Environment

Mines Ministry Misses Supreme Court Deadline Over Formulation of New Minerals Policy

The delay may have been caused by feedback received from the environment and panchayati raj ministries, which both red-flagged some concerns.

Miners work at Magadh coal mine in Chatra district in the eastern state of Jharkhand, India, September 30, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Stringer

Miners work at Magadh coal mine in Chatra district in the eastern state of Jharkhand, India, September 30, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Stringer

New Delhi: A central government panel has missed a Supreme Court-mandated deadline to announce a “more effective, meaningful and implementable” version of India’’s existing national minerals policy.

The K.R. Rao committee – the panel that was set up by the ministry of mines last August to review and update the 2008 National Mineral Policy (NMP) – was, as per the Supreme Court’s directions, supposed to announce a revamped policy by December 31, 2017.

A first draft was circulated to members of the committee during their fourth meeting on October 13, 2017 and feedback was solicited.

According to people with knowledge of the matter, the committee’s target for handing over a report to the mines ministry was October 31. After that, a finalised draft should have been put up online for public comments by November. After a month for public consultation, a final revised policy would be prepared by the ministry and then finally sent to the cabinet for approval.

However, this has not happened and there have been no developments from mid-October.

Sources tell The Wire that one possible reason for the delay is to incorporate the concerns raised by the environment and panchayati raj ministries as well as the NITI Aayog in November and December.

Odisha judgement

Rampant illegal mining across the country over the last decade culminated in a series of important judicial decisions, the last of which was the Supreme Court’s judgement on illegal iron ore mining in Odisha.

While disposing of a petition filed by non-profit organisation Common Cause, a two-judge bench of the apex court not only ordered the Centre to recover the full value of iron ore mined illegally, but also asked it to take a critical look at how India’s mining policy and accompanying regulations have done little to curb illegitimate mining and gross environmental violations over the last decade.

As part of its judgement, the Supreme Court also declared that there was no “effective check on mining operations nor is there any effective mining policy”. Justices Madan B. Lokur and Deepak Gupta went on to note that the 2008 minerals policy was “only on paper” and was not “enforced perhaps due to the involvement of very powerful vested interests or a failure of nerve”.

Consequently, the bench directed the Narendra Modi government to announce a new policy by December 31, 2017. Excerpts from its judgement are reproduced below:

We are of opinion that the National Mineral Policy, 2008 is almost a decade old and a variety of changes have taken place since then, including (unfortunately) the advent of rapacious mining in several parts of the country. Therefore, it is high time that the Union of India revisits the National Mineral Policy, 2008 and announces a fresh and more effective, meaningful and implementable policy within the next few months and in any event before 31st December, 2017.

We are constrained to pass this direction in view of the facts disclosed in these petitions and in judgments delivered by this court with regard to mining in Goa and Karnataka.

Later feedback

As The Wire reported, the K.R Rao committee didn’t get off to a great start. The panel’s composition was initially heavily skewed towards government and industry representation, with little representation from civil society or India’s Adivasi and tribal population.

While some of these issues were rectified – and though the first draft of the revised policy included fresh paragraphs on sustainable development and intergenerational equity – it ultimately decided to make minor adjustments rather than structural changes.

“We can only speculate that the delay may be due to a perception that the new mineral policy should not be a rehash of the 2008 policy or simply old wine in a new bottle. It should aim to propose a new mining paradigm beneficial to all including future generations,” Claude Alvares, director, Goa Foundation, told The Wire.

A worker speaks with the driver after unloading coal from a supply truck at a yard on the outskirts of the western Indian city of Ahmedabad April 15, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave

A worker speaks with the driver after unloading coal from a supply truck at a yard on the outskirts of the western Indian city of Ahmedabad April 15, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave

DFO concerns?

As noted above, the mines ministry, in November and December 2017, did receive feedback from the environment and panchayati raj ministries that it still may be looking into.

In a letter dated December 6, 2017, environment ministry adviser Surendra Kumar suggested the role of district level authorities needs to be clearly defined in the new NMP as they had started playing an important part in granting environment clearance (EC),

“At present, the role of state (government) is defined in the NMP 2008 but as the district level authorities are now involved in the EC process, thus the role of district level authorities needs to be defined in the new NMP,” Kumar noted in his letter to mines ministry joint secretary Bipul Pathak.

This letter stems from a back-and-forth the environment ministry and the Odisha government had during the second meeting of the K.R. Rao committee.

At the meeting, Deepak Mohanty, director in the state government of Odisha, complained that divisional-level forest officers (DFOs) were obstructing the ability of the state to undertake exploration activities in forest areas. In specific, Mohanty referenced a 2016 environment ministry circular that empowered the DFO to allow exploration if “the vegetation cover is less than 10%”. Only in cases where vegetation cover is more than 40%, the circular required a proper forest clearance be obtained.

However, the Odisha government director stated in the meeting that forest officers refused to interpret that circular in the “true spirit of the relaxation given by MEOFCC especially if the exploration activity does not actually sacrifice any forest growth”. In specific, Mohanty also pointed out an issue of DFOs in Odisha not allowing “preparation of temporary pathways which are essential for taking drill machines to the site if exploration has to be taken up”.

Panchayat and NITI Aayog

In remarks sent to the mines ministry in November, the panchayati raj ministry (which was initially excluded from the committee’s meetings) has suggested that “prior recommendation of the gram sabha or the panchayat” be made mandatory before granting any reconnaissance permit, prospecting licence or mining lease for a minor mineral. This recommendation should come at an appropriate level in scheduled areas, the ministry has suggested.

However, sources tell The Wire that the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2017 would need to be amended for this to happen and that it is not being viewed favourably within the mines ministry at the moment as it would not be “inherently practical” and that it could hamper exploration.

An important development in this regard are the Niti Aayog’s recommendations. In its feedback, the government’s policy advisory body has slammed the current state of mineral exploration, noting that only “10% of the country’s obvious geological potential has been explored”.

“The success stories of our proven deposits are not from extensive exploration but merely by chance,” the NITI Aayog has said. In this regard, it has also asked the mines ministry to examine how companies that carry out exploration would be granted greater claims on a mining lease as a result of having completed an exploratory project.