OTHER than socio-economic issues such as employment, civic infrastructure, transport, housing, health care and education, Goa grapples with a few key issues that come up during election time: the ban on iron ore mining, casinos, and, of late, English as the medium of instruction in schools.
The Congress has vowed to close down all casinos, including gambling dens mounted on floating vessels. It has promised free petrol up to five litres a month to every college student and waiver of a certain amount of outstanding mining loans. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) plans to focus on a comprehensive mobility plan for the State, including a metro train facility and electric inter-city buses. The party is also planning socio-economic schemes and grants.
The Aam Aadmi Party has put out a longer list of promises, which, according to a Calangute resident, seems alluring. These include resuming mining, but in the form of green mining. “Goa cannot run without mining,” said AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal.
The ban on mining of iron ore is a big issue in the Assembly elections. The initial plea of the Goa Foundation was to stop mining completely in Goa because of the damage caused to the environment.
The Supreme Court said this was not possible because of a law that said mining was an essential service. So the foundation amended its plea and said mining should be carried out with safeguards. An alternative people-oriented plan was presented, which said that natural resources, that is, iron ore, belong to the government and hence the people. Therefore, contracts should be given only for extraction of ore. The actual ore belongs to the government, which should sell it and use the proceeds for governance of the State.
With this in mind, mining was banned in the State by a Supreme Court order of October 5, 2012. Mining activities restarted in 2014 because of a resource crunch and a need to boost exports but with a caveat: only 20 million tonnes of iron ore could be extracted annually.
The alternative plan was designed to cut sharply into the profits of big companies.
Claude Alvares, director of the Goa Foundation, said: “The big companies were unhappy with the idea. They were getting 500-700 per cent profit.” It would seem that the BJP government agreed with the companies because the alternative plan was ignored and instead 88 mining leases were renewed. The Goa Foundation has challenged the renewal of 88 leases, saying that in 2015 the Supreme Court had ordered that all mining leases granted for 50 years, which had expired in 2007, would not be renewed.
The money involved in mining is mind-boggling. Alvares said the renewal of leases would give the mining companies profits worth Rs.1.44 lakh crore. This has inspired a campaign slogan: “Ore Chor 144.” Putting this huge amount in perspective, Alvares said: “The annual budget for Goa is Rs.10,000 crore.”
Mining has been a big employer in Goa and the ban hit the livelihoods of thousands of families. Although the State did give financial aid to those who were affected, the former mine workers see the elections as an opportunity to make their voices heard and bring back their steady earnings. The foundation, through its Goenchi Mati Movement, is encouraging voters to ask their candidates whether they endorse the GMM manifesto. The manifesto itself is quite an unusual electoral move in the sense of a non-governmental organisation putting forward a document for political parties to endorse. In a nutshell, the manifesto calls for “implementing intergenerational equity in Goa”. So far the AAP and some independent candidates have endorsed the manifesto.
Since the mining ban has directly affected the livelihoods of thousands of people, it is perfect fodder for populist political manifestos. The Congress jumped on to the bandwagon declaring in its manifesto that it would restore mining corporations according to the recommendations of the Supreme Court. The party also promised to give one truck to each mining family.
The AAP has promised a rehabilitation fund of Rs.400 crore for the “victims” of the mining ban.
The BJP is keen to resume mining. Last year, Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar tried to lure mine owners by telling them that if they built dedicated mine corridors, he would push for the 20 million tonne cap to be raised to 25 or 30 million tonnes.
Talking about the nexus between the government and the mining companies, Alvares said there were two instances. One, Vedanta’s balance sheet of 2014 shows a donation of Rs.22.5 crore to the BJP. Secondly, before the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the mining companies had for long withheld the ore truckers’ dues. Then, one week before the polling date, they were given the entire amount.
Excited over this sudden windfall, truckers and others involved in mining voted for the BJP. The results showed that the BJP got 80 per cent of the vote in the mining districts.
Never before has an environmental issue been taken as seriously as this one in an election.