High Court Issues Notices On Petitions Filed By Devi Lairai Deity And Sirigao Villagers Against Mining Block Auctions In Sirigao

A division bench of the Bombay High Court at Goa today issued notice on a batch of three PILs challenging the decisions of the Goa government to go ahead with the mineral auctions for Mining Blocks I, II and III in Sirigao village, Bicholim taluka. The petitions also challenge the Letters of Intent issued to the three new successful bidders: Vedanta Ltd., Salgaoncar Shipping Co. Pvt.Ltd., and M/s Rajaram Bandekar (Sirigao) Mines Pvt Ltd. Earlier lease-holders of these leases have been made respondents as well.

The first petition has been filed by the principal deity of the Shri Devi Lairai Temple herself through the President of the Shri Devi Lairai Temple trust and by villagers of Sirigao on behalf of the village and villagers of Sirigao. The villagers include Suresh Govind Gaonkar, Vijay Ravalnath Gaonkar, Dinanath Shamba Gaonkar, Krishna Raya Gaonkar and Ganesh Chandrakant Gaonkar, all from Sirigao village.

The Devi Lairai deity and Sirigao villagers have contended that mining activity has been carried out in the village environment for a period exceeding 50 years till it was halted by the Supreme Court in October 2012. The earlier leases granted to Resp.No.4 which came to an end in 2007 were granted by the Portuguese through a manifest that did not include any Survey Nos. Thereafter, the position of the mining leases vis-à-vis the village settlement of Sirigao and the Devi Lairai temple became known to the authorities. The primary grievance of the petitioners is that the village settlement including the Devi Lairai temple, the homes, the schools, fields are all included within the boundaries of the mining blocks auctioned, and that the government, when deciding on the boundaries of the mining blocks, did not apply its mind nor did it consider the unmitigated havoc caused by mining operations on the erstwhile mining leases during their earlier life or the fact that none of it had been remedied.

It is on record through the NEERI report that the three lease-holders bankrupted the complete water supply of the village, permanently damaged more than 80 ha of agricultural lands, destroyed all village grazing lands, and left the village with only one water tank (Dhonachi Talli) which is used for villagers who come for the Sirigao zatra.

The grant of fresh mining block in relation to the same area is therefore the height of irresponsibility on the part of the department.

The PILs demand that the entire settlement of Sirigao including 17 temples be excluded from the 3 mining blocks, and that no mining should be allowed to restart until the village environment damaged over 50 years is rehabilitated.

Further, the auctions of the mining blocks have been held without a mining policy in place, as required by a Supreme Court judgment. The auctions have been processed without the consent or knowledge of the Gram Sabha of Sirigao, even though they concern areas that fall within the jurisdiction of the village. Hence these PILs which are filed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, Panchayat Raj Act and MMDR Act for cancellation of the Letters of Intent dated 13.01.2023 and the decisions of the Goa government to auction the Mining Blocks..

The PIL provides some interesting data on the profits made from mining by the three former lease-holders from the mining leases in Sirigao. Total earnings from the Bandekar mines, for example, from 2006-2018 was approximately Rs. 557 crores. This is on the basis of a self-declared investment of Rs. 5 crores.

The Chougules from 2007 to 2012, and including the period from 2015-18, walked away with mineral worth Rs.215.45

Vedanta from 2006 to 2012, took away mineral worth Rs.1,510.52 crores (approximate). If one adds production from 2015-18, this would take the figure to Rs. 1,888.04 crores. This was through its wholly owned subsidiary, Sesa Mining Industries.

Total wealth generated from the 3 leases was Rs.2660 crores for the period for which there is production data. The village of Sirigao not only got very little of these enormous earnings, its total environment was so devastated it will take decades to simply recover.

The PILs state that though the auction process has commenced leading to approval of successful bidders, the finalization of the agreements between the Goa Government and the new bidders are still in the pipeline, and the successful bidders are also required to obtain mandatory environment clearance before commencement of mining activity which they are yet to do.