Goa. known for its pristine beaches, could see a ban on iron ore mining lifted. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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The chief minister of India’s best-known tourist state Goa, Manohar Parrikar, who returned home recently after being hospitalized for almost four months in New York for an undisclosed ailment, is expected to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi this week to discuss reviving iron-ore mining in the coastal state.

The Supreme Court on February 7 canceled all work in iron mines in Goa, directing the state to grant fresh leases. These could entail holding auctions for handing out leases to private companies, or having the state take over mining operations.

However, the state government is also considering a curious third alternative – amending a 30-year-old federal law that determined the transition of mining in the state from Portuguese to Indian laws. This would nullify the apex court’s findings and return mining rights to Goa’s influential mining companies. Critics have said the amendment proposal is a quick fix that is certain to be defeated in the courts.

BJP’s dilemma

For the Parrikar-led government, this is a difficult decision. The government had initially planned to file a review petition before the Supreme Court to seek a relaxation of its order, but it has received adverse legal advice. Senior counsel Harish Salve told the state it stood “no chance” of convincing the court of a review. More than four months after the court judgment, the review plea has not been filed.

If mining does not resume by the time the monsoons end this October, the Goa government risks losing support from both mine companies and workers. To be sure, a presidential ordinance under consideration that would bypass the Supreme Court ban and get the mining started would genuinely address the concerns of permanent employees of the mining companies, many of whom are in their late 40s and 50s and concerned they may not be hired by new leaseholders.

Several employees held demonstrations in the Goa capital Panaji on Monday, shared these concerns with Asia Times.

But a back-door measure such as a presidential ordinance would not look good for Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of national elections in 2019, and would likely revive memories of the mining scandal that took place in Goa in the late 2000s when the Congress government was accused of blatantly favoring mining companies.

Ironically, auctioning mining leases was made compulsory by the Modi government itself under its agenda to bring in transparency and accountability in distributing natural resources. The Goa government has already been criticized by courts for trying to bypass this rule and making decisions favoring miners.

The amendment ordinance

Now, there are demands to amend the Abolition Act by changing the day the concessions were converted to leases under this act from December 20, 1961, to the day the Indian president assented to the act, May 22, 1987.

The significance of this change lies in an amendment to the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act (MMDR Act) introduced in 2015 by the Modi-led central government. The amendment said all leases granted before its introduction would be deemed to be valid for 50 years. Read with this, the Abolition Act amendment could imply that the leases are valid for 50 years starting May 1987, that is, until May 2037. This would automatically revive all leases and since there is no question of renewal, nullify the Supreme Court orders.

The amendment is moreover sought to be introduced as a presidential ordinance to avoid any delay, and is now known simply as “the ordinance.”

Not so easy

The amendment is likely to create more problems than solve them, though. First, since the Supreme Court had also quashed environment clearances of the mines, even the extended leases would be required to receive fresh clearances, which could take up to a year.

The Goa Foundation, the non-governmental organization whose petition led to both Supreme Court orders, said in a statement in May that the ordinance would not survive judicial scrutiny, and would end up delaying mining resumption further. It has suggested – and is the only one in the state to have done so – that the state should take over mining to support mining-dependent persons.

The foundation’s director Claude Alvares told Asia Times that if the ordinance is indeed issued, the legality of the mining between 1961 and 1987 becomes “doubtful” and also weakens the state’s position before a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court that has been examining the validity of the 1987 law for more than two decades.

This is especially so since it was the Goa government that had persuaded the central government to pass the 1987 law. “Today, the mining lobby owns the Goa government and its department, hence past history is now sought to be turned upside down,” Alvares said.

Indeed, the amendment would obviously favor Goa’s influential mining corporations the most, which have held rights over mines since the days of Portuguese rule. Auctions or a state takeover would drive them out of these mines for the first time in history. The amendment could also regularize their mining since 2007, which is today considered illegal and liable for penalty.

Glenn Kalavampara, secretary of the Goa Mineral Ore Exporters Association, only said, “We look forward [to] early resumption” of mining activities. A senior mining-industry lobbyist said the ordinance “seems to be the best option right now. But it is for the government to take the decision.”

Growing political support

“All we are saying is, the 1987 act should be applied prospectively, and not retrospectively,” Puti Gaonkar, who leads the Goa Mining People’s Front, a union of mineworkers, told Asia Times. His group has raised this demand at multiple rallies and demonstrations held every day at five locations across Goa, including the state capital Panaji.

Such an ordinance is also seen as the fastest way to resume mining, as auctions could take up to three years according to industry experts. Gaonkar said that since in Goa mining companies own surface rights to the land, even a state takeover could lead to lengthy court cases.

More than 100,000 people in Goa’s mineral-rich eastern hinterland are said to depend on mining as workers, truckers, barge owners or vehicle mechanics, or running related businesses. In a small state like Goa, this is a substantial vote bank, and political parties soon latched on to the demand.

Both of the BJP’s key coalition partners, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and Goa Forward, immediately supported the amendment, while in March, the two BJP members of the Lok Sabha (lower house of the federal parliament) from Goa, Shripad Naik and Narendra Sawaikar, met with BJP president Amit Shah and suggested the amendment ordinance as one way to restart mining.

On June 1, at a rally of mining-dependent persons, politicians from the Congress, BJP and smaller parties spoke in favor of the ordinance.

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