Can mining be sustainable?

Two main pre-conditions for achieving sustainability are good governance and self-regulating mining enterprises

By Samar Lahiry
Published: Monday 24 April 2017
The most important environmental requirement for a mining project is a comprehensive environment assessment (Agnimirh Basu/CSE)

India is richly endowed with many minerals. The minerals are basic and strategic materials for industrial and economic development. In mining, the possibilities of adverse effects on the environment are quite high if the adverse effects are not contained or reduced to minimum. The negative impact of mining could be controlled through the application of the concept and principles of sustainable development to mining operations. Sustainable mining is crucial for the promotion of inclusive growth.

The Indian mineral industry comprises of large and small mines, that function under public, private sector and informal sectors covering most minor minerals being extracted. The public sector continues to play a dominant role in production of various minerals (coal, lignite, petroleum, iron and steel, bauxite and aluminium). As per the Constitution, 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 licence through competitive bidding besides assured tenure and easy transferability of mineral concession granted through auction, strict penalty provision to deter illegal mining.

The total value of country’s mineral production (excluding atomic minerals) during 2015-16 has been estimated at Rs 2,68,955 crores, after a decrease of about 5.05 per cent over the previous year.

Sustainability in mining sector

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

A large number of small mines (including quarries for extracting minor minerals) operate in most states. 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 use advanced, adopt comprehensive environment protection measures, sensitise their personnel on sustainability issues and progressively try to improve their environmental performance. There are other large, medium and even small enterprises whose environment obligation consists in strictly conforming 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. Even legal mines flout norms and damage the environment.

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 have application for all stages of mine life cycle – exploration, mine planning, construction, mineral extraction, mine closure and post-closure reclamation and rehabilitation. These principles include elements such as 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.

A Planning Commission report titled “Sustainable Development, Emerging issues in India’s mineral sector” observed that in the mineral-rich states of Odisha, Goa, Karnataka and Jharkhand, mining has brought about economic development. At the same time, it has caused significant environmental damages and negatively impacted communities in project areas. 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 concerning 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 like Canada, Australia, South Africa and Papua New Guinea. These countries take a comprehensive view of sustainable development in mining that includes apart from environment, 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 all 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 that should cover dimensions other than environment, such as stakeholder engagement and consultations, local area socio-economic development and transparency in communication and accountability. Preparation of a socio-economic assessment report for a mining project should be made a part of the permitting 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, consortia 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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