Chandrasekhar Shirodkar, 48, returned from Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s. When he came back to Maem, a village in the north-eastern mining belt of India’s western state Goa, he decided to buy a truck. “Mining was a booming industry in Goa, and I thought I would earn a good living with the truck. And my driving skills are good.”
Shirodkar bought a truck in 1998 and began transporting iron ore from the village which has two large private mines of Chowgule Group and Sesa Goa Iron Ore of Vedanta Group.
He is among hundreds of drivers involved in the ecosystem supporting Goa’s mining industry. Iron ore mining has been the mainstay of Goa’s economy for the last five decades until it was stopped in 2012. At its peak, in 2009-10, it contributed over 17% to Goa’s Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP). The iron ore was mainly exported to China, Japan, Europe and the Middle East.
According to a December 2019 study conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology (Indian School of Mines), Dhanbad, funded by the Goa Mineral Ore Export Association, approximately 2,50,000 livelihoods in Goa are directly or indirectly dependent on mining. However, in February 2020, during the session of Goa’s Legislative Assembly, the government said that the number of people employed directly in the mining sector in Goa is no more than 4,000, and indirect employees “are not ascertained.” In a letter to the Governor of Goa on May 6, 2020, non-profit Goa Foundation mentioned that even at its peak, in 2009-10, the mining sector employed a total of 21,873 (including direct and indirect).
On January 30, 2020, nearly two years after mining was shut down the second and final time in Goa, the Supreme Court allowed the transportation of already extracted ore kept at the stockpiles and the jetties to the port for export. It gave the mining companies six months, till the end of July 2020, to complete the transportation of the ore, provided it had paid a royalty to the state government and have a valid license.
Ever since the mining stopped, many truck owners like Shirodkar are clueless and concerned about their future. Shirodkar owns a truck, and farmland in Maem but he feels stuck on both ends. “I can’t use my truck, I still have to pay road taxes, pay for its repairs, but I am not earning anything from it,” he said. “And my paddy fields are not giving me the desired produce. They are blocked by siltation. What do I do? How do I feed my family?”
Ore’s polluting journey from the pit to the port
After it is excavated from the mine pit, the ore travels via road and river to reach the port. The transportation of the ore takes place through trucks, also known as tippers (since they tip the ore into the barge). The ore travels from the mine to the screening/beneficiation plant where it is washed and sorted. From the screening plant, it is again loaded on trucks and taken to the stockyard, where the different piles of ores graded according to quality are kept.
From the stockyards, it is taken to the loading jetty, the last point for the trucks. At the loading jetty, the trucks are made to move backwards on a high platform. The trucks then tip the carrier filled with ore stones over. The ore falls through a sieve-like structure, onto the barge below which is a long flat-bottomed boat for carrying freight on canals and rivers. A small barge can carry 700-1,000 tons at a time while a big barge can carry 2,000 tons. The barges then snake their way through the rivers of Mandovi, Zuari, and their tributaries, ultimately reaching the Mormugao port, the final point. From here the ore is loaded onto ships, and exported out to different countries.
But this transportation system of iron ore has been a major cause of air and noise pollution, affecting the villages that lie in its route. A 2014 study by S.T. Puttaraju, former Chief Town Planner of Goa, revealed that most of these roads were not planned for the plying of mining traffic, and went through small village roads. The density and the frequency of tippers on these roads increased after 1986 and was at its peak in 2010-11 when Goa was exporting over 45 million tons of ore.
As per the study, the busiest route is Sanvordem-Curchorem, which is an area in south Goa that is surrounded by several mines, including the Codli mines of Vedanta, the largest in Goa. According to Puttaraju’s calculation, the route carried 400 trucks per hour before mining was closed.
On most days, at most hours, roads were jammed with trucks, commercial and private vehicles, creating plumes of toxic smoke. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper, moving at a snail’s pace. The rate of accidents was also high. Uncovered iron ore led to a rise in dust pollution, which would settle in people’s homes, in their balconies, on leaves of plants and trees. The settled dust would prevent the fruiting of trees, affecting the growth of coconut and cashew nut plantations. Ambient air quality studies showed a higher concentration of particulate matter (PM10), sulphur dioxide, nitrous dioxide and suspended particulate matter in these regions.
To tackle this, the Goa government passed an order in 2011 that demanded a cap on the amount of ore carried per truck per trip, weighing bridges at the end of the mining site to weigh the amount of ore carried by the trucks, wheel washing points and a tracking system that could monitor the movement of the trucks.
At the time, when the movement of trucks was stopped, the people in the villages were relieved. But when the ore transport began earlier this year, there were reports of people complaining of noise and air pollution coming back.
Uncertain future of the transport industry
According to Nilkant Gawas, president of the North Goa Truck Owners Association, when mining was shut down in 2012, there were about 12,000 truck owners.
He revealed that ever since mining stopped, the number of truck owners has dwindled to 5,000. “Lack of mining activity has rendered many trucks useless. People have either sold them, or are using them for the transport of other materials, but that is negligible,” he said.
The truck drivers and owners are not the only ones impacted by mining. Atul Jadhav, who is the president of the Goa Barge Owner Association, told Mongabay-India that barges have played an integral role in the transport of cargo in Goa. “We had 80 small barges and 224 big barges. And the mining companies also had their own big barges, about 62. So in total 366. Each small barge employed about five people, and a big barge employed nine people,” Jadhav explained.
Puttaraju’s study points to the damage caused by navigating barges. According to him, there are 31 jetties in the Mandovi river and 14 jetties in the Zuari river. The 366 barges would essentially ply from these jetties, through the various tributaries of the Mandovi and Zuari, and reach the port. His study explains the surface water pollution during the loading and unloading of the ore.
He also says the barges would often move at high speeds and cause damage to the embankments of khazan land. The khazan lands are low-lying wetlands with mangrove forests in some places which sometimes have seawater entering during high tides. Their embankments help in restraining more saline water from entering the low-lying fields. When the barges hit them, the damage allows saline waters to spread into khazan lands, rendering the fields unfit for any cultivation.
Jadhav says the shutdown of mining activity caused a number of barges to remain unrepaired, caused them to rust, and many have either sold it or are using it outside of Goa. According to him, there are about 141 barges left in Goa.
The scale of acceleration and its consequence
The increase in the momentum of mining and its consequent shut-down has had a domino effect on all the connected industries.
Puti Gaonkar, President of Goa Mining People’s Front, a union for mining dependents established in 2018 soon after mining was shut down in Goa, said their association has about 30,000-35,000 members.
“They are mineworkers, managers, supervisors, machine operators, machine owners, truck owners, truck drivers, barge owners, barge operators, then repair shops for all these machines and vehicles, diesel stations, guest houses, roadside restaurants, they all cater to the mining industry, and they are affected because of the shutdown of mining,” Gaonkar said.
The scale at which mining accelerated in Goa, over time, brought with it a transition in the lives of people. “Iron and goa have always been connected. In the earlier days, out of a population of 600,000, there must have been about 50,000-60,000 people of Goa employed in the mining sector,” Abhijeet Prabhudesai of Rainbow Warriors, a Goa-based non-profit, said.
He described how people used to walk from the villages in south Goa all the way to Bicholim in the north-east, covering a distance of about 50 kilometres on foot, and work with pick-axes and other tools, excavating the ore manually. “One or perhaps two trucks would leave in a day. And once they hit the groundwater, they would stop. There was no system of pumps back then,” he said while adding that during the monsoon, they would head back to their villages to tend to their paddy fields.
But after mechanisation things began to change. “It was after World War II that the scale of mining began to rise. Everyone needed iron ore for construction. They zeroed in on Goa because it is relatively cheaper to transport iron ore from here. It is a matter of scale. Poison in small quantities is considered good. And good things in large quantity becomes poison,” he explained.
People prefer sustainable mining
Umesh Vasu Volvaikar, 60, another native of Maem, started working for Chowgule’s construction arm in 1986. In 1995, he was transferred to the mining operations in Maem where he worked as a machine operator till 2016. He is also the president of Pangarpath Khajan Tenants Association. The ten-year-old outfit has 120 farmers and covers a large chunk of rice fields in Maem.
“There is complete siltation in our fields,” said Volvaikar, who is also one of the petitioners in public interest litigation against various outfits for illegal mining. “We need compensation for our losses, we need them to restore our land,” he told Mongabay-India. But does he want mining to resume? “Yes, for sure. There are no jobs here. The children are not doing anything. Sirf kheti se pet nahi bharta (Farming alone will not fill our stomachs),” he said but cautioned that “not the way it has been carried out so far.”
Explaining further, Prabhudesai said that even when the Portuguese gave mining concessions, they chose to give it to the upper caste, the ruling class of Goa. “For the people of the villages, whose farms and fish and water are being affected by mining today, it is a matter of survival. If you talk to them, they will tell you that they want cooperative mining. Otherwise, the locals have always been at the receiving end. Mining decisions have always been made by the ruling class,” he said.
Sometime in August 2020, local publications reported that 26-gram panchayats had approached the Supreme Court with an interlocutory application asking to be impleaded in the Goa mining case. In a dimly lit hall, at the Maem village library, when Mongabay-India asked a small group of people, who were a mix of farmers, fishers, truck owners, landowners and former mining employees if they had agreed to this application. They unanimously said no, that they were not consulted when this decision was passed.
“This was a gram panchayat body decision. A representative from a mining company came over and this decision was made. The public was not consulted,” said Vishvas Chodankar, Deputy Sarpanch of Maem.
When Mongabay-India asked the group if they wanted mining to resume in their village, they all said yes, but with conditions.“We need it to be done properly,” said Chodankar. “Restore our degraded land. Provide us with the compensation we deserve. Follow the rules. And if you are mining in our village, then make sure you employ the people of our village first. Give us a priority. That for us is sustainable mining.”