What Lies Beneath

When I began writing this article, I was not sure which story to begin with. In front of me were clear visions of a shaved off hill visible from the terrace of the Sarpanch of Kalne village in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra. With the forests of the Western Ghats on both sides, the barren hill being excavated for iron ore stood witness to a good fight that the people of the village had gone through before the mine was made operational.My mind then shifted to the Hazaribagh district in Jharkhand where large open cast mines of North Karanpura coalfields somehow symbolised how far and widespread the mining reality in India is. But the words of Deepak Das of Karanpura Bachao Sangarsh Samiti (KBSS) resonated strong will of the people of the area not to let go of their land and livelihoods. “Out of the 37 mining leases of different companies in the area, 19 have expired due to ground mobilisation because of which mining activity could not take place,” he said at a time KBSS was preparing for a long march and protest in September 2011 to strengthen their determination.

And then I wandered away to the Niyamgiri Hills spread across Kalahandi and Rayagada districts of Odisha, where the struggle against the proposed bauxite mining by M/s Vedanta (through the Orissa Mining Corporation) has received tremendous international support and attention. At present no mining is taking place in this land considered sacred to the Dongria Kondh tribal community. This was following political intervention which was likely to have influenced the orders of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). However, the future of Niyamgiri is also being discussed and determined in the halls of the Supreme Court of India, even as I write this.

We don’t need statistics to prove that the mining industry in India has been seeking to expand in unexplored horizons for the last two decades, even though there are enough figures that have been put forward by the Department of Mines as indication of their “upward swing” in this sector. The list of proposed mines that are seeking their environment approval from the MoEF also gives enough reason to believe that the more and more forests, agricultural lands, or riverbeds are being sought to be explored for any possible metal or ore that the industrial sector would need. In a press release of November 23, 2011, the Ministry of Coal has pointed out that meetings have been held with Chief Secretaries of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh in the month of November 2011 to expedite the pending forestry and environment clearances of the mining projects. This is alongside “vigorous follow up action with land acquisition officials of the State Governments to expedite acquisition proceedings”, other than several steps to reduce delays in grant of approvals as indicated in the release.

But none of this without its serious social and environmental ramifications, which is exactly what regulatory procedures like EIA are to check before granting an approval. I refer here to such procedures laid out in Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006 or precautions related to forest land diversion under the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980 which are to be followed before mining activity can take place. The EIA notification requires any mining activity above 50 hectares to have prior environment clearance based on a detailed EIA report and public hearing which is to be appraised by an Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the MoEF. For mines over 5 hectares and under 50 hectares of lease area, approval has to be sought from a State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) of the respective state where mining is to take place. In the case of any of these mines where forest land (irrespective of the lease area) is to be used the provisions of the FCA come into being where permissions from the central government (i.e. MoEF) is needed before any user agency (government or private) can start mining activity. Since 2006, what has also stepped into these array of legislations is the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act where rights of tribal and other forest dwelling communities need to be recognised before forest diversion under the FCA can take place. The MoEF also has specific circulars stating this.

But what happens when regulations remain a matter of paperwork and administrative formality. It was not very long ago when the national media carried stories about how the EIA for the Ashapura Minechem Limited’s mining project in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra was a direct copy of a Russian EIA report. This had gone unnoticed in the MoEF where the project was approved by the respective EAC. In another instance, it was a judicial intervention before the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) which had sent back the environment clearance granted to Orissa Mining Corporation in April 2009 to mine bauxite in Niyamgiri Hills to supply ore to UK based M/s Vedanta’s alumina refinery. The NEAA’s order had come a month after the decision on forest clearance, which had rendered the EC inoperable. Regulatory logic would have expected that the environmental approval would not be scrutinised further as these are two parallel but linked processes of the same ministry. But for the EAC, it was a second time “yes” to mining in Niyamgiri, but kept in abeyance by the MoEF.

The stories of such regulatory collapses are many, involving multiple layers of thrilling narration. However there are also intriguing tales of the mine sector negotiation as part of fascinating policy discourses. The foremost amongst these has been the discussions to declare forest areas in the country as “go” or “no-go” areas for coal mining. The conversation around “go” and “no-go” was initiated by the Ministry of Coal and in the MoEF in June 2009 to identify which blocks in India’s existing nine coalfields could be allowed to be mined and which others would remain untouched to be used as strategic energy reserves for the future. The give and take of these areas continued and the number of no-go areas gradually shrunk in the discussions between the two ministries and the Group of Ministers looking into the allocation of coal blocks identified across the country for mining. Following the change of guards at the MoEF in July 2011 from Jairam Ramesh to the current minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, the Ministry has said they are going to not pursue the “go” “no-go” argument but a position that some forest areas must continue to remain “inviolate” for all kinds of activities (not just coal mining). The details of how this will happen are yet to be revealed.

And in amidst all these regulatory and policy tale has arrived the approval of the Draft Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Bill, 2011 (approved by Cabinet on September, 30, 2011). The bill seeking to replace its 1957 version is the legislation to determine how mining leases are to be applied for and granted in accordance with law. While the provisions of this proposed law requires detailed scrutiny, one significant clause is of crucial bearing. In its text the draft Bill provides for mining companies to keep aside 26 per cent of their net profits for a Mineral Development Fund to be used for the development and rehabilitation of project-affected people in tribal areas. For the non-coal companies, the amount will be equivalent to the royalty they pay.

My mind reels with many thoughts and I can only remotely fathom what a person who will lose her land, access to livelihoods and food (like in the case of forests) and be served notice to move from a place where generations of her family would be derived their culture and identity from, would think of such a proposal. How will ecological landscapes be restored through cash paybacks such as those proposed above. But then even with these unanswered thoughts, I also transport myself in Chilika Daad village in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh which lives everyday a few metres away from a towering coal mine over-burden. The village which has been displaced twice and then relocated next to a public sector mine, remains far away from the rehabilitation promises. I reckon this might be just another addition to the long list of unfulfilled promises that a company will brightly plaster on the Panchayat Bhawan bang in the middle of the village?