Panajim: Digambar Vasant Kamat, the chief minister of Goa, has seen his life and work revolve around the soothing calm of sandy beaches and coconut trees, but the management of the state’s affairs has taken him through rough weather.
The 57-year-old science graduate from Bombay University who has been elected to the assembly from Margao five times since 1994, faces allegations of having failed to curtail illegal mining that has seen tonnes of iron ore being exported to China.
Loopholes remain: Kamat says there are various laws which are ambiguous and open to interpretation, and clear-cut laws could help prevent illegal mining. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
His attackers are relentless, knowing that Kamat, who joined the Congress party from the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2005, has handled the mining portfolio for a decade.
Throughout his stewardship, activists were asking for his attention on the environmental degradation being caused by mines. With a crucial investigation report due soon from the Justice M.B. Shah Commission on mining, and assembly elections due early next year, Kamat faces a tough challenge in the days ahead. Edited excerpts from an interview:
How do you react to allegations that illegal mining has been going on for many years and that you failed to curb it?
Mining in Goa has been going on since Portuguese days. In those days they were allotted mining concessions which were subsequently converted into leases by an Act of the Parliament which has been challenged by the mine owners in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has admitted the petition and asked them to resume mining till a decision is pronounced. For the last so many years, iron ore was being exported through Mormugao Port Trust and Panjim Port. For every one tonne of iron ore you extract, you get three tonnes of waste. As per our interpretation, this is rejected ore. Now because of the Chinese market, that reject is in demand. When it came to our notice, we asked the industry to stop movement of the subgrade ores. We said stop for the time being till we finalize a proper policy in consultation with the legal authorities. So at the moment the consultation is going on. Last year we advertised to collect information from lease holders on dumps.
Kamat talks about illegal mining, and the slowdown in iron ore export is resulting in a loss in revenue.
Was there overmining or mining beyond set limits in Goa?
Overmining is also linked to the dumps. Their Environment Clearance (EC) limit may be 2 million tonnes (mt). They may have mined 1.98 mt but exported 8mt from dumps. So, legally speaking they have not exceeded EC limits.
The mining trade association is saying that illegal mining happened through fly-by-night operators. Who are these people?
Wherever some cases have come to our notice we have cracked down on them. We have filed cases against them.
In many cases, we notice, an agricultural property owner next to the mine thinks his agricultural land may also have iron ore traces. So he goes to the irrigation department, takes permission for constructing a water tank and starts digging. And then he finds low grade ore and starts mining. There is no lease, no permission from anybody.
How many such people have you taken action against?
Some cases were traced right at the beginning when they started to mine and within eight days we came to know. In some cases, we got to know after 10-15 days as they were in the interiors. I think some 10-15 such cases were detected and action was taken in the last two-three years.
Is there a shortage of manpower and equipment that prevents you from stopping illegal mining?
Cohesive action needs to be taken. There are various laws which are ambiguous and open to interpretation. If you have very clear-cut laws then things may change.
How will you make things better in Goa’s mining industry?
We have strengthened our mines department. We have been opening our branches in mining areas. We have opened one branch in Quepem, one in Bicholim. We have a fully computerized database of returns. We have appointed two chartered accountants for reconciling the statements—export figures at ports and that provided by mining companies. We have sealed the exit points from both the ports last year.
We are recruiting 200 field supervisors who we intend to post at the mines. We are also introducing RFID (radio frequency identification) on trucks for online data. All this we have done for strengthening this sector.
How much will you spend on these changes?
We will spend a sizable amount. We are recruiting 33 officers of various categories from zoology administrative officers. Earlier, our royalty was only Rs 35 crore. Last year, we collected Rs 980 crore as royalty.
If the Shah Commission report recommends curbs on mining, how badly will the state be hit?
We have to see. By following rules and regulations there should not be any problems. Mining corridors are to be built so trucks don’t run on village roads.
With a slowdown in iron ore exports, how much revenue are you losing?
We are losing revenue because the dumps (top soil plus rejected iron ore) movement has stopped totally. In one way, if these dumps go, environmentally it benefits the state because the land becomes free. The state benefits in terms of revenue. Because there is no second rate for the dumps, miners have to pay the same rate of royalty on them.
How would violations in selling of the dumps come to light?
We are in the process of consultations with the legal authorities. It will take 15-20 days by when we will be able to come up with a clear-cut policy. This is not a mining policy, it is just an interpretation of the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation (MMDR) Act. We need to know if rejects attract environmental clearance or not. Whether it should be added to EC limit or not. These are some of the technical points that are being raised.
Activists are saying a lot of this is the overburden, which you are supposed to restore.
Overburden or rejects are the same thing. When you start mining you first get overburden which is considered to be a reject. It has been lying for the last 25-30 years, maybe 50 years, no issue was made out of it.
Are the miners not supposed to put it back into the mine after the mine’s life is over?
In spite of these dumps being removed, you still have another type of overburden that is being used for filling the mines. That is pure mud. In that you won’t find any traces of iron ore. We are also taking the opinion of the ministry of mines. Our own law department is examining it. We will get it clarified from some other legal luminaries also.
In the MMRD Act, there is a provision for dumps. In EC clearance also there is a provision for it. It says you must be a “zero waste mining company”, that means you cannot have any waste in your lease area, which means you are allowed to sell it.
The issue being debated is whether it attracts EC clearance. Or does it require only an NoC (no objection certificate) on air and water from the Pollution Control Board. These are some of the points that are being raised and we want to get a clarification.
How will the new mining policy change the industry?
You require a lot of regulations. Now the times are changing. You will have to decide whether you want mining not only in Goa but the entire country. If it is allowed, what should be the rules and regulations? They are drastically amending the MMDR Act and they are thinking of giving some shares, some percentage of profits to the villagers where they are mining. I think that is a good suggestion. Today, the grudge is that mining companies are earning, but nothing is being spent on the villages. So, if villagers get some share of profits, naturally they will feel happy.
Next: Hallmark of Goa’s illegal mining—750mt dumps