Mining could gouge Goa off the map

Goa and Bellary often figure in the fierce debate on illegal and reckless mining, but greens fear the coastal state may end up being more easily gouged out of the map by aggressive excavation than the west coast's other iron ore mining hub in Karnataka's eastern district.

Goa is a mere speck, occupying just 0.11% of India's total geographical area. Yet it produces over 50% of the country's iron ore exports. "This is despite Goa being 888 times smaller than the rest of India," Claude Alvares of Goa Foundation pointed out.

Goa's ore extraction is considered to be 460 times its geographical capacity. "This is ecologically totally destructive; mining covers 96% of Goa's catchment area," said Bicholim-based activist Ramesh Gauns.

In contrast, Bellary sprawls across 8,446 sq km. "Its ore production was around 42 metric tonnes (MT) when the Supreme Court ordered a halt on July 29, 2011," S R Hiremath, founder of the Dharwad-based NGO Samaj Parivartan Samuday (SPS), told TOI telephonically from Hubli.

While 1,723 ha, including Chitradurg, was encroached by mining in Bellary, in Goa mining is concentrated in 578 ha of a 700 sq-km area, predominantly near wildlife sanctuaries and water bodies.

SPS project director Iqbal Khan Pulli pointed out that the 126 mines in Bellary had polluted the district's two rivers-Tungabhadra and a smaller, rain-fed Hagri. Hiremath added that the Narihalla dam, besides forests, wildlife and people, have been affected.

In comparison, Goa has nine rivers, two of which-the state's lifelines, Zuari and Mandovi-are heavily silted. Goa's heavy rainfall takes the dumps by the rivers' banks speedily to the sea.

The Selaulim dam and Opa river, which cater to 80% of Goa's population, have high levels of manganese and mining silt. Recently, the manganese content shot up to 3mg per litre as against the permissible 0.5mg. A study by the National Institute of Oceanography found iron particles in the water of bays near the sea.

"Mining is hell for people in villages, has destroyed quality life, created huge inconvenience on public roads, destroyed groundwater aquifers permanently and destroyed agricultural areas and forests," Gauns said.

A study by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education in November 2011 found unscientific mining had damaged agriculture, the groundwater table, flora and fauna in Bellary. "Over 80% of mining is in forest areas," said Hiremath.

Mining originated in the 1940s in the 50km hill range from Bellary to Hospet. Even donkeys were used for transportation. "Huge areas of deciduous forests, which had tigers among other wildlife, and over 200 species of medicinal plants, lie destroyed today," said Santosh Martin of NGO Sloth Bear Foundation and Bellary's honorary wildlife warden.

Environmentalists' efforts to declare the area a unique sanctuary proved futile. "The mining lobby was too strong for our efforts to protect the medicinal plants, especially the endemic Clotoraria sandurensis, which is not found anywhere else in the world," said Martin.

Tigers disappeared by the early 70s. "Bird species from the Western Ghats (200km away) were found here. There were also three species of vultures," he said.

Hyderabad-based Cerana Foundation also studied the damage and found that air pollution in Bellary had affected crop and milk yields. It noted that in a decade, yields of maize, a major crop in the district, had dropped to one-third: from 62-74 Qtl/ha to 20-25 Qtl/ha.

Hiremath conceded that the district's somewhat resilient nature has helped it absorb mining's ruinous effect. "After the activity was stopped last year, villagers of Lakshmipur revived agriculture and reaped a good crop of maize in about 500 acres," he said.

Recently, NGOs in Goa urged the government to compute costs of damage to the environment and people's health in mining areas and mining roads and to seek compensation from ore exporters and ensure restoration of ruined areas. Most mines in Goa have plunged below the groundwater table. "We cannot sacrifice our water systems simply because a few want to get rich at the cost of groundwater aquifers," Alvares concluded. [TOI]