India Needs a Change in its Environmental Governanceby Opinion Express July 2, 2018 0 comments
Our ecological resources are depleting at an alarming rate, and our future generations might suffer because of our negligence. The need of the hour for the Government is to forge political consensus in the country and to give a new direction to our environmental governance which will bring a reform in minor mineral policy.
Minerals in today’s industrial age are as essential as food items and one cannot imagine a modern world without a solid back up of mineral resources. The Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 (MMRD Act) provides a mechanism to control the exploitation and licensing of notified minerals in India. The country has a peculiar problem in dealing with the exploitation of minerals as most valuable minerals like iron, coal, magnesium ore, bauxite etc are in forests. This overlapping of the mineral map with the forest map of the country puts restrictions on the exploitation of mineral resources on ecological grounds.
Further, catchments of more than 450 rivers and their tributaries are in forest areas and the stream flow of rain-fed rivers and recharging of aquifers is largely due to good forest cover in these catchments. These rivers and their catchments are lifelines for our food and water security.
For last few years, illegal mining activities in Karnataka, Odisha and Goa have been in media glare as the Supreme Court proceedings have taken center stage. Thanks to the adverse media publicity, there is a general apathy towards mining activities in India and they have not yet been associated with activities that cause land destruction. However, apart from being essential for the development of local and regional economies and infrastructure, mining also supports a sizeable rural population. Mining ban rendered thousands of people jobless for the past few years and has had a devastating effect on the economy. The Indian Government in 2015 amended the MMRD Act and introduced certain steps to plug the gaps in mineral policy, such as granting of mineral leases, creation of district mineral foundations and the establishment of a National Trust for the use of funds to be levied on mining companies. This was done to benefit the locals and farmers who were adversely affected by mining and also for rehabilitation of areas that had already been mined. By doing this, the Government adopted the recommendations of the Supreme Court and appointed a committee for conducting an environmental impact assessment of mining in Karnataka in 2011. Similarly, under the Forest Conservation Act, adequate provisions have been made to ensure rehabilitation, extension of forests, and minimise damage to people, biodiversity and wildlife.
The Indian economy, in its quest to becoming a global economic giant, needs scientific and environmentally sustainable mining. Many environmentalists believe that with the apex court supervising mineral policy and with amendments in the Mines and Minerals Act, things will be honky dory for the sector. However, the situation is far from being satisfactory. The mineral policy only covers major or notified minerals as per the MMRD Act like iron, coal, magnesium, bauxite, etc. Minor minerals like sand, clay, stones, boulders, marble etc as per Section 3(e) of the Act are under the domain of the State Governments. The Government in February 2015 declared 31 major minerals as “minor” including some strategic minerals like barytes, bentonite etc.
The minor mineral grant is politicised and leases are granted on the basis of political consideration, resulting in corruption and unscientific exploitation. Fragmented small leases are ringing alarm bells for the rivers and other life-sustaining resources. Mining, being a destructive activity, one has to bring latest technology and other resources which is never the case in minor mineral exploitation as the leases are mostly small in size, even less than one hectare with mine owners having no commitment or capacity for scientific and ecologically sustainable mining.
Unruly mining of sand mafias came to public glare only in 2014 when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned mining activities all over the country based on the Noida sand mining episode. This writer noticed that the Uttarakhand Government took no steps to regulate sand mining as it caused immense damage to the sustainability of rivers and faced opposition in Haridwar and Rishikesh where saints were up in arms for the damage being done to river Ganga and its tributaries.
In several States, incidents of daring attacks on regulatory authorities attracted attention of the national media. In 2012, one young IPS officer was killed by the mining mafia in Morena while chasing an offender. Recently, a tehsildar and an IFS officer were attacked while trying to stop the sand mafia in Madhya Pradesh. On June 18, Punjab foresters were brutally attacked by the mining mafia.
The condition of stone and marble mining is the same in all States. The beauty of Shillong hills has already been spoiled by the sand and limestone mafia. On the other hand, Tripura farmers in 2014 reported that the ban on removal of sand by the NGT is inundating their agriculture fields with sands during rains.
However, from the developmental perspective we must understand that minor minerals are necessary for development of local economy as well as maintaining river beds. But a well-structured scientific framework for sand and other minor minerals is imperative. In Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand, this writer witnessed that sand mining is threatening the water availability in rivers and coupled with thinning of forest density and deforestation in catchment areas, a severe water crisis is going to become a regular feature during summers.
At the same time, the silt must be removed from the rivers otherwise it will destroy the stream flow and river course and inundate the adjoining areas. For the Government, sand mining management is a double headache and it’s policymakers akin to ‘Sophies Choice’ (title of 1979 novel by William Styron). Minor minerals need to be tackled afresh by all stakeholders for sustainable development. Limestone is treated as both major and minor mineral, depending on its uses for either household or commercial purposes. In a similar pattern, sand needs to be treated as the first step and then mandatory institutional technological back up must be evolved by framing rules under the Environmental (Protection) Act 1986.
Playing with ecological resources is not good policy and the nation will pay a heavy price for this. Our future generations will never forgive us. However, playing ecological politics with forests, rivers, and biodiversity will be a win-win situation for the people and the Millennium Development Goals. It is, therefore, necessary that the Government looks for a new paradigm to forge a political consensus in the country and to give a new direction to our environmental governance.
(The writer, VK Bahuguna, is a Retired Civil Servant)
Courtesy: The Pioneer