Can mining be made sustainable?

Sustainability in mining should include local stakeholder engagement, socio-economic development and transparent communication with stakeholders

By Samar Lahiry
Last Updated: Tuesday 20 June 2017
Sustainability has assumed considerable importance in major mining nations like Canada, Australia, South Africa and Papua New Guinea. Credit: Agnimirh Basu/CSE
Sustainability has assumed considerable importance in major mining nations like Canada, Australia, South Africa and Papua New Guinea. Credit: Agnimirh Basu/CSE Sustainability has assumed considerable importance in major mining nations like Canada, Australia, South Africa and Papua New Guinea. Credit: Agnimirh Basu/CSE

India is endowed with many minerals. The minerals are basic and strategic materials for industrial and economic development. But in the absence of inadequate checks and balances, mining can have adverse effects on the environment. This is why sustainable mining is crucial for inclusive growth.

Although the Indian mineral industry comprises of large and small mines that function under public, private sector and informal sectors (covering most minor minerals), the public sector continues to play a dominant role in production of various minerals. These are coal, lignite, petroleum, iron and steel, bauxite and aluminium. As per the Constitution, the development and regulation of mines and minerals is controlled by the Union government. The Mine and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, was amended in 2015 to add the provision for a simple and transparent mechanism for granting mining lease or prospecting license through competitive bidding. It also provides assured tenure and easy transferability of mineral concession granted through auction, and a strict penalty to deter illegal mining.

Sustainability in mining sector

The most important environmental requirement for a mining project is a comprehensive environment assessment programme, which was started in 1994. But weak enforcement and inadequate coordination among government agencies make the laws and regulatory instruments ineffective. Although mining enterprises tend to meet the legal requirement of preparing mine closure plans, the implementation falls short. Local communities are not consulted in the preparation and implementation of mine closure plans.

Most states have a large number of small mines, including quarries to extract minor minerals. These present difficult challenges for sustainable development as their financial, technical and managerial limitations restrict their ability to take effective corrective measures against the negative impacts of mining.

Major mining companies have comprehensive environment protection measures, they sensitise their personnel on sustainability issues and progressively try to improve their environmental performance. There are other large, medium and even small enterprises, which have to conform to the prescribed legal provisions. In case of illegal mining, these niceties are not observed. It is reported that the illegal sand mining is largely responsible for the environmental degradation especially the river beds of Ganga and Yamuna rivers. Lack of checks and political interference has turned the situation grim. It is not just illegal mining but also legal mines which flout norms.

Two main pre-conditions for achieving sustainability are good governance and self-regulating mining enterprises which are economically viable, financially profitable and technically efficient. Sustainability principles can be applied in all the stages of mine life cycle–exploration, mine planning, construction, mineral extraction, mine closure and post-closure reclamation and rehabilitation. These principles include intra and inter-generational equity, the precautionary principle, scientific mining, management of environmental and socio-economic impacts, creation of substitute capital in the form of social and physical infrastructure and stakeholder engagement.

Although mining has brought about economic development in the mineral-rich states of Odisha, Goa, Karnataka and Jharkhand, it has also caused significant environmental damages and negatively impacted communities in project areas, accordingto a Planning Commission report. To that extent the mining and environmental laws and regulations have not been very effective.

In some cases, mining operations have been carried out without regard for the ‘carrying capacity’ of the environment and other infrastructural limitations. This has put avoidable pressure on the environment and caused inconveniences to the people living in the mining areas. Illegal mining in many cases has similar effect while additionally causing loss of public revenues.

Sustainability has assumed considerable importance in major mining nations such as Canada, Australia, South Africa and Papua New Guinea. Their view of sustainable development in mining includes not just the environment, but other important dimensions such as local stakeholder engagement, socio-economic development in mining project areas and transparency in communication with stakeholders. In India, major mining companies have set up foundations to take up socio-economic development projects in their mining areas. In developed mining nations, regulatory mining and environmental laws meant to lessen the impact of mining are strictly implemented. These include provisions for mine closure and associated reclamation and rehabilitation of mined land.

The way ahead

  • Both the government and industry need to take a comprehensive view of sustainable development.
  • A socio-economic assessment report for a mining project should be made a part of the permission process for the grant and administration of mineral concession to a mining enterprise.
  • Local socio-economic development works should preferably be executed by mining enterprises rather than government and semi-government agencies to avoid the problems of inadequate capacity, political manipulation and corruption.
  • In order to alleviate the limitations of small mines in carrying out sustainable development activities, a consortium of small mining enterprises in a region should be promoted.
  • Technical advisory services should be made available to them in the relevant areas.
  • Mineral development in a region should be carried out within its available social and environmental “carrying capacity” and infrastructural facilities at a given point of time.


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