India’s National Mineral Policy Requires a Radical Overhaul
The Ministry of Mines has recently set up the K R Rao Committee in response to a Supreme Court directive. This was contained in a Court judgement pertaining to illegal mining in Odisha (Common Cause vs Union of India & Ors).
The Committee’s professed purpose is to take a fresh look at India’s National Mineral Policy, which has not been reviewed since 2008, and come up with a fresh version by the end of 2017.
In the Odisha mining case, the Supreme Court spelled out what constitutes illegal mining and established that in such cases, the full value of minerals so extracted may be recovered from the offender.
Different Interpretations of Illegal Mining
In particular, the Court made clear that mining in breach of the terms of a lease – in excess of volume limits, outside lease areas and in the absence of necessary environmental clearances – is illegal.
While this may seem like a statement of the most obvious kind to most of us, the many state governments responsible for monitoring mining in their geographies don’t quite seem to have seen things in the same way. This has forced petitioners to get the Supreme Court to spell it out in black and white.
Why the state governments don’t appear to have come to the same conclusions themselves is anybody’s guess. After all, there is not much point of a limit or a clearance if it is not illegal to breach them. Yet myriad breaches have occurred in states such as Odisha, Karnataka, Goa, Rajasthan and Jharkhand without any prosecution or punishment forthcoming.
Given the apparent scope for different interpretations of what constitutes illegal mining, a fertile environment has existed for crony capitalism and all its attendant ills to flourish.
Concerns Over Transparency
Against this background one might have expected that any committee set up to review the National Mineral Policy should substantially comprise petitioners and others who brought these illegalities to light.
One would also have expected that some independent ecologists might be included in the committee given that the Court’s judgment – as in the case of its previous rulings against illegal mining in Goa and Karnataka – recorded widespread environmental damage and it expressed concerns about mineral conservation.
But no; the committee comprises almost wholly of government officials (25 out of a total of 29 members are civil servants. 12 of these are state mining secretaries, 8 are joint secretaries in the union government, and one each represent the NITI Aayog, the Railways Board, the Indian Bureau of Mines and the Geological Survey of India).
The remaining four members are representatives from business associations (FICCI, Assocham, CII and the Federation of Indian Mining Industries). In other words, the Committee substantially either comprises representatives under whose watch the illegalities occurred or those who directly committed them.
Anyhow, the Committee has now commenced its deliberations. It has had three meetings so far, and some of the minutes of these have been published on the website of the Ministry of Mines.
Need to Revise Existing Policy
In view of the background, the Committee should primarily be focusing its discussions and revisions on the areas of the existing policy about which the Supreme Court expressed its specific concern. These are: illegality in mining, damage to the environment, sustainability in mining and fairness to future generations.
While the minutes published thus far suggest that there is some awareness among the office bearers of the committee regarding the key issues, the discussions as recorded do not seem to have focused on them.
There is no mention in the minutes released, thus far, of what these may be, under what compulsion they must be used, who will be responsible for managing them or how such parties will be held accountable. Nor indeed does there seem to have been any discussion so far on how the numerous lapses in monitoring pointed out by the Supreme Court took place.
Taking a Cue from Tanzania
There also seems to have been very little debate on other key areas such as the lessons that can be learned from other countries and universal best practice. With a little research these could easily be explored.
For example, Tanzania faced a similar problem for many years with the government earning a very small share of the value of minerals being extracted due to widespread fraud.
In 2009, it decided to set up an independent ‘Minerals Audit Agency’ to monitor all aspects of mining operations related to revenue generation, including the quality and quantity of all minerals extracted. Since the setting up of this agency, the government’s revenues have increased substantially. Perhaps, India could consider something similar?
This case is taken from a recent study entitled ‘Many Ways to Lose a Billion: How Governments Fail to Secure a Fair Share of Natural Resource Wealth’, released by ‘Publish What You Pay’, a leading coalition of civil society organisations from around the world. The report contains many other examples.
Mere Tinkering Won’t Help
To be fair to the Committee, they haven’t yet finished their deliberations and should be judged on the basis of the final policy document that they produce. A first version is expected on 31October.
If it substantially addresses the issues raised by the court, a foundation will have been laid to prevent the grave errors of the past recurring again in the future. There have been massive illegalities in the Indian mining sector thus far.
Large-scale environmental damage has occurred and an environment for crony capitalism has thrived. India desperately needs to make major strides in all these areas. For that to happen, its mining policy needs root and branch change and not mere tinkering. The K R Rao Committee has a big responsibility.
(The writer is a freelance journalist affiliated with the Goa Foundation. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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