Whose minerals are they anyway?
Mongabay | Sep 10, 2020
Over the past few months, the government of India has been focusing on the mining sector to revive the country’s economy but it is feared that it could mean a troubled time ahead for communities involved and environment.
However, the major question is whether such a push is in line with the National Mineral Policy 2019 of India which talks about the concept of inter-generational equity as far as mineral wealth is concerned.
The organisations involved with the communities that are impacted by the mining believe that protection and welfare of tribal people and poor are rarely the focus area of mining plans which are heavily focused on higher revenues.
To tackle the already slowing economy, whose condition further deteriorated after COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian government is pushing for more mining. But is this push for more revenue in line with the principles in India’s mining policy that talk about sustainable mining and minerals being a part of shared inheritance with future generations?
Over the past few months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and various other ministers in his government have emphasised that the push for mining including coal will result in additional investments and revenue worth hundreds of billions of rupees. The government has already unveiled more reforms in the mining sector.
Meanwhile, communities that are already struggling with land conflicts, pollution issues (water, air and soil), health impacts, continue suffering even as new areas that will be opened for mining come with a potential threat to the local ecology, including biodiversity, forests and the communities.
Odisha-based tribal rights leader Deme Oram said that communities whose areas have been destroyed due to the greed of mining companies and the state authorities are helpless. “There are many Supreme Court orders which state that mining in scheduled areas (as per the Indian constitution), should be done through cooperatives that have tribal communities as members. But it is rarely done and such orders are openly violated by states to favour corporates and money bags,” Oram told Mongabay-India. He is the member of Mines, Mineral and People (MMP), an alliance spread across 18 states with more than 100 grassroots groups and about 20 diverse support organisations.
The concept of minerals being part of the shared inheritance is mentioned in the Indian government’s National Mineral Policy 2019. It noted that “natural resources, including minerals, are a shared inheritance where the State is a trustee on behalf of the people and therefore it is imperative that allocation of mineral resources is done in a fair and transparent manner to ensure equitable distribution of mineral wealth to sub-serve the common good.”
The policy had stressed that mining needs to be carried out in an environmentally sustainable manner keeping stakeholders’ participation, and devolution of benefits to the mining-affected persons with the overall objective of maintaining a high level of trust between all stakeholders.
But the on ground situation shows that rarely happens as conflicts related to land, health and ecology in the mining sector are found in abundance. Once the mining starts, the life of the communities in and around mining areas takes a turn for the worse and even when the mining is over its after-effects have shown to continue to impact people. Increasingly, the concept of just transition is being discussed which deals with the discussion around sustainable mining and the impact of operational mines on people and ecology.
“Even if tribal communities form a cooperative, or they get together and start mining there is no one who will buy products from them and let them flourish. Moreover, when mining is done by corporates the poor people are exploited and the local ecology (air, water and soil) is completely destroyed. People are left to suffer and they have nowhere to go. The state authorities whose prime responsibility is to protect the rights of people are working for corporates. Even the District Mineral Foundation funds, whose control should have been with communities, is being used by authorities for work like roads etc which should have been done for those people irrespective of the DMF,” said Oram, who focuses on land rights of the tribal people and governance in Fifth Schedule areas. Fifth Schedule areas are tribal-dominated areas identified under the Indian Constitution where special care is taken for rights and welfare of tribal communities.
For instance, he said, around 20 years ago, when sponge iron plants started in Odisha, people were told that it would bring development. “The only thing those plants have done is to destroy the lives of people and air, water and soil. In such a scenario, communities have no place to think about who owns the mineral wealth and how that should be preserved for future generations. They are busy saving their present and trying to earn their livelihood,” said Oram.
Is sustainable mining the keyword?
India’s National Mineral Policy 2019 had also emphasised that mining operations shall not ordinarily be taken up in identified ecologically fragile and biologically rich areas. It had noted that the government shall identify such areas that are critically fragile in terms of ecology and declare as ‘in-violate areas’ or ‘no-go areas’ out of bounds for mining and with a view to reducing pollution, carbon footprint and operational costs, use of renewable sources of energy at mining sites will be encouraged through appropriate incentives.
It had even suggested an inter-ministerial mechanism to decide the limits on the extent of mining activities that should be permitted including a detailed study for assessing the ceiling of annual excavation of minerals, considering the availability of mineral resources, the carrying capacity of the region, and the macro-environmental impact on the region while also “keeping in mind the principles of sustainable development and intergenerational equity and all other relevant factors.”
Rahul Basu, who is the research director at Goa Foundation, a Goa-based environmental group, said that it is important for governments to recognise that since natural resources, including minerals, are common wealth held in trust, not proprietary assets of the government in power, all the duties of a trustee apply to the government, including the duty to protect the corpus of the trust, prevent theft, loss or waste, and a duty to treat beneficiaries equally.
On the government’s efforts to boost the mining sector, Basu said it is “absurd to think increasing mining will lead to an economic revival.”
“Average daily employment in non-fuel major mineral mines is only around 100,000, around 0.25 percent of India’s workforce. And mining is steadily getting more mechanised. Further, if we see minerals as inherited wealth, surely it is better to purchase the minerals we need from others and keep our own minerals safely for our future generation,” Basu told Mongabay-India.
He explained that for most minerals, the existing mines in the country have sufficient reserves to supply industry and thus it would be preferable from community rights and environmental standpoint to expand existing mines rather than open new mines.
“However, the government seems focused on giving away large tracts for new extraction projects at exactly the worst time to be selling wealth. Even with the existing mines, there are many violations of community rights and environmental laws. For example, all mines in Goa were found to be violating one or more law. Why is it that the Indian mining industry is simply unwilling to follow the law? It would be better for the government to first do an intensive study of all existing mines to see if they are following the law, especially in connection with community rights and the environment,” argued Basu.
He further remarked that in cases where any violations are found, the local communities should be properly compensated, the environmental damage restored, the offending lessees blacklisted, and the leases auctioned off.
But what irks the communities is that the promised development due to mining rarely reaches them.
Sanjay Namdeo, who is the head of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in the Singrauli district, stressed mineral-rich Singrauli area, which is dominated by tribal people, was a land of abundant water, forests and agriculture but has now been ravaged due to human greed.
“The experience of extensive mining in this region over the past few decades has shown everything that is bad with the mining industry. Ideally, the communities should have full right over the water, forests and land as they nurture it over the years. But governments fail to do so. For example, in Singrauli, the government failed to ensure that people get the benefit. Instead, it is the industrialists who get all the benefits. Secondly, mining should have improved the lives of people involved or impacted by the mining sector including those whose livelihoods were based on the land where mining is taking place. But this never happened and instead, their lives have been completely destroyed. The mining profits should have been shared with the communities but that never happens,” Namdeo told Mongabay-India.
Minerals are a shared inheritance
Mining is an important sector in India’s economy and results in raw material for many other industries in the country. Right now, India now produces 95 minerals and is among the top producers of coal and iron ore globally. There are thousands of mining leases across the country. Over the past few months, the central government has been focusing on pushing the mining sector to boost the economy. For instance, it first allowed commercial coal mining to increase coal production and then, in August 2020, proposed reforms in the mining sector.
But the question is whether such reforms will be able to improve the lives of the communities involved.
Saswati Swetlena of the Mineral Inheritors Rights Association (MIRA), a network of civil society groups, said mineral resources are a shared inheritance and are best safeguarded by the local communities for the future generations.
“The local communities particularly, women, must be recognised as the custodians of all forms of natural resources and its governance as their fundamental right to ensure environmental justice. In the name of ease of business and public purpose, the state has been violating every legal provision meant to protect the rights of the communities. How does any mineral extraction make sense when it evicts and dispossesses millions from their life and livelihoods for the benefit of a few corporates? Is the state trust-worthy?” Swetlena questioned.
Rahul Basu of Goa Foundation said we need to ensure our children and future generations inherit at least as much as we did and we must ensure we capture the full value of our mineral wealth, save the entire proceeds for future generations, and distribute the income from the new investments equally to all as a citizens dividend, a right of ownership.
“At present, governments wrongly treat royalties as revenue, not a capital receipt, and merrily spend it, cheating our children and future generations of their rightful inheritance. There are a number of other inheritances that are depleted by mining, including the environment, the social fabric of the local community, the employment and incomes associated and the right to use the ore for useful things. Each of these inheritances is also subject to the inter-generational equity principle, and mining must be planned in such a way to ensure we avoid, restore or offset any damage to these inheritances, and if that is not possible, capture the full value and save it for future generations. This is only ethical, moral, fair, just and right,” Basu remarked.