The Supreme Court’s verdict permitting resumption of iron-ore mining in Goawith a temporary cap of 20 million tonnes per annum is welcome for more reasons than one. First, the lifting of the mining ban will restore livelihoods to a vast number of people in a State whose economy is powered by the twin engines of mining and tourism. By the Court’s own finding, more than 1.5 lakh Goans depend on the mining industry directly, and then there are downstream beneficiaries such as truck operators and other service providers. The State’s economy has suffered, as indeed the country’s exports, due to the 18-month ban. The verdict represents an acknowledgement that the problem with mining is not the activity itself;rather, it is illegal and unregulated mining that needs to be clamped down upon. The problem in Goa, as also in Karnataka, began with the unscrupulous activities of some mining companies which pushed the boundaries of their operations, literally and figuratively, beyond legal limits. Mining in areas outside the lease territory, under-reporting production both in quantitative and qualitative terms and showing scant regard for the environment were the reasons that attracted action from the NGOs and the public and caused the courts to step in with a ban. It is shocking that the exports of iron ore exceeded official production figures in each of the five years between 2006-07 and 2010-11. This is evidence of illegal mining.
The Supreme Court has now defined the framework, inclusive of directions to the Centre and the State government over the promulgation of rules and adherence to them. It has also acknowledged the concerns of environmentalists by prohibiting mining within a kilometre of the boundaries of national parks and sanctuaries in Goa. By directing the Centre to notify eco-sensitive zones around national parks and sanctuaries within six months, the Court has ensured that the mining industry’s territory is clearly marked out and there is no possibility of harm being caused to the ecology and environment. The interim solution of allowing up to 20 million tonnes of ore to be mined per annum until the expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court comes up with its final report in the next 12 months, is a fair one as it takes into account the interests of both the mining industry and the environment. With the State government now being permitted to grant fresh leases as per its own policy, whether by auction or other means, the onus is now clearly on it to move quickly in framing a transparent policy in this regard. A well-regulated mining industry that is also environmentally sustainable is not a difficult goal to achieve if the government sets its mind to it.