Problematic quest for tangible assets
The Indian Express | September 21, 2021
Proposal to use District Mineral Foundation funds for creating infrastructure goes against the purpose of such funds – they need to be used for welfare of mining-affected communities.
The Ministry of Mines has recently proposed “reforms” in the mining sector under the Atmanirbhar Bharat scheme to stimulate economic growth in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. A key proposition of the reform draft is to amend rules/guidelines for the use of District Mineral Foundation (DMF) funds to increase focus on creating “tangible assets”. The Ministry of Mines (MoM), it seems, wants to direct a large corpus of funds meant for mining-affected communities towards only creating infrastructure.
The proposal undermines the very law under which DMFs have been instituted. It also opens the floor for massive misdirection of funds. DMFs are non-profit trusts set up in all mining districts of the country under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2015 to work for the “interest and benefit of people and areas affected by mining-related operations.” Mining companies contribute 10-30 per cent on the royalty amount that they pay to the government to DMF Trust in the district they are operating in. The idea behind the contribution is that local mining-affected communities, mostly tribal and among the poorest in the country, also have the right to benefit from natural resources extracted from where they live.
Currently, DMFs have been set-up in 572 districts of the country, with a cumulative accrual of more than Rs 40,000 crore so far as per MoM data. The corpus is only growing. To give a broad estimate, the big coal districts like Dhanbad, Ramgarh and Chatra in Jharkhand are likely to accrue Rs 250 crore each annually in DMF. So will many key coal and iron ore mining districts of Chhattisgarh and Odisha, with estimates ranging from Rs 100-400 crore annually for each.
The functioning of the DMF trusts and the fund use governed by states’ DMF Rules incorporate the mandates of a central guideline, Pradhan Mantri Khanij Kshetra Kalyan Yojana (PMKKKY) that specifies high priority areas of investments.
Why shouldn’t the DMF fund use be tied to tangible assets?
First, DMF is a huge corpus available at the district level, it is not tied to any specific scheme, is non-lapsable, and comes with a mandate to improve the socio-economic well-being of the mining-affected communities. This gives scope as well as provision for decentralised planning for the use of funds. The law also underscores this.
At this critical time, when the effort is to bring the economy back on its feet, this is an opportunity to invest in building income security through local livelihoods, adequate healthcare and nutrition access to the most vulnerable group of people in mining districts. These areas are also considered high priority under PMKKKY on which districts are mandated to spend at least 60 per cent of their DMF funds.
Second, over the last five years, the biggest problem with the DMF investments across states has been a blind focus on construction of infrastructure. Analysis of data from states and key mining districts until March 2020 shows that investments in the physical infrastructure sector through DMF have been the highest, ranging from 30-40 per cent of the total investment. This is for roads and bridges alone. Parse through the investments in healthcare, nutrition, education and you will find largely construction works.
This has happened because investments have so far been ad hoc and unplanned. By putting the focus on creation of tangible assets, MoM would only end up diluting the very idea behind the institution of DMFs, reinforcing poor investments, quick to show on paper, but not of real value to the people it is meant to serve.
This is not to say that infrastructure isn’t needed. But most districts have departmental funds for this. Also, there is existing infrastructure which lies under-resourced. Often, “creating infrastructure” is the easiest and quickest way to show spending but making the infrastructure useful to people is the biggest challenge. Similarly, investing in local livelihoods is more challenging because it requires planning and shows results only after a few years. This is where DMF must step in to address the gaps, invest in human resources and local livelihoods, make existing schemes better, and innovate to build socio-economic equity and resilience. The fact that it is untied and non-lapsable allows for time to think and plan wisely.
Third, by tying DMFs to tangible assets the MoM would undo some small but meaningful strides made by states and districts to improve investments. Over the last couple of years, there has been growing evidence from districts that proves that DMF funds can be used to improve critical human development indicators and improve incomes and livelihood of mining-affected communities through better ways than just creating infrastructure.
Here are some examples. In June, the iron-ore rich Keonjhar district in Odisha topped up the wages paid under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA) to match the state minimum wages. The district is using DMF funds to fill the gap and ensure more cash to the workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parity of minimum wages with MGNREGA wages has been a long-pending demand nationally.
The district recently also used the fund to integrate locally and agronomically produced millets into the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), a move to improve dietary diversity, nutrition indicators and also incomes of local self-health groups involved in food preparation.
The remote tribal and forested district of Bijapur in Chhattisgarh, set-up a fully functional district hospital by converging DMF funds with health department and other available funds. From a dilapidated building with a doctor or two, the district now has a hospital compliant with most Indian Public Health Standards (IPHS) norms.
DMF funds were particularly used to incentivise doctors and pay them competitive salaries. This had a cascading effect, with districts in Jharkhand and Odisha also improving local health access by hiring doctors and even paramedics. Kabirdham (Chhattisgarh) used it to train local Baiga tribe youth to teach in primary schools, creating local livelihood and addressing teaching shortage in one move. There are many such examples of convergence of funds, new and innovative initiatives, or just simply topping up the existing government schemes for better reach or impacts.
State governments are also gradually showing more inclination towards better investments. Chhattisgarh amended state DMF rules in September 2019 and gave representation to mining-affected people in the DMF decision-making body, asking for better focus on livelihoods, particularly forest-based livelihoods; Odisha amended its DMF rules in 2018 to improve focus on local livelihoods. The MoM itself put out a recommendation in 2019, calling for a focus on soft resources, long-term planning and better accountability of DMFs. The new reform measure focusing on creating tangible infrastructure would mean that these gains, which can be consolidated further, will be offset.
The overarching PMKKKY guideline needs strengthening. However, tying it to tangible assets is not the solution. Instead, the mandate must be for participatory local planning to address long-term needs of mining-affected areas and people. It must also ensure that districts are equipped with required expertise to aid their staff with this planning and implementation.
States must be given clarity on how to clearly and scientifically identify mining-affected people and delineate their respective mining-affected areas so that investments can be targeted towards them. Focus must be on achieving better human development indicators and building economic resilience among local communities.
Investment in infrastructure should strictly be a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Given the potential of DMFs, spending on infrastructure, in fact, must be brought down, monitored closely and tightly capped.