PISSURLEM, India/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - India's efforts to clamp down on illegal mining have handed a $15 billion lifeline to global iron ore giants, and there could be more to come.
Steps taken by central and state authorities to clean up the mining and export of iron ore have shut down output in two key producing states, slashing shipments and forcing steel mills to import a raw material the country has in abundance.
Now the Shah Commission, whose report on top exporter Goa led to the state government's ban on mining in September, has turned its attention to the last major iron ore producing state of Odisha.
The exit of the world's third-largest iron ore exporter has been perfectly timed for miners in other countries seeking alternatives for their growing supplies as appetite from top buyer China slows.
The world's biggest producers Vale (VALE5.SA), Rio Tinto (RIO.AX) (RIO.L) and BHP Billiton (BHP.AX) (BLT.L) have taken some of India's market share in China, Japan and South Korea, and now are even eyeing exports to their erstwhile competitor.
Smaller miners like Australia's Fortescue Metals Group (FMG.AX) also benefit, as they supply the lower-grade ore that competes directly with India in the Chinese market.
"It will be a huge bonus for big miners," said Graeme Train, commodity analyst at Macquarie in Shanghai.
"There'll also be a premium emerging for lower grade ore and India's absence will drive Chinese interest into Fortescue-type products."
India's campaign to end illegal mining -- which authorities say has cost Goa and Karnataka states around 510 billion rupees in lost revenue in the last decade -- has cut its iron ore output by more than 20 percent in the year to March and its exports by almost double that.
Annual exports, which in the past decade peaked at nearly 106 million tonnes, may dwindle to as low as 5 million tonnes over the next year, analysts say.
The roughly 100 million tonnes of lost exports at the current average price of around $110 per tonne and another potential 30 million tonnes of imports of higher-quality ore at around $140 per tonne will cost India $15 billion, according to Reuters calculations, money that goes straight into the pockets of foreign miners picking up the slack.
India's role switch is one reason for a rebound in iron ore prices, which this year fell below $87 a tonne to their lowest since 2009 due to China's slowing economic growth.
India's iron ore exports to China fell to less than 300,000 tonnes in October -- the lowest in at least two decades -- after the ban in Goa. That followed a mining ban in Karnataka in 2011, after shipments there were halted a year earlier.
Goa's once-bustling mining hubs have turned into ghost towns, with scores of empty trucks parked by the roadside. Trains, some still loaded with ore, are stopped on the tracks.
"We have been sitting idle for over two months now," said Pritesh Gawas, a 25-year-old worker at Sesa Goa's SESA.NS Sonshi mine.
In January-October, India's shipments to its biggest market stood at 32.6 million tonnes, down nearly half from a year ago, Chinese customs data showed, with South Africa edging it out as the No. 3 supplier. Shipments from Australia and Brazil were up 20 percent and 12 percent, respectively.
The flipside is that India is also starting to ship in iron ore in significant quantities.
India has imported 9 million tonnes of iron ore so far in the fiscal year that began in April, estimates Basant Poddar, vice president of the Federation of Indian Mineral Industries, and could ship in 15 million tonnes for the full year.
"It is a sad situation that we cannot mine in our own country legally and supply to our own domestic steel industry," Poddar told Reuters.
For the next fiscal year, India's iron ore exports may be no more than 15 million tonnes, while imports could climb to 20-25 million tonnes, said Poddar, making the country a net importer for the first time ever and hurting the competitiveness of its steel producers.
"Being an iron ore-rich country like India, it doesn't make sense to be producing steel on the basis of imported iron ore. It doesn't work out economically for the steelmakers," said Gunjan Aggarwal, senior consultant at research firm CRU in Mumbai.
Of the 800 iron ore leases in the country, only around 300 are operational, said a senior mines ministry official, adding that the supply squeeze should be short lived.
"Systems are being tightened at state-level ... but once the system stabilises, the supply crunch will ease out," said the official, who declined to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
The mining bans in Goa and Karnataka, which at one point shut all mines in the two states, could now spread to the eastern state of Odisha, which was visited by the Shah Commission earlier this month.
Odisha's state government has fined several mining companies nearly 680 billion rupees for excessive mining of iron ore over the past 10 years, state Steel and Mines Secretary Rajesh Verma said.
None of those fined has been paid up so far, said Verma.
Tata Steel Ltd (TISC.NS) and Aditya Birla Group-owned Essel Mining dispute the allegations.
A major difference from Goa and Karnataka is that Odisha's ore is high grade and intended for the domestic steel industry rather than export.
If mining in Odisha is stopped, Indian steelmakers may need to import 30 million tonnes of high-grade ore a year, said CRU's Aggarwal, adding that overall exports could fall to as low as 5 million tonnes.
India's federal government maintains the way to crack down on illegal mining is through better enforcement of existing laws, higher export duties and improved tracking of transport.
The mines ministry has rejected a recommendation by the Shah Commission for a blanket ban on exports.
The government instead decided to impose a 30 percent duty on all iron ore exports despite opposition from the mines ministry. It could raise this further or hike rail freight rates, where it already charges a much higher rate for ore intended for export.
The wrangling is not just within the federal government.
In Karnataka, the opposition-run state government banned shipments in 2010 in response to pressure from the federal government over illegal mining. Then its chief minister, B.S. Yediyurappa, resigned after being implicated in a $3.6 billion illegal mining scam.
State measures have otherwise been motivated by a range of concerns from damage to the environment by unregulated mining to loss of state revenues from illegal movements of the ore.
"The total learning from this is to abide by the law," said Faisal Shareef, managing partner with Nadeem Minerals, whose mine in Karnataka will restart later this week but will only be allowed to produce about a fifth of pre-ban volumes.
Additional reporting by Brenton Cordeiro in BANGALORE and Jatindra Dash in BHUBANESWAR; Writing by Manolo Serapio Jr. and Jo Winterbottom; Editing by Simon Webb and Michael Urquhart