(Extensive iron ore mining and the resulting degradation of our surroundings made me feel very bad. I was not directly affected as I stay at a distance from the mines but I have seen places where mining activity was in full swing. Both in their ‘before’ and ‘after’ conditions. The road from Goa to Hubli was where I got my first hand experience of one of the effects of mining - mining traffic to be specific. What is written below is based on what I experienced, read in the papers and heard from people who were directly involved in mining operations.)
As I remember, China started buying iron ore from India about ten years back. The demand was so huge that in no time the selling price of iron ore reached the sky and everyone was eager to have piece of the pie. The cost of iron ore had jumped from about 25 dollars a ton to about 200 dollars a ton. Till then the Japanese were the sole buyers of Goan ore and they dictated the price. Mining companies had to cringe before them, treat their purchase people like royalty when they visited Goa, and beg for an increase of a dollar or two. With this sudden jump in profits the miners could afford to spend any amount on bribes, expansion, production and transport.
The producers in Karnataka (illegally, as we learnt later) occupied more and more of Bellary district, produced millions or billions of tons of ore and sent their ore all the way to Goa, Mangalore and even Madras ports by road for onward shipping. Producers of low quality ore in Goa purchased better quality ore from Karnataka to mix with their low grade ore and sell. A case of ‘Betty butter bought a bit of better butter to make the bitter butter better’. With these activities truck traffic between Karnataka and Goa increased more than a hundred times the normal and it destroyed all the roads between Goa and Karnataka. In fact, after the first few years, the roads just did not exist.
People like us who have their roots in Karnataka had a very tough time. Nothing other than the mining trucks moved on these roads (rather places which were once, roads). Long distance buses stopped plying. The meter gauge railway was converted to broad gauge but the mining companies took hold of this and the tracks were reserved for goods traffic - mainly iron ore -with hardly one or two passenger trains running. We had a daily train to Bangalore from Goa before gauge conversion and its frequency was reduced to once a week after conversion. There was no chance of getting out of Goa unless one planned well in advance to book the weekly train or was prepared to have all the joints separated and the lungs filled with dust to the brim, travelling by local KSRTC buses up to Hubli or Belgaum. (Hats off to those drivers who kept these buses running, fighting all the way with the mining trucks). The only other option was to pay through the nose for a flight.
Mining lobby had such a strong hold and their bribes reached so many hands that there was no one who was prepared to listen to others. But I had to do something. So, I decided to bribe an even higher authority with a request to stop mining. Use a thorn to remove a thorn.
After considering all aspects of bribing I found one who was susceptible to bribes and had the required authority. I sent five hundred rupees to Tirupati Balaji through a friend, requesting him - Balaji - to use his clout and stop mining activities. Just as my offer (or bribe) reached Balaji, Sri Janardhan Reddy, the mining don, gifted him a Diamond studded crown costing about forty crores, requesting facilitation of unhindered plundering of iron ore. My paltry five hundred against Reddy’s forty crores. It is any body’s guess in whose favour the bribe susceptible Balaji acted.
There was nothing else to do. I just suffered in silence.
The effect of Reddy’s forty crores ultimately ran out and he, (reddy) immersed in his wealth, probably forgot to renew it. So, Balaji arranged to put a stop to mining in Karnataka through the medium of Justice Santosh Hegde and as an afterthought also despatched the Shah commission to Goa. They did their best, the Supreme court pitched in and to our relief, mining took a temporary halt.
Most of the roads have recovered and we are allowed to use them once again. There is again a decent road from Goa to Hubli via Karwar and ‘not a very bad one’ to Hubli and Belgaum via Londa. Apart from these two there is now a new road from Goa to Belgaum. This road had been under construction for the past thirty years and it is now completed. To celebrate all these we decided to make a short trip to Belgaum and Kolhapur.
Goa to Belgaum by the new road passing through Chorlem ghat was a pleasant experience. It took two and a half hours as against five during the mining era.
Belgaum to Kolhapur on the highway was even better. I had suffered the construction process of this Pune- Bangalore highway but had not driven after its completion. I had heard that it was ‘good’ but with our standards for ‘Good’ being quite bad, was expecting some patches of roughness, at least a few pot holes and obstructions now and then. I was surprised to find the full stretch of highway from Belgaum to Kolhapur, about a hundred and ten kilometers, smooth like a carpet, with well maintained plants on both sides and on the median. Bigger surprise was the presence of small toilets by the side of the road every five or six kilometers and the biggest surprise was that they were not locked, were reasonably clean and had running water! So, another LIKE from me (with all capitals again) this time for the highways authority of India.
We returned to Belgaum by evening and stayed overnight.The return journey to Goa was more relaxed as we had the whole day to reach Ponda from Belgaum. We could take our time halting every now and then on the road, observing the monkeys, eating the packed lunch, listening to the horn bills and looking at the Anjunem dam from a view point.
During our visit to the US few years back, we spent a lot of time on the roads and I spent half that time wishing that we had such roads in India. After our trip to Kolhapur I am happy that at least a part of my wish has come true. Now I only wish that the drivers driving on this highway drive with as much discipline as I saw in the US.