The Goa government’s failure to rehabilitate truckers after the state’s mining halt

A mining truck lies unused, in Goa. After the 2012 and 2018 bans on mining in the state, former truckers have been left stranded with a polluted environment and insurmountable amounts of debt. Supriya Vohra
30 March, 2021

“The children of mine owners will live abroad and live a luxurious life. We are here, why should we suffer?” Ravindra Velip, a 32-year-old former truck owner turned environmental activist from the Velip Adivasi community, told me. “Why do we need the mining companies?” Velip has gone through various avatars in the past ten years, parallel to the dramatic transformations and unravelling that iron ore mining brought to eastern Goa. While mining companies walked away from the region with barely any cost, locals, particularly former truckers have been left stranded with a polluted environment and insurmountable amounts of debt.

Velip’s parents were farmers and depended on seasonal agriculture and forest land for their livelihood. In 2009, during the peak growth of Goa’s mining industry, Velip’s uncle took multiple loans and invested in trucks. Velip, then working in a small software firm in Margao, followed suit. In December 2010, he took a loan of ten lakhs from the Bank of India and bought a truck. Between 2007 and 2012, there were four mines active in the area. “Each mine employed 300 trucks and made 1,200 trips up and down per day,” he said. “Each truck carried 15 or 16 ton of ore from the pit to the stockyard to the jetty.”

In 2012, based on the recommendations of a commission headed by MB Shah, a former judge, the Supreme Court abruptly halted all iron ore mining in the state. “When I read the judgement, I felt very guilty, they had no permission to mine from 2007,” Velip told me, referring to many mines that had continued to operate without a lease. “That was when my eyes opened. All of us in the village came together and discussed this. Our land and water were getting completely destroyed by illegal mining.” Subsequently in April 2014, the ban was partially lifted. Velip has since become one of the most prominent activists against illegal mining in the state, for which he has faced the government’s wrath, including illegal detention and police brutality.

By 2015, Velip was able to repay the loans he took to buy his truck. He now leads a small community-owned cooperative who want mining to be locally controlled. In 2018, the Supreme Court cancelled the leases of all mining companies in the state, again bringing the industry to a complete standstill. No active mining legally takes place anywhere in Goa, though companies are allowed to truck away ore that was already extracted before the ban, and there are sporadic reports of illegal mining in the state.

Others have not been as lucky as Velip. “In 2016, I took a loan of four lakh ninety thousand rupees from Pirna Urban Cooperative Credit Society,” a 44-year-old former trucker from north Goa’s Assonora village, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. On 28 October 2017, he issued a cheque of three lakh to pay the cooperative. But the cheque bounced, stating “exceeds arrangement.” He had told me he had received a legal notice and later was charged with Section 138 of Negotiable Instruments Act of 1881, which penalises a defaulter for bounced cheques. At Bicholim, the nearest town to Assonora, advocates and bank employees told me that there was a steep rise in the number of Section 138 cases, indicating widespread financial turmoil as a result of the abrupt end of mining, and the lack of financial support from the government. 

Like the 44-year-old, thousands of residents of villages in Goa’s mining belt have been owners of mining trucks. Academics and activists told me that mining companies in Goa specifically created a model where locals, and not the company, would transport ore, as against the company, to build a system of dependency and to pressure locals against opposing the further growth of environmentally hazardous mines. When mining was halted, many of them were stuck with a mounting pile of loans from various financial institutions. Since banks classified a majority of their trucks as “non-performing assets” they were unable to sell them.

Since 2013, the state government has announced various doles and loan waivers for former-truckers, but several of them told me these were largely ineffective and did not meaningfully help them out of the debt trap. For many Goans, the end of large-scale mining in the region has only left a painfully polluted environment, sharp disagreements within their communities and financial ruin.

The 44-year-old former trucker had first stepped into the industry in 2004, when he bought a Tata Motors 1630 commercial truck. Six months later, he bought another truck, and a year later, he bought his third truck. Iron ore mining in Goa was witnessing a boom. “At the time, all our friends were buying trucks and earning a good income. They encouraged us to purchase also,” the former trucker told me. “We used to live in a small flat on rent, paid Rs 700 a month, thought it would be nice to have a home of our own. So, we decided to go ahead,” his wife added. They invested in the trucks, which cost them approximately Rs 12 lakh each, and took loans from two cooperative banks and a national bank for it. In the hope there would be a steady income, they also bought a Bolero and invested in a two-bedroom house. They earned approximately Rs 50,000 per month on each truck for a few years before 2012.

Transport of ore is one of the crucial elements of the iron-ore mining industry in Goa. After it is excavated from the mine pit, the ore travels via road and river to reach the port. The transportation of the ore takes place through trucks, also known as tippers. The ore travels from the mine to the screening plant where it is washed and sorted. From the screening plant, it is again loaded onto trucks and taken to the stockyard, where the ore is graded according to quality. From the stockyards, it is taken to the loading jetty where it is put onto barges. A small barge can carry between 700 and 1,000 tons at a time while a big barge can carry 2,000 tons. The barges then snake their way through the rivers of Mandovi, Zuari, and their tributaries, ultimately reaching the Mormugao port. From here, the ore is exported out to different countries.

In Goa, truck ownership came down to the individuals, more so than in states such as Odisha and Jharkhand, where logistics companies often hire employees to drive vehicles. “Every truck owner is treated like a vendor,” Ram Sawant, the logistics head of Vedanta’s Sesa Goa, the state’s largest mining company, told me. Till 2012, Sesa Goa had hired 3,500 trucks for the Codli Mines alone, the largest in Goa. In the downturn years, the mining industry was also able to minimise its liabilities, having externalised major costs of transport and machinery.

The companies built a wide web of dependency for locals by bringing many of them into the trucking business. “Year on year, we were selling around 400 vehicles, up to 2003,” Deepak Bhatt, the manager of Narcinva Damodar Naik, Goa’s only dealer of mining trucks, told me. “Then the boom started where demand went up to almost 1000 vehicles per year till 2012. And then sudden closure of mining almost wiped out the tipper sales. We could hardly do ten vehicles in a year.” He said that the waiting list for trucks would often stretch between one and six months.

In those days, owning a truck was good business. From poor, landless farmers to rich politicians; entrepreneurs to employees of the government and private sector; small landowners and agriculturalists to contractors and the upper-class elite—the truck owning business cut across the socio-economic class of Goa. Suddenly, anyone could become a full-time entrepreneur or run a side-business owning fleets of trucks. For some, it was an added income. For many, it became their sole source of bread and butter. “We were assured by the mining companies that there will always be work for us,” Vitorin Antao, a 45-year-old first-generation truck owner based in Kirpal-Dabhal, a village next to Codli Mines, told me.

Buying a truck was easy too. In the 1970s, mining companies such as VM Salgaocar introduced a hire-purchase scheme. Sandesh Gauns, a truck owner based in Pale, explained that under this scheme, one had to pay a nominal down payment, get the truck in their own name, and then receive a salary, out of which a fixed instalment was deducted for a set number of years. He said his 89-year-old father bought three trucks from VM Salgaocar under the scheme in 1976.

The commonest way people were brought into the trucking business in Goa was through contractors. The contractors, according to Gauns, arrived in the mid nineties. Easing out the work of the mining companies, they acted as middle-men between the companies and the workers, and encouraged them to buy trucks. I spoke to two contractors, both of whom had begun working with mining companies in 1994 and 1995. Prasanna Vasudev Ghotke from Castle Rock village, on the Karnataka border, used to manage the transportation of materials from Karnataka to Goa. In 1995, he began managing logistics for Sesa Goa and eventually other mining companies. “I provided trucks to unemployed youth,” Ghotke told me. “People with no jobs began to own five trucks each. I provided employment to at least 2,000 people.”

Abelio and Cyril D’Souza, from Majorda village in south Goa, were handling the transport logistics for all the major mining companies in the state. They helped bring more people into trucking for the company. While taking a loan from the bank they would need a letter of assurance from the mining company, which the contractor would provide. Cyril told me he could often convince banks to reduce the down payments those who took loans to buy trucks needed to make. “I told them that they were running a business, you cannot ask them to give such a high down payment,” Cyril told me.

Some truck owners told me that mining companies also provided trucks without asking for down payments. In 2005, Atmaram Laxman Parab, a 55-year-old from Pissurlem, another mining village in north Goa, acquired a truck when the subsidiary of a major mining corporation, decided to use four lakh square metres of village land for their dumps. In Goa, for every tonne of ore excavated, at least three tonnes of ore is treated as reject or “dump,” forming a huge amount of waste. “They gave trucks to all of us, hundred trucks, one for each house,” Parab told me. “We did not have to pay the down payment for it, only the subsequent instalments.” He owned three trucks and currently has a loan of six lakhs he is unable to repay.

An advertisement by Narcinva Damodar Naik, Goa’s only dealer of mining trucks, for a mining tipper. With loans coming easily and support from mining companies, more than thousand trucks a year were bought by locals. Courtesy: Supriya Vohra

For others, such as Pradeep Gaunekar of Usgao village, the mining company paid for the chassis, and he just had to pay for the body of the truck. His father ran a small shop and they have no land of their own. He eventually bought three trucks, as the business became his sole source of income. “Mining is something I totally came to be dependent on,” Gaunekar told me. “If there is no mining there is no future for people like us.” He currently has a loan of Rs 6.5 lakhs that he is unable to pay.

Several financial services companies and cooperative credit societies further eased out loans for trucks. People preferred to take loans from these institutions because the paperwork was easy, and down payments were low. “If you have 100 rupees, the bank will need 25 rupees from you,” Antao told me. “The financier will be happy with five rupees, obviously people would prefer to go with the financier won’t they?” But the interest rates were high. “Only agricultural loans have fixed rates of interest in cooperative societies,” Sagar Gavas, a 50-year-old advocate based in the town of Bicholim, told me. “For the rest of the sectors, they charge monthly or quarterly, and it keeps getting compounded.”

This initial ease of owning trucks created and maintained a cash flow for people, changing their lifestyle and aspirations for upward mobility. “The industry changed the lives of the people here,” Cyril said. “People with nothing could suddenly have two wheelers, four wheelers. They could afford to take personal loans, they bought houses, they sent their children to good schools, they could afford the finer things in life.” But the costs of trucking were high too. A truck would run for eight months in a year. Mining stopped during the monsoon months between June and September. The truck would need to be repaired, and the costs for repair would go up to two lakhs. “I used to take loans to just repair the truck,” Gaunekar told me. “But it was fine because money was flowing.”

The payment for truck owners was based on a rate fixed by the government—per tonne per kilometre. This meant that the truck owners had an incentive to carry more and travel a greater distance, or take more round trips. Till 2010, there were no regulations on the amount of ore a truck could carry or the number of trips it could take. At its absolute peak, between 2006 and 2012, thousands of trucks would ply the roads at a given time, and each truck could potentially earn up to a lakh per month.

A 2014 study by ST Puttaraju, the former chief town planner of Goa, revealed that most of the roads, often winding through small villages, were not planned for the plying of mining traffic. The density and the frequency of tippers on these roads increased after 1986 and was at its peak in 2011 when Goa was exporting over 45 million tons of ore. The busiest route, according to Puttaraju’s study, was between the towns of Sanvordem and Curchorem, an area in south Goa surrounded by several mines, including the Codli Mines. His calculation estimated that in 2009 and 2010, the route carried 400 trucks per hour, 144 trucks per minute.

On most days, at most hours, roads were jammed with trucks, commercial and private vehicles, creating plumes of toxic smoke. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper, moving at a snail’s pace. The trucks would be so close to each other that there would be no room for other vehicles to get past. Dust from the moving trucks would settle in people’s homes, in their balconies, on the leaves of plants and trees. Ambient air quality studies showed a higher concentration of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrous dioxide and suspended particulate matter in these regions.

One of the routes that comes under this area leads from Codli Mines to Capxem Jetty, crossing Tilamol Junction. The junction has been a bone of contention for several years, as a number of accidents have taken place there. “At a given time, we have seen 2,000 trucks on this route,” James Fernandes, the secretary of Mission ByPass, a non-profit advocating the creation of a separate mining corridor in Goa, told me. Things came to a head in April 2016, when two women on a two-wheeler came under a speeding truck that was maneuvering a turn at the junction. This created a furore amongst the residents of the area, and Mission ByPass furthered their demand for a separate mining corridor. “I have seen a woman being mutilated under a truck here, some years ago a man on a bike was knocked down, body in a pulp, totally smashed,” Fernandes said. Puttaraju’s study shows that between 2004 and 2013, there have been over 65,000 road accidents, out of which over 11,000 were attributed to trucks. Truck accidents came down drastically after 2012, when mining was halted, the study notes.

Despite a few state regulations enforced in 2010, accidents and complaints of pollution continue. When truck movement started for short spurts last year, people complained of dust and noise pollution. In January this year, a teenager on a bike died after being hit by a truck in Sanvordem. For more than a decade, dependency kept many families tied to the interests of mining companies despite their villages getting polluted or accidents on the roads. “You have a truck and a bank loan,” Velip told me. “You take more loan, for wedding, house, vehicle, job security, you forget everything else. When this happens and villages protest, there is a wall. The village is totally dependent on farming. And you the truck owner, with your loans, have no option but to side with the mining company.”

In 2012, the Shah Commission found a number of illegalities carried out by mining companies and Goa’s Congress-led government. The report notes that companies routinely flouted forest and environmental laws and continued to function well after their leases legally allowed them to. It estimated that profits of companies made through illegal means stood at around Rs 34,935 crore. The report also indicted the Indian Bureau of Mines, the union ministry for environment and forests, state directorate of mines, the state forest department and the Goa State Pollution Control Board.

Following the report, the Supreme Court banned all mining in the state and the lives of the 44-year-old former trucker’s family crashed. Suddenly, the cash flow stopped, and they found themselves in a mounting pile of loans, diving deep into debt. In 2013, the state government announced a year-long dole to truck owners of Rs 8,000 for a truck and Rs 4,000 for the second truck. They received money for half a year and then it stopped coming.

In September 2014, the government of Goa announced a debt-relief scheme, wherein financial institutions were requested to offer one-time settlement of loans taken by borrowers in the mining sector. Thirty five percent of the loan amount was waived off by most financial institutions and the waiver was limited to borrowings on trucks, barges and mining equipment. The family could not avail the scheme because they were unable to pay the remaining 65 percent.

Today, they are stuck with a mountain of debt, nearly Rs 50 lakh, the former trucker told me. He suffers from high blood pressure, cholesterol and kidney stones. His job gets home Rs 12,000 per month. His wife, an enterprising woman, is trying everything—she sold all her gold, ran a small bed and breakfast for a few months till the pandemic hit, tried selling saris, vegetables, but is at her wit’s end. Their 17-year-old daughter is suffering from depression, which, the mother said, is induced by their financial situation. “Every time a bank manager comes asking for money, she runs to the bathroom and cries,” she said. The trucks and the Bolero are rotting. They are unable to sell them because they have become non-performing assets still tied with loans. They cannot get them repaired because each repair costs at least Rs two lakh. They spend their days fielding calls and visits from bank managers asking them to repay loans. Two cooperatives and one private money lender have slapped section 138 cases against them.

Gavas, the advocate, said that there has been a steep rise in bounced cheque cases under section 138 since mining was abruptly halted. In the Bicholim Civil and Criminal Court alone, the number section 138 cases has swollen since 2012—from one pending case in 2012, the number of pending cases rose to 221 in 2017, 399 in 2018 and 884 in 2019. Gavas said most of the cases belong to truck owners. “Whatever speculative income the mining industry or associate ancillary segment thought will be generated is completely stopped,” Gavas told me. He said that cooperative societies were in deep trouble too “They are approaching us every day, literally begging to pay,” he said. “They are even ready to consider part payment.” There are 108 cooperative credit societies in Bicholim alone. A bank employee of Pirna Urban Cooperative Credit Society, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that they have filed at least 300 section 138 cases thus far.

The villages affected by mining continue to live in the strange quagmire that industrial, environmentally destructive development models bring. Extracting earth’s precious minerals with sophisticated machinery and infrastructure, industries make residents dependent on new forms of employment and entrepreneurship while rendering their land useless for farming, affecting the water supply, health and safety of the village. When these industries shut the locals are left high and dry, without a livelihood.

On 13 February 2019, Goa Foundation, a key environmental organisation that petitioned to ban mining in the state, sent a letter to then chief minister Manohar Parikkar detailing possible rehabilitation plans for those previously employed in the mining industry. Their letter recommended the state government to employ workers to repair the environmental damage caused by previous mining. The letter also stressed that the state should end dump mining—the process of mining only iron and leaving a majority of other excavated materials as waste—and employ those who previously worked in the industry in refining dump material that was already excavated. The letter further suggested that all mined material that has not yet been sold should be auctioned by the state, and that its proceeds should be used for a permanent fund that would pay those previously employed by the industry and Goa’s citizenry at large.

Another proposal for a rehabilitation plan came from Velip, who argued that the villages where mining takes place are the true owners of the minerals, and thus cooperatives should take over mining leases. In 2016, he was able to register the state’s first mining cooperative. “Why do we need the mining companies?” he told me. “We put the proposal to the state government. Nothing of this sort, a cooperative for mining, had ever happened in Goa before.” Velip said that if mines are owned by those that live around them, they will ensure they do minimal damage to the environment.

The state government has largely disregarded both proposals. In June 2015, the state government created the District Mineral Foundation fund to work for the benefit of people and areas affected by mining. However, the fund has frequently been underused or misused. I reported how several right-to-information applications had shown that only Rs 41 crore of the total Rs 200 crore in the fund had been utilised, and a vast majority of that had been diverted for coronavirus relief. Apart from this, the only attempt by the state government to support former truckers has been a monthly dole that was quickly discontinued and a one-time debt relief scheme. In terms of ensuring long-term employment, the state government’s approach has been to move the Supreme Court to return leases to the mining corporations that previously held them.

On 2 December 2019, Vedanta filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court challenging the cancellation of mining leases in Goa. One of the petition’s primary arguments is that mining should resume in the state to bring employment and financial support to truckers. Industry-backed groups such as the Goa Mining People Front, a union for mining dependents established in 2018, has also been releasing advertisements on the front pages of national dailies, putting images of truck owners at the front to showcase the cause of mining resumption. Following the campaigning, in February 2021, NITI Aayog commissioned a study to track the economic impact of green judgments made by the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal. They are looking at five case studies. Mining in Goa is one of them.

Activists told me they believed that the pro-mining lobbyists were using the genuine economic anxieties of truckers to argue for the resumption of mining to resume in the state. “Those advertisements are funded by mining companies themselves,” Velip told me. “You can imagine the cost of those ads.” Other former truckers told me they alone had lost out in the fight between environmental activists and companies. “The people who are the culprits are enjoying themselves,” Antao told me. “And people like us, who are literally porters transporting material are made to suffer for no fault of ours.”

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.