India’s mineral deposits: A boon or curse?

Despite large mineral deposits, the journey of minerals from mining site to industry and to conversion into end products is complex and conflict ridden, says Ranjay Sinha*

It is well known fact that minerals are the natural inorganic components of the earth crust (except fossils fuels like coal and petroleum) and found as an integral part of the rocks. They have economic value and considered as the back bone of industries. It is also true that the mineral deposits are limited and cannot be created by humans.

India has large deposits of minerals (see box) that go in for value addition to make cement, steel, aluminium, electricity, etc. Mining of minerals and mineral based industries play a major role in the economy in generating direct and indirect employment and adding revenue to government treasury.

The journey of minerals from their mining site to the industries and converting into end products seems very straightforward but in Indian scenario is it so? Have the mineral based operations been taking place without hurdle and conflicts? Is central and state policies industry friendly? Is obtaining the mining lease within limited time period possible? There are so many queries and urgent need to evaluate the queries.

After extensive paper work and investing lots of time and effort in submitting the lease application, the application is subject to minute scrutiny. In case of major minerals the application is sent for approval to the center. After getting the letter of Intent (LOI) the next step is acquiring the land or the consent for prospecting. If the land belongs to the government then it is easy to acquire but in case of the private or forest land it becomes a very tough task.

With private land owners not keen to give their land for the mining purpose the lessee even after acquiring the land is not sure how long the mining operation can be continued. Because after investing a huge fund in the long lease if there is any protest, the operation gets stopped by the government.

Moreover, the companies have to conduct a public hearing under the guidelines of Ministry of Environment & Forest (MoEF) as well as the state pollution control board. This public hearing is chaired by the district collector along with other government officials and near the location of mining. On the basis of successful public hearing where locals give consent to start the project, the proposed project is approved by the government.

In return, land owners are paid compensation for the land, care is taken for providing local employment (both direct and indirect) and also for contributing towards the CSR activities in and around the areas.

But the main conflicts here are between the environmentalists and the mining companies.  Environmentalists are concerned about the environment degradation due to pollution. In addition, NGOs also come forward to protest the mining by highlighting the local issues which are affected by the mining.

Sometimes the protest against the mining becomes so widespread that the conflicts converts into a legal battle and ultimately by the order of either the High Court or Supreme Court the mining is stopped. There are so many cases in Orissa, Jharkhand, Goa, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh etc where mining activities has stopped resulting in adverse affect on employments as well as huge loss of government revenue. Now after this exertion it seems possible to look at mineral deposits in India as a curse.

In contrast the time has come to think over it and take concrete steps to keep the mining industries alive. The government must take initiatives to look after these problems especially related with the environmental parameters. The MoEF has already laid down the guideline terms of reference (TOR ) before providing its consent to operate to the mining industry Similarly, Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM) also closely monitors the mining plan which is submitted by the mining industries. But still there is lack of co-ordination between the environmentalists and mining industries due to which conflicts take place.

Therefore, the governments and NGOs must plan a strategy to come out of the conflicts and make mining operation eco-friendly. The situation must be balanced with environmental norms. The lease boundaries must be bordered by the thick plantation to reduce the air pollution and noise pollution and the protection of the surrounding greenery should be on priority list.

The tipper carrying the mineral ores for transportation must be covered to reduce the dust pollution. Entire transportation route from mining site to the ore stock yards must be sprinkled with water to suppress dust pollution. There should not be any discharge of slurry or other mining products into the nearby water body to prevent water contamination.

In addition, the machinery involved in the mining operation should be maintained from time to time to avoid any oil spilling and reduce noise pollution. The other safety norms under the guidelines of DGMS (Director General of Mines Safety) must be on higher side to avoid any type of casualties. There should not be over exploitation of the minerals and mining should be substantial.

Strict action must be taken by the government if any illegal mining activities take place by any mining industries in terms of violating the approved mining plans and EIA (Environment Impact Assessment) report. But sometimes the punishment is also faced by companies who are completely in legal mining i.e., they do not extend their mining activities beyond the approved mining lease area and do not exceed their production capacity beyond their mining plan. And once again as consequence, the entire mining operation gets banned and the employment ratio drops.

Such notion must be abolished and the government must always think positively about mining industries because it plays a major role in revenue generation and provides large volume of direct and indirect employment.

Moreover, although the state government has notified the mineral bearing area or zone, most of the minerals bearing area either belongs to the private owners or to the forest. Therefore state government must reserve those areas only for the mining and mining base industries activities. In this way, the problems and hurdles regarding land consent can be minimised.

In addition, the exploitation and misuse wastage of the minerals can be prevented. A lot of aluminiferous bauxite was mined and utilised in the construction of the roads and bridges while construction of the coastal highway along the Konkan Coast in Maharashtra. Moreover, local residents go for the mango plantation as it is a commercial crops. They remove the aluminiferous lateritic rocks by blasting or drilling in search of the soil and these rocks are then utilised either in constructing the fencing or in construction of houses. So in all the ways it is complete wastage of the minerals and violation of MMDR Act.

The rare earth minerals like ilmenite, monazite, zircon, rutile, sillimanite, garnet etc together form massive deposits of about 600 million tones and are found only along the coastal stretches of India not elsewhere, These are a type of placer deposits and generally mixed with the beach sands and available in the intertidal zone. Earlier these minerals were mined easily but after the implementation of CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone) in 1991, these deposits fall in CRZ 1 category means highly sensitive areas and these areas must be protected from any type of activities.

In consideration of the global warming and future rise in sea level it is also necessary to protection the intertidal zone and prevent the beach sand and sand dunes mining activities. But these beach areas are considered very much favourable for tourism and being exploited by the resorts, restaurants, hotels entrepreneurs by violating the CRZ rule. They are easily getting permission from the government to go for these constructions but for mining activities it is a complete refusal by the government. Because of these huge anthropogenic activities coastal areas need to go for Coastal Zone Management Plan too.

The reason behind it is that in spite of presence of the heavy minerals in the form of black sands along the coast, the area has not yet been reserved for the mining. The mining of these rare earth minerals may be possible by taking all the necessary steps related with the safety and environment. In case of intertidal zone the impact of the mining activity would not be much prominent as the mined area would immediately reclaimed by deposits by the sea water during high time. But in case of the mining out of the high tide line all the environmental and safety norms has to be followed on priority.

In spite of having our own mineral resources, the country is forced to import minerals like coal, iron ore, rock phosphate etc and which affect the market in costing. The prices of steel, cement, crude oil are rising daily and affecting the budget of Indian citizen.

Every year numbers of mining engineers, surveyors and geologists get their final degrees from various institutes and universities. It makes no sense to have these courses if there is no opening in the market for jobs in the mining industries.

Hence; both the central and state governments, if they wish to keep alive mining and mineral based industries must monitor policies closely for proper implementation.. An awareness program must be conducted among the people about the importance of mining and mineral based industries.

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