Mining stalemate will affect polls in Goa

Goa, India’s smallest state, will be going to Lok Sabha polls on April 23, 2019, and the issues that matter the most have boiled down to three — mining and the urgent need for its resumption; sustainable development of tourism and infrastructure. While tourism figures surged ahead compared to past years, and infrastructure recently received a boost with the 5.1-kilometre-long cable-stayed Atal Setu bridge on the Mandovi river in Goa — the third-such to connect the state capital with North Goa — it’s mining that remains largely in focus this time around.

Mining has always played a pivotal role in the economy of Goa. It was even recently designated as an industry at par with tourism. The deposition at mining sites has triggered environmental hazards with lack of precautionary measures leading to health problems for workers and residents. Reports of violations and unregulated mining have put the industry to shame across the world.

Before mining came to a halt first in October 2012, the mining industry contributed over 25 per cent of the State’s GDP, according to Goa Mineral Ore Exporters’ Association (GMOEA). It contributed approximately USD 7 Billion per annum of foreign exchange and over 1,50,000 people (35 per cent of the Employable population) were directly or indirectly employed in the sector in the State. Investments by individuals/ families related to the mining sector included over 20,000 trucks, 375 River Barges and 220 Various Mining Machineries.

In Goa’s Sanguem, the agriculturists are an upset lot. Like John Sigmund feels strongly about the issue. “Why did the Goa government have to rush through to help the lease-holders when the Centre was coming out with a law on the same. There seems to be a vested interest clearly present to find loopholes in the law to favour a select few,” he says. “Mining has affected agriculture in the state drastically. Forget all the studies and the political campaigning on the issue. Ask farmers and they will tell you about how they’re affected.”

Mining came to a complete standstill in March last year after the Supreme Court quashed 88 leases and banned the extraction of iron ore. Apart from heavy losses incurred by both businesses and workers, the state, that is responsible for finding a viable and legal solution, continues to look the other way.

Bicholim’s Reva D’Souza who lost her son to tuberculosis in 2014 is among the most vociferous opponents of mining in the state. She blames politicians and the mining industry for the “rape of nature” and says, “everyone is only interested in robbing Goa’s resources, never mind the series of serious health concerns that affect the people.”

Voters like John and Reva are a disillusioned lot and feel strongly about the state’s dillydallying on the issue of legalising mining and controlling the effect of unregulated mining to the state and her people. “These elections, those affected by the closure of the mining sector as well as by the harm caused, will make a difference,” feels Reva, echoing the sentiments of an irate lot.

However, the ruling BJP seems to believe that the closure of mines in Goa will not have any negative impact on its chances in the Lok Sabha polls or bypolls in three Assembly seats. However, the activists and groups fighting for its swift resumption claim that almost two lakh people, dependent on the industry, have been rendered jobless.

The Prime Minister’s Office had even sought a detailed report from the state government on the possible economic impact of the Supreme Court order. Goa’s all-powerful mining lobby, meanwhile, has also been making frantic appeals to the state to salvage it from the phenomenal loss triggered by closure.

“Life has become impossible for us,” feels Mahendra Shetye, owner of Shetye Bar and Restaurant in Honda village, near Bicholim in Goa. “Before mining was shut down, my bar would be packed with customers every day. Business never looked as good as it did in the late 1980s and 90s, when I would earn as much as Rs 10,000 daily,” he says.

Now, Shetye’s income has reduced to a fraction of what he’d make earlier. Those who had taken bank loans for vehicles and other amenities found themselves suddenly reduced to penury.

“I feel that the Supreme Court’s order directly cancelling mining leases was too stringent and didn’t take into regard the colossal losses that would cripple the mining economy, particularly those who depend on it,” says transporter Devendra Palsekar, who claims to be directly affected by the order.

On the mining issue, Goa Congress chief Girish Chodankar says, "Congress has always been with the mining dependents and will never every let them down. Now, everyone has realised the BJP has been lying on the issue." Indian National Congress President Rahul Gandhi, during a booth-level convention of Congress workers said, "The closure of mining has affected lakhs of people. We have decided that the Congress party will start sustainable mining in Goa once it is voted to power after the 2019 elections".

Over the last year, thousands of truck-drivers, mechanics and transport workers who worked in the mining industry suddenly found themselves jobless, leading to a veritable crisis across Goa.

The Goa Mining People’s Front (GMPF) — a representational body fighting for the mining dependents — headed by president Puti Gaonkar has held numerous talks with the Centre, Goan parliamentarians, and political parties with poor success. “Mr (Rahul) Gandhi has assured us that sustainable mining will restart in Goa once Congress comes to power,” offered a miffed Puti, who went on to clearly maintain, “We will not tell people whom to vote for but have made it clear that we will ask people to vote against the BJP.”

On April 15, 2019, a week before the state goes to polls, the Supreme Court will be hearing an appeal filed by a mining company challenging a 1987 law that abolished the mining concessions granted by the Portuguese government in Goa. Chief Minister Pramod Sawant has maintained that the state will file a positive reply in the 20-year-old case with regard to an early resumption of mining activities.

Now, after the state BJP’s incessant posturing on the issue of mining, CM Pramod Sawant. now maintains, “I know how the people dependent on mining industry suffer when there is a layoff or disturbance to the industry. I represent the assembly constituency which has mining as major economic activity. I know the pain of the people because I belong to a family of mining dependents. My father was a machine operator at Chowgule Industries - a mining firm. I assure the people depending on mining that only the BJP government will resolve the issue.”

However, the industry players’ fervent appeals to resume mining at any cost, waters down the harm unleashed by illegal mining and environmental hazards that wreaked havoc across the state. Pre-poll promises of resumption of sustainable mining by the Congress and the BJP cocksure assertions that the closure will not affect election prospects, do not undermine grassroot issues. But the mining industry’s poorest stakeholders, who comprise a sizeable population of Goa, have been rendered jobless by a state dragging its feet on the issue. They are a disgruntled lot and have every reason to be so.