If the recent reports from Goa are any indication, the world’s top party destination has now turned into a paradise for drugs, molestation, rape and even unnatural deaths. Add what has been happening in the guise of export earning from iron ore and the picture of utter directionless will be complete. According to the Goa Foundation, one of India’s oldest environmental monitoring groups run by activists and academics, the Union ministry of environment and forest has a major role in the rape of Goa’s ecology and violation of the Supreme Court order.

In 2004 the Supreme Court ordered that 70-odd mines in Goa be closed down due to lack of environmental clearances under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. According to the NGO to circumvent the order, the ministry sped up the clearances as practically all the mines were granted environment clearances en masse within a short span of two years. Curiously all these clearances were issued without a single site inspection, alleged Claude Alvares, executive secretary and director of the foundation, and a member of the Supreme Court monitoring committee on hazardous wastes.

Goa has a total of 355 mining leases, of which 74 are active, including 26 leases in forest area covering an area of 19.66 sq. km. In seven years between 2000 and 2007, export of iron ore from Goa increased from 13 million tonnes to 27 million tonnes. This goes mainly to China to help maintain its economic boom. There has been no effort to use the nation’s natural resource for manufacturing activity in the country and thus create long term assets as well as employment. Despite this, not a single mining project was halted or stopped by the Ministry. On the contrary, mines with the worst environment records, those closest to wild life sanctuaries, those with criminal records, were able to successfully procure environment clearances and temporary working permits ahead of others.

Not only were these environment clearances granted without physically inspecting these areas but the records of the public hearings conducted in Goa were not placed. Believing that through the public hearings they would be able to convey the sufferings they had endured due to mining activity, large numbers of village folk had turned up at each of the hearings to petition the government against granting environment clearances for several of the problem mines. All their efforts failed as their grievances never reached the right forum. Instead only the presentations made by the mine owners reached the EIA committee.

The Goa foundation demanded a review of the 70 or so environment clearances already granted by the ministry. The NGO is also critical of the compensation to be charged from the ore diggers in the forest areas. They felt that about Rs 100 crore which the 16 mines in Goa would have to pay as compensatory sums before they would be allowed to resume work on their leases in forest areas was too low. The costs imposed on the companies for destruction of forests on their leases were undervalued by the ministry to the advantage of the companies. It also found that temporary working permits to work in forest areas had been granted by the ministry in violation of the court’s orders.

Site inspections are done in very few cases in which there is any doubt on distance from wildlife parks or from the coastline, but not usually otherwise. In the past two years, there have been only two site visits to Goa mines, an unidentified government official confided to media.

In this rape of environment the role of the state government is no less curious. In the case of wildlife sanctuaries, the Goa government has recommended that no buffer zone is required to protect the areas (Mollem, Mhadei and Netravali) from the effects of mining even winking at the environment ministry suggestion that a buffer zone of 10km around ecologically sensitive zones should be there. The Environment Ministry, therefore, by a recent order rejected environment clearance for seven mining leases in Goa on the ground that they were within one km of the buffer zone of wildlife sanctuaries.

How are these public hearings conducted in Goa? Here is an excerpt from what Sunita Narain , the chairperson of the Centre for Science and Environment saw:

Every chair of the community hall of the Shree Shantadurga temple in South Goa’s Quepem taluka was taken. In a few minutes, the publichearing for Shakti bauxite mines was to begin. Then there arose a whisper: the temple had objected to the hearing being held in their premises; it was being called off. It was the second time the hearing was convened and this time, too, the villagers told us, the 30-day notice rule had been violated. The panchayats were informed just two days ago that people should state their objections, if any, to the expansion plan of the bauxite mine—an increase in production from 0.1 million tonnes per year to 1 million tonnes, requiring an increase in mining area from 26 ha to 826 ha—in this forest-paddy region of Goa’s hinterland.

From the open window I could see a large police battalion gathering. The whisper grew to a shout. Hefty transporters—owners of trucks to carry the bauxite—were shouting the expansion must be cleared. Within minutes, villagers responded. The voices became more strident; both sides were close to a fight. Things settled only when the local MLA insisted with district officials that the hearing be held as scheduled.

The hearing began. The company was requested to explain its project—a Powerpoint presentation in English was simultaneously translated into Konkani. A lot of fluff and technical verbiage followed: the geology of the region; the drilling techniques to be used; how bauxite was critical to the country’s development; how all clearances had been granted for extension of the mining lease; and how the company would ensure that environmental damage was mitigated at all costs.

Listening to the presentation, everything seemed taken care of. The company would stabilize waste dumps by planting trees, backfilling the pits so that rejects were minimized; it would not breach the groundwater table and, to top it all, it would set aside money for environmental management. But this was before the residents—from politicians to villagers to church representatives—got up to speak. They ripped through the environmental impact assessment report prepared by an unknown consultant. They explained the company had got the number of people living in the area, and even the existing land use, completely wrong. The company claimed most of the land it would mine was ‘wasteland’. This, people explained, was a lie because the company was eyeing communidade land (common land) they intensively used for agriculture or grazing livestock. Thus, mining here would massively harm them, a fact completely neglected in the environmental impact assessment.

I then checked the report. There was not even a map that identified for me habitations or agricultural fields. The report said, rather glibly, there were no surface waterbodies in the vicinity of the project. It then concluded the project’s use of water, for spraying on roads and pits would have no impact on availability for people. The river Sal, some distance away, was discussed for environmental impacts; even the Arabian Sea. But the numerous village streams, which flow from the hills and irrigate the fields found no mention.

At the hearing, villagers counted the streams. The area used to be extremely water-scarce. But the government spent substantial money under the national watershed programme to build check dams, plant trees and increase water recharge. As a result there was now enough water for good harvests. Villagers wanted to know why the same government, which had first invested in improving their water security, was now hell-bent on pushing an activity that would destroy their lives. It wasn’t surprising when all those gathered agreed unanimously that the mines must not be allowed under any circumstance. The people said the regulatory clearances—the mine closure plan, the mine management plan—were worthless or even fraudulent. The company, already mining in the area on much smaller land, had flouted every existing condition, broken every trust. Life, they said, was already a living hell because of this small mine; what would happen if it expanded? More land taken, more streams destroyed, more rejects piled high for rains to turn into silt?

Greed is a major problem everywhere, more so in Goa. Greed saw drugs invading the once paradise for tourists. Greed saw the rape of environment as diggers kept on, through fair means or foul, digging and sending the ore to China. Greed saw permission for as many as 15 SEZs in the tiny state. Forgotten in the voluminous greed based economy is that the charm of the palm-fringed beach resort by the Arabian Sea as a result would vanish. However the popular protest finally saw the state’s chief minister bowing down and canceling the proposed SEZs. Will he do the same for unlawful miners? Unlikely, commented a top executive from the mineral sector. Mining is inexpensive while prices abroad are on fire. In the end the profit margin is too huge. Even if the diggers pay the rent seekers in bureaucracy and politics, they end up with a massive surplus. Voices of poor people may find no means to reach the decision takers blocked as the path is by the grease called money.

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