fertile farmland.
The companies, while admitting to making unintentional mistakes, have balked at being compared with illegal iron ore miners, but have failed to answer how the errors were made that may have cost at least three people their lives just this year.
In June, a tailings stack containing sediments belonging to a mine of Fomento Resources got washed away amid heavy rains, killing three employees. In the following month, a tailings dam—where water is left for sedimentation—belonging to Sesa Goa near Mulgao village broke, flooding nearby farms with iron-rich muddy slush.
Goans living in the vicinity of the mines, by and large, have developed a distaste for them. Most residents hate the dust and the noise, but people who are affected more seriously by pollution and depleting water resources are agricultural landholders.
Bearing the brunt: Rajshree Gaokar, a resident of Sirigao village, stands near her well, which has gone dry. In Sirigao, mines were deepened in 2006 to such an extent that the groundwater depleted, drying up wells in the surrounding areas. Photo by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.
In Sirigao village, a Dempo mine, that now belongs to Sesa Goa, and mines of Chowgule and Co. Pvt. Ltd and Rajaram Bandekar Mines Pvt. Ltd, were deepened in 2006 to such an extent that the ground water depleted, drying up wells in the surrounding areas.
“There is noise pollution and dust pollution,” said Rajshree Gaokar, a housewife and mother of three children in Sirigao. “When I came here after marriage, the hill (behind her house) was green.”
Gaokar, who lives in a pink and orange home, has earth movers working noisily just about 50 metres away from her boundary wall. She has, however, paid a bigger price for the mine. A well in her compound went dry five years ago. So did everybody else’s in the village.
Not too far from Mulgao, two years ago, Sesa Goa’s dump—a huge pile of rejected earth—collapsed as a strong jet of water from a mine fell on it, entering homes and fields in Advalpal village.
Were these the consequences of the “inadvertent errors” that P.K. Mukherjee, Sesa Goa’s managing director and president of the Federation of Indian Mineral Industries (FIMI) admitted the industry had committed?
In Goa, differing voices, hazy aspects in the mining law and the miners’ own silence make it difficult to pinpoint how the so-called inadvertent errors may have happened and the consequences of those mistakes.
A mine adjacent to the village. Photo by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.
An investigative report due by M.B. Shah Commission may provide definite answers soon.
“At the most, there could have been irregularities,” Mukherjee had said in a recent press conference. “But these are not mala fide. It is like jumping the red signal.” When asked how the mistakes were made at Sesa Goa’s mines, Mukherjee did not give a specific answer. “So far Sesa is concerned, we’re awaiting new observations, if any,” Mukherjee said in an emailed answer to a questionnaire. “Inadvertent mistakes and intentional flouting should not be painted with same brush.”
Other miners also said mistakes may have happened unknowingly, but did not say how or what resulted in those mistakes.
Ambar Timblo, managing director of Fomento Resources, said an inquiry involving several authorities revealed a natural cause for the accident.
“Sudden heavy incessant rain over a short period of time which led to sliding of the embankment wall, causing uncontrolled rushing of liquefied tailings into part of the plant area inflicting ill-fated fatal injuries to three work persons in that area,” Timblo said.
As part of a public interest litigation, National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) studied the depletion of ground water in Sirigao and said the operations of Dempo, Bandekar and Chowgule were responsible for it.
The NEERI report also said silt deposition from the overburden or dumps from the mines has degraded the soil fertility in the agricultural fields.
Sesa Goa’s Mukherjee said he cannot comment on the situation in Sirigao as the case is in the court. Bandekar, Chowgule and their public relations agent did not reply to emailed questions. In Advalpal, Kishore Naik and Shyam Sunder Naik, residents of the village, said Sesa Goa had offered compensation, but future accidents could not be ruled out owing to their proximity to the mines.
Mukherjee declined to comment saying the case, separate from Sirigao’s, was sub-judice.
For the tailings dam collapse in Mulgao this year, Mukherjee blamed excessive rains.
But Claude Alvares, director of Goa Foundation, that has a string of PILs (public interest litigations) against Sesa Goa and the other mines, said the fatal accident at Fomento and the incidents at Advalpal and Mulgao show bad practices.
“If you are a company doing best practice, you will plan your mining in terms of the rains you are going to get in Goa,” Alvares said. “You will take the average rains in the last 100 years in Goa as a benchmark.” Alvares said Sesa Goa’s tailings dam could have caused a more serious accident, threatening villagers, had it broken off in a different area.
No glaring violation
To be sure, a technical official in Goa’s mining department said there was no glaring violation of rules, and Goa’s miners acquired the illegal mining tag because of such mining in neighbouring Karnataka.
“Systematic mining was there in Goa. But it was too fast and too quick in the last two years,” said the official, who declined to be named. “Everytime the words illegal mining would come up, we would be asked to investigate and we would find nothing.”
That said, the miners should have taken pre-monsoon precautions to prevent the recent accidents and that they should have monitored the movements of trucks, the official said.
“Fifty-four million tonnes of iron ore movement is too big for the small state. So the impact on the local infrastructure is too big and it has affected people,” the official said.
Members of the Goa Mineral Ore Exporters’ Association say fly-by-night operators are the main culprits who practiced illegal mining and may account for about 7 million tonnes (mt) of iron ore out of the total 54 mt that the state exported.
Activists on their case
Activists allege that Sesa Goa, which has the largest share of the state’s total production of 47mt of iron ore, flouted several norms. Alvares alleged Sesa Goa’s total mining lease area comes to 27 sq km after the purchase of Dempo two years ago, whereas the current mining law permits only 10 sq km mine area per lease owner.
Mukherjee said this is a legal issue and could be “dealt with at an appropriate forum, if and when raised”.
Alvares’s PIL filed at the Bombay high court in Goa says Sesa Goa produced 18,146,991 tonnes excess iron ore beyond what was permitted in 2007-10.
To this Mukherjee said Sesa Goa has not done any extraction of iron ore beyond its annual environment clearance limits.
Sudden, excessive rains were responsible for the Fomento accident, but the incident brought attention to several safety measures that need to be taken by Goa’s mining industry, said Agnelo Fernandes, deputy collector of Panjim, who was part of an investigation after the accident at the mine. “The mining policy has to set a buffer zone between the mines and villages,” Fernandes said. “Authorities also have to make pre-monsoon checks. Otherwise such accidents can happen again and more lives could be lost.”
Next: Goa’s mining history as seen by Shivanand Salgaocar, a prominent miner known for his charity work.
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