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Goa: Govt. Fails to Restart Mining Industry Under Public Sector, Unions Warn of Agitation

All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and its affiliate Goa Mining Labour Welfare Union (GMLWU) have asked the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Goa government to recommence iron ore mining activity before the Assembly elections in February.
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Early resumption of protocol-compliant iron ore mining under the aegis of the public sector is the principal demand of trade unions, thousands of distressed workers, civil society outfits and environmentalists in election-bound Goa, where on July 9, 2021, curtains were finally down on the private sector mining lobby's last ditch-attempts to avert loss of control.

This was the culmination of fairly long-drawn litigation that saw the cancellation of 88 mining leases by the Supreme Court on February 7, 2018, on the grounds of serious lapses on the part of leaseholders in abiding by prescribed regulatory provisions causing severe damage to the environment.

AITUC and GMLWU have told chief minister Pramod Sawant that should the state government fail to restart mining before the Assembly elections, "a state-wide campaign and affirmative movement will be launched..." They have reminded the state government of its public announcement before the dependents of workers that mining would be restarted from September last year. Secondly, the state government should bear in mind that impatient, financially-crippled workers had resorted to violence a few months back.

The leaseholders appear to have been active on other fronts too. The state government passed a bill in the Legislative Assembly on July 31 last year to set up a public sector undertaking under the name and style of Goa Mineral Development Corporation to carry out mining operations "in an orderly, scientific and ecologically sustainable manner" in a bid to restart the industry that has been halted since 2018 when the Supreme Court cancelled the renewals of 88 mining leases. Interestingly, the Bill provided for making the chief minister ex-officio chairman of the corporation.

The general secretary of AITUC-Goa and one of the national secretaries of the organisation, Christopher Fonseca, told NewsClick that five months had passed since the enactment, but there hasn't been any movement. This inaction raises suspicion whether the enactment was for show and whether erstwhile leaseholders were trying to manoeuvre the BJP-led government into inaction. In any case, BJP is an anti-public sector, pro-private sector political party. A version in circulation is that even if the public sector outfit opens its account with new leases and develops new mines, there will always be the possibility of the cancelled leases being reactivated and transferred to the state government-owned corporation under the reservation route. This is because the erstwhile private sector leaseholders see for themselves a chance to get back into the business. Suppose circumstances force the government-owned corporation to tender out the cancelled leases for a management contract. In that case, they may be able to re-enter the business, though under the corporation's watch.

Dr Claude Alvares, director of distinguished environment action group Goa Foundation formed in 1986, told NewsClick the organisation had seen hope and had welcomed the formation of Goa Mineral Development Corporation. Still, even after the lapse of five months, there is no sign of activity starting under its aegis.

"This is frustrating for us, for workers, for their dependents; for mining remains halted for over three years. It will be four years on February 6, 2022."

Further strengthening the suspicion of the state government's real intentions is the chief minister's announcement of a policy on December 29 permitting mining companies to export low-grade iron ore, paving the way for the resumption of mining activity. Sawant made two other points: first, about 10-20 million tonnes of low-grade ore were lying at different locations outside the mining leases and could sustain mining activity in the state for four-five years. Secondly, this new policy has within its purview dumps both on government and private land.

Sawant claimed the Centre's recent amendment dated November 2 to Minerals (Other than Atomic and Hydro Carbons Energy Mineral) Concession Rules 2021 that came into force on November 12 had facilitated the formulation of the new state policy for regularising dumps and allowing exports therefrom. In this context, it may be mentioned of its low grade (less iron content), Goan ore has practically no domestic market.

What is to be noted is that the Centre's amendment took effect on November 12 and the Goa government announced a policy for exports from dumps on December 29. All these ahead of the Assembly election, in the context of which the Congress and Arvind Kejriwal of Aam Admi Party have already promised resumption of the mining as their priority action point.

But, Goa Foundation has termed the state policy "completely unconstitutional." A Facebook post listing its reaction said, "The policy has been announced "solely with a view to salvaging the reputation of the BJP government" as elections are approaching. The state was taking shelter under the new (second) provision under Rule 12 (1) (k) of Mineral Concession Rules 2016. This new provision enables the transport of materials from dumps if they are to be used as minerals, even if they are low grade. The unconstitutionality stems from the fact that after the Supreme Court judgement in 2014 and confirmed in 2018, 2020 and 2021, there are neither leases nor leaseholders. The dumps are the property of the state, and these can't be carted away without auctions. Payment of royalty cannot validate it. There is Article 14, Right to Equality in the Constitution. As the Supreme Court put it in the Meerut Development Authority case [(2009) 6 SCC 171]: "Whenever the Government or the authorities get less than the full value of the asset, the country is being cheated; there is a simple transfer of wealth from the citizens as a whole to whoever gets the assets at a discount.""

Asked if Goa Foundation would consider challenging the state's new move, Dr Alvares informed NewsClick that disposal of dumps as an issue was already pending before the Supreme Court. He added that the advocate general had advised the state government against any removal or working on the dumps.

Fonseca told NewsClick that mining companies that had made huge profits over the last 50 years since liberation by exporting ore had summarily retrenched thousands of workers by paying meagre retrenchment compensation from which many workers had to repay loans. The government has been requested many times to start a retrenched mining workers' scheme on the Goa Labour Welfare Board model, but nothing has happened so far. To highlight the distress of mining workers, a protest demonstration was held on December 21.

"Further agitation is on our agenda. Enough of the private sector; we believe Goa's iron ore needs operations under the aegis of the public sector," Fonseca observed.

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