Rape of the rock

  • 28/02/1996

Rape of the rock MINING is the world's second oldest activity (after agriculture) which provides gainful jobs. The post- Independence industrial scenario has seen India become an important exporter of mineral ores - especially, to an extent, iron ore. Nearly half of the iron ore exports from India comes from the tiny island state of Goa, Since the end of Portuguese colonial rule in Goa, mining has been one of the state's major industries. But the boon is a bane. Mining is also devastating this region environmentally. And in the coming days, it may render Goa's fabulous scenic beauty a mythological entity.

Recently, perhaps for the first time, a senior official of the Goa administration has been forthright in pointing out the many problems caused by mining in this idyllic baby of the Arabian Sea. M Modassir's research led him to conclude that Goa needs state-level legislation for controlling pollution due to mining, including compulsory state-level environmental impact assessments to be undertaken before mining leases are granted or renewed. This significant study also calls for the implementation of 'the polluter must pay' principle in a phased manner, suggesting, therefore, that the money-minters are not really footing the bill for the bonanza they have been enjoying.

"Of all industrial activities within the state of Goa, none is more destructive environmentally than mining. Strip or opencast mining has devastated Goa's fragile ecosystem much more than a five-star beach resort or the large factories," says Modassir's study. Modassir currently heads the Goa Industrial Development Corporation.

Essentially a management dissertation for a degree from the prestigious University of Hull in Britain, Modassir's study says that it is important to "assess in detail the various kinds of damages caused to the environment and quality of human life due to mining in Goa".

It had been known for a very long time indeed, that Goa held in her beauteous bosom large deposits of iron and manganese ores. But little attention had been paid to their study or exploitation till the beginning of this century. Planned geological studies commenced only after the end of colonial rule in Goa in 1961, says Modassir.

Geological mapping, accompanied by the regional assessment of mineral deposits, was undertaken by the Geological Survey of India in 1961. These studies are believed to have provided the first authentic geological map of Goa and resulted in the assessment of the region's potential mineral deposits. Among the state's resources, geologists found, were iron ore, manganese, ferro-manganese, bauxite and quartzites. About 18 per cent of the state's total area is believed to have mineral deposits; nearly one-third of this is being exploited.
The bane Till today, mining is the single-most dominant industry of Goa. Iron ore is the principal mineral in terms of quantum of production and exports. It provides employment to as many as 25,000 persons directly, and to many thousands more indirectly.

To begin with, mining in Goa started decades ago with an emphasis on manganese ore. But with the growth of Japan's post-war steel industry, the international demand for iron ore increased, and hence there was a thrust to change over to the mining of iron ore. During the rush for mining rights in the '50s, miners acquired concessions or leases from the then Portuguese authorities, who had very little knowledge of the mineral potential of the land.

The concessions were perpetual and gave proprietory rights for an unlimited period at the price of dirt - in some cases, for just a few hundred rupees. At one time, a total of 868 leases or concessions - covering an area of 65,400 ha out of Goa's total surface area of 3,65,563 ha - existed under mining. But many large concessions have since been terminated by the Government of India, as miners found them to be unremunerative and gave up mining.

Currently, around 400 leases are in force, covering an approximate 14 per cent of Goa's total land area. Sanguem, an interior and underdeveloped taluka (an Indian administrative unit), has the maximum area under mining, followed by regions like Bicholim, Sattari, Quepern, Ponda and Canacona. Most of the coastal areas of Goa, which the tourists mainly visit, do not have mines. Therefore, the pollution problem lies hidden from the eyes of most visitors to Goa. But the beach is not everything, and there will come a time when the damage in the interiors will scar the more visible 'face of the oceanic idyll.

Out of about 400 existing leases, only about 80 are in operation. Most of the mines are owned or controlled by a handful of big mineowners, who have their own prospecting and operation wings for working the mines, says Modassir's study. On the other hand, most small mineowners cannot afford such facilities, which means that a large number of mines lie unused.

Between 1968 and 1990, the number of working mines has been reduced by almost 50 per cent. But at the same time, production has "increased considerably". Many smaller mine-owners who cannot afford to undertake mining operations themselves have rented out their concessions or leases to bigger mine owners.

Goa's mining operations have always been 100 per cent export oriented. In the early stages, just 100 tonne of ore were exported. By 1954, however, ore exports touched the one million tonne figure. It hit seven million tonne in 1968, and touched 10 million tonne in 1971, and in 1993-94, Goa achieved a new record of 15.16 million tonne of exported ore.

But as mining became more mechanised and restricted to open-cast mining, direct employment generation from this sector decreased. Mining operations, especially those for iron ore, are largely mechanised. Iron ore mines are worked below the watertable; large quantities of water is pumped out in a turbid state. At many places, ripper-dozers (mammoth bulldozers which rip through the earth surface to reach the ore's level) are used to remove the laterite top soil. Goa's mining is of an open-cast type, where a lot of waste water is generated due to excavations 'overburden' (earth covering the ore deposits).

Rivers of woe
Most of Goa's mines are located within the basin of the regionally important Mandovi and Zuari rivers. "Because Goa has high rainfall, open-cast mining is very harmful to the environment, with mining rejects being washed away and deposited in the rivers and adjoining agricultural fields," Modassir's study emphasises. Another study, conducted by scientists IR Sen Gupta and Y S Singhal in 1985, says that Goa's mines discard between 1,000 to 6,000 tonne of waste material of various kinds every day.

Ten large mines are located in the basin of the Zuari river, while the remaining 27 are in the Mandovi basin. Waterstreams and rivers become highly polluted during the monsoons due to washoffs from the dumps, and during the dry season, from mine waters and slimes from beneficiation plants (where the ore is washed with Goa's scars., mining the aim of achieving a slightly higher grade and quality) in north Goa being pumped out, notes the study. One estimate says that nearly 50 to 70 per cent of the bottom-sea life of these rivers has been affected by mining rejects.

In some of the coastal areas, which see heavy barge traffic plying its rivers carrying ore, the majority of khazan (reclaimed, low-lying land protected by riverside walls) areas have been damaged due to mining. "Humanmade embankments in some areas are eroded and the fields are flooded at high tide. Economical resources have not yet been made available to improve the strength and height of the banks," Modassir's study points out. Goa's reclaimed khazan lands are an engineering marvel of the ancient times. One official estimate says that nearly 2,000 km of embankment walls had been built in the past few centuries to reclaim these low-lying lands, and they are very similar to the Dutch dykes.

Wastes produced from mining are of varied types: the rock and soil overburden, mill tailings, mill water, mine drainage water and windblown particles. The Sen-Singhal study notes that more wastes are produced from open-pit mining than from underground operations. Mining causes environmental problems also due to residual metal, uneconomic ores, and discharged water.

In Goa, the damage is all the more evident. Over 350 sq km of mining concessions and lease area fall within the forest areas of the Western Ghat region, leading to a deforestation problem too. Damage to forest land was noticed, says the study, particularly in areas around Bicholim, Sirigao, Pissurlem, Sounshi and Surla-Pale - all mining areas. Those damaged range from scrubby, low- value forests to thickly grown ones.

"Several economically important plants, like cashew, coconut and bananas, have disappeared from the slopes of the mining hills. This is also reflected in the poor biodiversity of the area. Mining companies felled trees with complete abandon till they were halted in their tracks by the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, which forbids the diversion of forests to non-forestry uses," adds Modassir's study.

Land has also been degraded and agriculture damaged. Land degradation is due to three causes: excavations to win the ore, land use for dumping, and degradation of nearby areas due to mining (including agricultural and horticulture areas, silted drains, lakes and water reservoirs). Each year, some 30 million tonne of rejects are generated and stacked in large dumps. Much of these rejects are strewn along the roads, and finally settle in paddy fields, coconut and arecanut groves.

Foul air
"Conservative estimates reveal that over 10,000 ha of land in mining areas have been covered by mining dust," says the Modassir study. In fields in Bicholim, a north Goa taluka where the dam age is the worst, the yield has considerably diminished. Washing from mine rejects covers the top soil in the fields, rendering them unfit for agriculture, farmers complain. Mineowners attempted to purchase land, but "generally they have been unsuccessful due to disagreements over prices". Over a thousand trucks ply daily on the Tivim-Bicholim-Surla sector, crisscrossing interior Goa's largely rural areas. Dust spills from ore that is transported in open trucks leave houses near the roads covered with thick films of red dust.

Mineowners, an influential lobby in this small state, apparently have already hit out against the study, and have found good press coverage for their campaign. They allege that Modassir's study had most of its premises "based on outdated data". They also claim that the official had failed to pay due attention to the mining sector's efforts at "controlling environmental degradation".

Modassir, who himself at one stage had been the director of Goa's industries and mines department, declines to get drawn into the controversy. He says that in his position as a government servant who has submitted an academic dissertation, he will not get drawn into a slanging match. But that has not quietened the miner's lobby, who feel that his study could affect their prospects.

Modassir, however, points out that he is not against mining but is calling for responsibility and moderation. His study has meanwhile drawn attention from afar. The British Broadcasting Corporation did a feature based on his study.

Goa's immediate task has to be to limit further damage and restore what has already been affected. Many laws already exist and, if properly applied, could have a big impact, Modassir's study suggests. These laws include the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, the Environment Protection Act, 1986, and the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act, 1957, with amendments in 1986.

Suggested protective measures include the suppression of dust and noise- pollution, reducing pit slopes and maintaining proper drainage to ensure pit stability, scientific management of ore rejects to arrest debris, steps to afforest old dumps and re-using of mining rejects to restore degraded mining pits. Some steps suggested by the directorate of industry and mines (DIM) to control dust pollution have elicited a poor response from the mining companies. This, along with the lack of regular checking by the local road traMport authorities, has only worsened the problem in mining areas.

The DIM is concerned that air and water pollution will affect tourism as well, Goa's major moneyspinner. Thus, among its other recommendations are measures to recover old mining areas; long-term research on mining pollution and the socioeconomic impact; and choosing the right type of tourism for Goa.

Somewhere along Modassir's thesis, one comes across an interesting quotation. What is required, one is reminded, is "not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress."

Related Content