India has seen more than a handful of mining-related scams unravel in the last decade. The 2014 coalgate scam is perceived as the nemesis of the UPA government. The powerful but now infamous Reddy Brothers made headlines for the illegal operations in Bellary. Goan citizens confronted by mine-related pollution through successive governments nicknamed their Assembly “chalees chor”. The Supreme Court-appointed Shah Commission’s scathing report on iron ore mining proved the deep malaise in the sector.
Yet again, this year the Supreme Court (SC) heard the case (WP (Civil) 114 of 2014) of illegal iron ore mining in Odisha and ordered a set of actions, prominent among them being the return of the full revenue lost to the state exchequer due to unlawful mining. Another is the setting up of a government committee to review the National Mineral Policy of 2008. However, the court is yet to conduct follow-up hearings to understand the causes of such illegality in the mining sector. Of all the steps ordered by the apex court, it is this one that offers some hope.
Supreme Court’s observations
The apex court noted that there are 187 mining leases for iron and manganese extraction in Keonjhar, Sundargarh and Mayurbhanj districts of Odisha, and that there is conclusive evidence that 102 of these had been operating without environmental approvals or extracting minerals in excess of the approval granted. Describing such pervasive illegality, it stated that the current mineral policy has not been enforced “perhaps due to the involvement of very powerful vested interests or a failure of nerve.”
One of the 11 conclusive directions of the court is the setting up of an expert committee to identify the lapses that have “enabled rampant illegal and unlawful mining in Odisha” and find precautionary steps that can be applied to the mining sector as a whole. These observations show the court’s intent in going deeper into the root causes of the illegality of the mining sector. Time and again, well-researched mining cases brought to courts have shown that illegal and unlawful mining is not an aberration but the rule.
Development or poverty
All the cases that have been brought to the highest court have complained, in some form, about the large-scale impact that mining causes to land and water, to forests and to service infrastructure like roads or hospitals, and to neighbouring communities and workers. These cases have resulted in remedies such as return of the lost revenue to the government exchequer due to illegal extraction of the state’s resources, levying financial penalties on erring miners or rolling out a set of reforms to change procedures for mining approvals. We’ve seen high-level committees and audits, the creation of mineral revenue funds, legal amendments and much more. As the outcome of this latest case too, the government has set up the KR Rao Committee to give a “fresh look” at the National Mineral Policy (NMP) by October 2017.
But it is precisely the unquestioned relationship between mining and development that has led us on these particular legal trajectories, and resulting in remedies that continue to justify mining as an economic enterprise. Anyone who argues that mining is linked to poverty more than development is given a history lesson on the relationship between mining and the rail network, the growth of cities, electrification of villages, technological innovation and such. These are true of large colonial enterprises or public-sector mining companies of the post-independent era.
But now it is amply clear that this privileged position to mining as development has, by design, legitimised its mounting impacts rather than restrained its effects. Any mining project is about to become an illegal project if it isn’t one already. A large public sector iron ore mine in Keonjhar, for example, has a commitment of “zero discharge” in its environmental approval. When villagers complain, pollution officers visit. But their reports have to defend the mine operators as the approval condition is an impossible one. If you visit, you will see the tailing pond overflowing and the nearby farms soaked in red sludge.
Networks of illegality
Illegal mining is also closely tied to land grabs. In places that the policy designates as coal-bearing areas, industrial zones or energy hubs, well-organised zameen dalals or land mafia are active. Such practices allow not just speculative land sales but create opportunities to work around laws.
The hope that the SC has created through this landmark case would be upheld only if it investigates this complex web of illegality that supports the continued expansion of India’s extractive sector. To generate remedies and prevent further impact, we must displace the idea of mining as development.
The authors are with the CPR-Namati Environment Justice Program. Views expressed are personal.