Vedanta's Goa Iron Ore Gets Nod Amid Past Allegations

Vedanta’s Goa iron ore mine gets environmental nod amid past illegal mining allegations

Unresolved Allegations and Environmental Concerns Shadow Vedanta’s Goa Iron Ore Mining Project Approval
First Published: Jan 31,2024 07:31PM
by Ayaskant Das
Goa Iron Ore

Goa Iron Ore
Iron Ore in Goa | Photo courtesy: sesagoaironore.com

A central government expert review panel has recommended environmental clearance (EC) for a Vedanta Group-owned Goa iron ore mining project. However, it has not held the corporate entity accountable for previous accusations of illegal mining in it. Records indicate that, though the mine has been active since 1941, initially as five separate blocks and later as one combined block, the approval for clearance was based on the premise that it is a new project.

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The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) – an advisory panel of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change – recommended environmental clearance for Vedanta Group’s Bicholim iron ore mining project in a meeting held on 26 December 2023. A review of the EAC meeting’s minutes indicates that the recommendation was based on a key letter from the Goa government, which essentially cleared Vedanta Group of any past illegal mining allegations vis-à-vis Bicholim.

“(b) M/s Vedanta Ltd was not the erstwhile lessee of the said Block prior to auction. (c) The matter of illegal mining in the State of Goa is under investigation by the Special Investigation Team (SIT),” states the letter issued on 25 July 2023 by Goa’s Directorate of Mines & Geology.

However, the letter’s content contradicts the fact that the Supreme Court of India, in a significant ruling in October 2014, termed all mining operations underway in Goa after 22 November 2007 as illegal. The letter also fails to mention that Vedanta Group indeed held a lease for the Goa iron ore block, but it was identified by different lease numbers at that time, and not as Bicholim.

The five leaseholds, which now comprise Bicholim, had been leased out for Goa’s iron ore mining by the state’s erstwhile Portuguese government to an entity that was later acquired by a Vedanta Group subsidiary company. The Probe has the copy of an order issued by the Goa government in July 2017, amalgamating the five mining leases of the Vedanta Group subsidiary, Sesa Mining Corporation Limited.

“… you are hereby granted a mining lease number 08/AMLG (ML – 5)/SMCL/17 against your five amalgamated leases viz T.C. Nos. 11/41, 12/41, 13/41, 14/41, and 15/41, having an area of 478.5206 Ha,” states the order issued by the Directorate of Mines & Geology upon Sesa Mining.

In June 2009, the Vedanta Group had taken over these mining assets by virtue of acquiring VS Dempo & Co Private Limited (later renamed as Sesa Resources Limited) along with its fully-owned subsidiary, Dempo Mining Corporation (later renamed as Sesa Mining Corporation Limited).

The geographical coordinates of the five different leases (T.C. No – 11, T.C. No – 12, T.C. No – 13, T.C. No – 14, T.C. No – 15), when amalgamated, correspond exactly with the boundaries of the Bicholim block.

The Directorate’s order also reveals that Sesa Mining had itself requested consolidation of the five different leases while acknowledging that those were geographically contiguous and had been granted by Goa’s erstwhile Portuguese government.

In December 2022, the London-headquartered Vedanta Group won the leasehold of the Bicholim block, spread over a lease area of 478.5206 hectares in the North Goa district, by outbidding four other competitors. A letter of intent was issued to the company in January 2023, awarding it with lease rights over Bicholim for the next 50 years.

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Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant had hailed the auction as “a new era” in the state’s mining history since the bids were awarded through an auction process for the first time in the state.

“A new era has begun for the mining sector in Goa. The long pending issue of mining in Goa has come to a practical end. Vedanta is the successful bidder to acquire Block 1, Bicholim [one of the four blocks put up for bidding in September 2022] in the first phase of auctioning … Employment opportunities will continue to be created, and the mining sector will persistently flourish and prosper,” Sawant said.

However, conservationists point out the fallacy that is apparent in the new auction process of the Goa government.

A commission of inquiry (Justice Shah MB Shah Commission of Enquiry) that was constituted by the erstwhile Congress-led UPA government in November 2010 had found largescale illegal mining of iron ore in Goa. As per the commission’s report, the Vedanta Group subsidiary, Sesa Goa, had emerged as the single-largest illegal miner in the state. A whopping Rs 20,924 crore was estimated to be recovered from Sesa Goa, in terms of proceeds made by the company from illegal mining in the five-year period between 2007 and 2012.

Right now, mining operations are set to resume through another subsidiary of Sesa Goa’s parent company, even though the pending dues in terms of penalties against ecological damages caused have not been recovered. Conservationists argue that rather than opening a new chapter, the state government has effectively awarded an existing mine to its previous illegal miner.

“An existing mine has been treated as a greenfield project. The environmental data collected in the past were not considered while recommending the EC. Who will take responsibility for Goa’s ecological damage caused in the past?” asked Rahul Basu, a researcher associated with the NGO Goa Foundation.

Incidentally, many letters had been mailed by activists to the environment ministry alleging that Vedanta Group had concealed facts while seeking the EC. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) report prepared by Vedanta Group for the purpose of procuring the EC had mentioned Bicholim as a “greenfield project,” at least on two occasions.

In the terms of reference handed out by the environment ministry in June 2023 for compiling the EIA report, year-wise production details from the block since 1994 had been sought from Vedanta Group. It did not include past production details in the report, stating that the project was “greenfield.”

The project proponent mentioned Bicholim as a “greenfield” project for a second time in the section where compliance status of the terms and conditions outlined in past environmental clearances, if any, for the mineral block were sought from it. 

At least three other questions had been raised by the environment ministry in the terms of reference for establishing whether there actually had been any illegal mining in Bicholim block in the past. However, the replies of the project proponent to each of these questions were evasive.

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Firstly, taking cognizance of the existence of “old excavated pits” within the mine lease area, the environment ministry asked Vedanta Group to submit an undertaking from Goa’s Department of Geology and Mining that it had not carried out any illegal mining in the block in the past. In its response to this query, Vedanta Group stated:

“The state govt. auctioned Block-I Bicholim Mineral Block as a fresh mine, and Vedanta was the preferred bidder. We have requested the state Govt. for clarification, and the response is awaited, and the same shall be provided.” 

Further, the ministry had, in the terms of reference, demanded from Vedanta Group the status of its compliance with a particular order issued in May 2018 for the regularisation of mines that had been operating without prior environmental clearances. A statement of violations and payment of penalties, in lieu thereof, was not submitted by the Vedanta Group. In addition, the project proponent stated in the EIA report that the status of forest land involved in the project was not available, despite the mining leases having been in operation since 1941. 

The environmental baseline data were collected for the summer of 2023 alone, while numerous accidents that had occurred in the mining lease area in the past on account of hazardous mining practices were never included in the EIA report. Flooding in the village of Mulgao, one of the six villages from which the Bicholim mining lease area has been carved out, was reported in June 2009 following heavy rains. Earlier, in July 1991, the collapse of a tailings dam (an embankment constructed to store mining waste in solid or liquid form) had resulted in the death of at least four persons and injuries to half a dozen more. The incident had resulted in losses to nearly 144 farming households in the Mulgao area.

Ramesh Gauns, a local activist who has been tracking environmental degradation caused by mining in the Bicholim block since 2009, said a lot of vital information was not included in the EIA report. “There are at least a dozen water bodies within the lease area, as well as a crematorium. These were never mentioned in the report. The EIA assessment also did not take into consideration the impact of mining on the water tanks barely 30 meters outside the lease area. Potable water is supplied to the entire township from these tanks,” Gauns told the Probe.

The EIA report also did not take into consideration an important study conducted by the premier research organization NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute) for assessing ecological damages in the Bicholim area because of illegal mining. The study, “Assessment of Depletion of Ground Water Sources and Land Degradation in Sirigaon Village and Mitigation Measures,” highlighted that deepening of the iron ore mines had resulted in the loss of recharge area of local dug-wells, thereby resulting in water scarcity in nearby villages. The NEERI study further found that silt deposition from mining overburden had degraded soil fertility in agricultural fields of nearby villages.

Furthermore, the EIA report did not contain the approved mining plan for the Bicholim project. Environmentalists raised the issue of the missing mining plan with concerned government authorities after perusing the EIA report that was circulated amongst the stakeholders.

Incidentally, the Goa government announced a public hearing for the project in August 2023 based on the EIA report, notwithstanding its various shortcomings. Goa Foundation termed the proposed hearing as “illegal,” stating that the entire exercise was designed to “ensure that the environmental problems caused by these leases during several decades of poor-quality mining practices are simply not brought up for discussion.”

Nevertheless, the Goa government went ahead with the public hearing on 11 August 2023 amid heavy security cover. When the project proposal was taken up for consideration by the EAC again a month after the public hearing, Vedanta Group informed that it had received as many as 4,708 objections against the project in writing during the public hearing. However, it also said that the issues raised in most of the objection letters were overlapping in nature.

Notably, in this particular EAC meeting, the project proponent failed to provide an undertaking from the Directorate of Mines & Geology that it was never involved in illegal mining in Bicholim in the past. It further promised to provide the EAC with a report on illegal mining after procuring it from the special investigation team that was enquiring into the issue.

In an important development, the EAC recommended the environment ministry to conduct a site inspection of the proposed project area through an expert subcommittee. The minutes of the EAC meeting held on 21 September 2023 state as follows:

“The EAC noted that mines were not in operation in Goa from the year 2018 and this instant proposal is a first case for grant of Environmental Clearance (EC) under auction after 5 years. Thus, there is a need to ascertain the present scenario and ground reality with regards to handling of waste, settling ponds, location of waste dump w.r.t habitation, school and river, other surface features as forest (Mayem common boundary), temples, caves, and fort, mineral transportation route, and traffic congestion. The EAC was of the view that a site visit needs to be conducted by a sub-committee comprising EAC Members and officers from MoEF&CC.”

A site visit to Bicholim was conducted by the sub-committee between 29 and 31 October 2023. Surprisingly, Vedanta Group, which had maintained during the public hearing that the Bicholim project was “greenfield,” acknowledged that it had in the past been in ownership over the Goa iron ore block when the EAC met again in December 2023 to discuss the proposal.

In the meeting held on 26 December 2023, Vedanta Group not only acknowledged that the Bicholim block was earlier operated by one of its subsidiary companies but also produced year-wise production details from the mining lease from 1994 onwards, including details of the sites where waste materials were being disposed of. It further submitted an undertaking that it had not done any illegal mining in Bicholim in the past.

“The Project Proponent [Vedanta Limited] also submitted that the Block-I Bicholim Mineral Block was earlier operated by Sesa Mining Corporation Ltd. (SMCL), formerly known as Dempo Mining Corporation Ltd. Pursuant to Supreme Court Judgment in Goa Foundation order dated 07.02.2018, all the mining leases granted by the State Govt. were canceled. Thereafter, the State Govt., in terms of the said order and as per the provisions of MMDR Act, put this block for auction as a fresh lease grant,” state the minutes of the EAC meeting held on 26 December 2023.

A questionnaire was emailed to the Directorate of Mines & Geology, asking, amongst other queries, as to the reasons behind submitting that Vedanta Group was not the erstwhile lessee of Bicholim while the company itself acknowledged that the block earlier belonged to its subsidiary company, Sesa Goa. No responses had been received at the time that this article was published. This article will be updated as and when we receive any response.

Prior to Goa’s independence from colonial rule in 1961, the Portuguese government had awarded mining rights of mineral blocks through instruments called “concessions” for perpetuity without any finite mining lease period. The Congress government under former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi enacted a law in 1987 which abolished the “concessions” but declared those same concessions as “leases”.

The Supreme Court of India issued a landmark judgment in April 2014, based on a petition filed by Goa Foundation, saying that all mining activities in operation in Goa after the year 2007 were to be deemed illegal. However, instead of issuing new leases through a transparent system of auction, the state government renewed 88 of the existing leases following the apex court verdict. But, in February 2018, the Supreme Court nullified the Goa government’s decision to renew those 88 leases, including Vedanta Group’s Bicholim, which was then under the name of a particular lease number, project.

After being re-elected to power in March 2022, Pramod Sawant’s government floated a tender to auction four Goa iron ore blocks in which Vedanta won the Bicholim block. The tenders floated in September 2022 were the first instance that mineral blocks were “auctioned” in the coastal state. Nonetheless, the auction took place without the Goa government implementing a policy for the grant of mining leases, which was criticized in many circles.

A questionnaire was emailed to the Vedanta Group, asking, amongst other queries, why the company chose to indicate the Goa iron ore mine as a greenfield project while carrying out the EIA. No response had been received at the time that this article was published. The article will be updated as and when we receive any response from the company.

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