Sulcorna, a remote village in Quepem taluka of south Goa, barely 600 metres away from the Netravali wildlife sanctuary, is perhaps the last place where you would expect to hear the familiar grouse of all big cities — too much noise from traffic.
Yet the tribals that make up thirty local families will uncannily throw up phrases like “bumper-to-bumper traffic.”
In October, when the mining season opens after the monsoon lull, shiny bright orange Mahindra & Mahindra trucks carrying lakhs of tonnes of iron ore block the lone serpentine road from Colomb to Sulcorna villages in Quepem — a sight found along the entire mining belt running through Goa.
As you drive through this 86-km stretch from the north to south, Goa’s landscape of dense forests and paddy fields is scarred by large mining craters, chopped hillocks and iron ore dumps.
Since 2005, when the mining boom took off in Goa with China accepting even low-grade iron ore (below half metal content), there has been a mass revival of Portuguese-era mining leases. In the past six years, iron ore exports have more than doubled, with private companies cashing in on super-normal profits.This is at the cost of the environment, with the impact of mining increasingly visible in depleted water tables, reduced agriculture and horticulture production, siltation of rivers, drying up of wells and natural springs.
Today, active mining projects operate in seven of Goa’s 12 talukas, of which Quepem falls in the internationally recognised biodiversity hotspot, the Western Ghats.
But as the mining season opens this October, traffic across these talukas is likely to ebb, or so hope civil society groups that have taken up cudgels against illegal mining. Growing pressure on illegal mining has forced the state government to take some action.
The illegal trade has caused the state exchequer a loss of Rs 3,000 crore in the past five years, say some, while others say it is a much higher Rs 10,000 crore.
In mining-affected villages, however, not everyone is against the activity. “We don’t know which mines are legal and which are illegal,” said Geetanjali Naik, the sarpanch of Colomb village. “But we do know that we have assured earnings because of the mines.”
Naik owns six trucks that ferry iron ore to and fro during the mining season. Ten years ago, her family owned just one bicycle.
“Many locals don’t want to raise voices against mining because they have taken loans, bought trucks to ferry iron ore to jetties and depend on these sites for employment,” said Shankar Jog, 70, a retired public works department engineer.
Jog, who returned to his ancestral family home in Sancordem village a decade ago, found that the Ragado river cutting through the village was shrinking and agriculture produce was reducing. Silt from the mining sites was winding down the slopes into the river.
“It’s difficult to show the visible impacts of mining on environment and agriculture immediately,” said Jog. “But we do know that the dust from the mines settling on our crop has affected the quality and quantity of our production every year.”
A report by the Mumbai-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute on the directions of the Bombay High Court has recorded the environmental degradation caused by three mines.
Besides a significant alteration of the village topography due to open-cast mining and degraded soil fertility due to siltation, the report also revealed that the deepening of the mines had resulted in water scarcity in the wells located at the foothills of the plateau due to the loss of the recharge area.
Such indiscriminate mining has impacted almost 95% of the 375 families that depend on agriculture in Sirigaon, a village in the Bicholim taluka that has three mines.
Here, Dinanath Gaonkar, 54, has not cultivated his one-hectare paddy field in the past seven years. “Not a natural spring along the paddy fields survives today. Most of our 72 wells have dried up because mines are depleting the water table,” he said.
With allegations of collusion between mining companies and the state government, locals such as Goankar and Jog have moved court, going to the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court.
Jog moved court after attending public hearings — a mandatory step for granting environment clearances for big projects — that ignored the voices of the public cautioning the government against granting more approvals.
Dayanand Narvekar, a former state finance minister and Congress MLA, admits that the fault lies with the government.
“We, as the government, are completely responsible for this. We allowed them (mining firms) to subvert laws and extract recklessly from our forests. The list of violations by the mining industry is long, starting with illegal mining, mining in forest areas without clearance, dumping rejected ore on government land and not filling craters once mines are shut,” said Narvekar.