Despite an early vision for sustainability in mining, is India’s progress faltering?

  • Directly or indirectly, the mining sector is a major driver of economic activities in India but it also negatively impacts the environment, degrades land, displaces communities and leads to conflicts.
  • Years before the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by countries in 2015, India had come with a national framework to address sustainability issues in the mining sector in 2011.
  • In the past few years, the central government has come out with more national plans to focus on sustainability in mining but the efforts are yet to gain momentum even as India plans to increase focus on the mining sector.
  • Experts, who have worked with the government, and in the private sector emphasise that India needs a transparent and robust approach to address social and environmental issues related to the mining sector.

Despite its known ill-impacts, the mining sector directly or indirectly contributes significantly to India’s economy. India had a vision to incorporate sustainability in this sector at least almost a decade ago, even before the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) became the recognised standard for sustainability. But the implementation of that vision has failed to gain momentum and now, as India looks at increasing mineral production, sustainability in the extractive industry is back in focus. 

Retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer S. Vijay Kumar, who was leading the Indian government’s Ministry of Mines at the time that 2011 Sustainable Development Framework (SDF) for the Indian mining sector was developed, explained that at the national level there is an intention to ensure that there is justice for local communities and environment impacted by the mining sector, but what needs to strengthen is the implementation at the ground level.

Kumar, who is now a distinguished fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), said that mining by its very nature is destructive, it degrades the land, impacts forests and biodiversity and influences water among other things. “The question is what do we do in order to reduce the negative impact of mining and that is what India tried to document with the SDF 2011. The solutions could be a more efficient use of minerals including recycling rather than increasing mining and steps to mitigate the negative impact of mining which includes measures like land reclamation after mining for use by local communities,” Kumar told Mongabay-India.

He emphasised that the idea behind the efforts is that when the land is returned (after mining) it should be done with an added value so that people do not feel exploited and that mining should have led to the creation of assets that give long-term support for communities and their livelihood. 

“This is because the general grouse of local people impacted by mining has always been that mining makes the company and state governments rich but leaves people poor. The SDF 2011 and the subsequent SDGs in 2015 stress on such measures – like improving health and education facilities, water supply, land quality, etc.,” said Kumar who stressed that the push for sustainable development in the mining sector was born out of many small movements in India that were led by poor and tribal communities who agitated and went to court when they felt cheated with the whole process of mining.

“However, the intention has not yet been realised or we can say that the rate at which the positive transition (development) is happening in the lives of people is very disappointing. It is not yet a ‘just transition’ instead it is just a transition. The ‘just’ part will come when local communities would become part of the whole process,” Kumar told Mongabay-India. 

With global warming and climate change, the environmental cost of extractive industries is increasingly being debated and discussions around sustainability and ‘just transitions’ is gaining momentum.

Read more: India’s mining sector: Present is tense and future could be imperfect

[Video] Is mining in India ‘just’ for the environment and communities?

India’s plans to ensure sustainable mining

Following the SDF document in 2011, sustainable development became the buzzword in the lexicon of the Indian government. In 2015, the SDGs came into the picture when 17 goals were adopted by members of the United Nations. The goals call for ending poverty, protecting the planet, ensuring good health and education, focus on affordable and clean energy, provide clean water and sanitation, developing sustainable cities and communities, sought climate action and responsible consumption etc by 2030.     

Although mining was not explicitly mentioned in goals, sustainable mining activities are integral to many of the SDGs. In fact, mining has both positive and negative implications for the SDGs. 

The fate of communities living around mining areas is closely intertwined with the life of mines. Photo by Environmental Change and Security Program/Flickr.

A 2018 UN report had mentioned that mining has strong impacts on at least 11 of the 17 SDGs. For instance, it noted, mining is clearly relevant to SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure), SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), SDG 13 (climate action), SDG 15 (life on land) and SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions).

The report had stressed that throughout the life of a mine and the whole value chain of mining, efforts are required to protect the environment. This includes actions to minimise the depletion of non-renewable natural resources, following the polluter pays principle, resource efficiency, proper environmental impact assessments, transparency and accountability. 

Chandra Bhushan, who is the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of iForest (International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology), a think-tank working on environmental and sustainability issues, said though there are no specific SDG targets related to the mining sector, the environmental, economic and social aspects of the mining sector have been captured in a number of the SDG Goals.

“The SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure), SDG 12 (responsible production and consumption), and SDG 15 (life on land) provide relevant guidance on sustainable practices in the mining sector. Other than that, many mining companies provide health, education and other amenities in economically backward areas (as part of their corporate social responsibility work) where there is no government machinery, and hence do influence the SDG targets on poverty, health, education and hunger,” Bhushan told Mongabay-India.

It is well known that mining poses critical challenges to the environment and communities and often mining activities end up in conflict with local communities. Meanwhile, there is also increasing international pressure to tackle climate change by focusing on resource efficiency including recycling and tackling the amount of waste – something that is relevant to the mining sector too.

Considering these pressures, on a global level, governments of over 60 countries came together and formed an Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF) in 2002 to ensure that the mining sector focuses on sustainable development, negative impacts are limited and benefits are shared by all.

India’s resource efficiency plans also focus on sustainable mining practices

On the national level, India too has realised the importance of addressing sustainability in mining. Beyond the SDF for the Indian mining sector in 2011, the recent policy measures proposed or adopted by the government of India focus on this too.

For instance, the National Mineral Policy 2019 emphasised that environmental, economic and social considerations must be taken into account as early as possible in the decision-making process so that mining is financially viable, socially responsible, environmentally, technically and scientifically sound, uses mineral resources optimally and ensures sustainable post-closure land uses.

Unregulated mining often leads to damage to the environment and violation of the rights of communities. Photo by Environmental Change and Security Program/Flickr.

“The government shall set a benchmark against which all mining operations may be evaluated in terms of their comparative performance on sustainable development framework and enforce commitment on part of the mining companies to adopt sustainable development practices for achieving environmental and social goals,” said the policy.

Similarly, sustainable development of minerals is also an integral piece of India’s draft National Resource Efficiency Policy, 2019. It noted that “while the attainment of all the SDGs requires to a large extent the sustainable management and use of earth’s natural resource base, no fewer than 12 of the goals refer directly to resources and the environment as fundamental to their achievement” and the SDG Goal 12 (Sustainable Consumption and Production) predominantly rely on the principle of resource efficiency.  

The draft policy said that resource efficiency has enormous potential for cost savings from reduced material use, reduction in social conflicts due to mining, increased job opportunities, reduction in climate change and environmental degradation. It noted that it could lead to a reduction in conflicts and displacement due to mining, lead to job creation in recycling sectors, preserve resources for future generations, reduce ecological degradation and pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, avoid industrial and solid waste generation and provide opportunities for the restoration of water bodies.

Regarding the extraction of non-metallic minerals, it observed that their use has notably grown. In 2010, such minerals constituted 38 percent of the total material consumption of five billion tonnes, and the same is projected to rise to 6.5 billion tonnes in 2030 and mining for them and wastes in the value chain poses socio-environmental challenges. Similarly, for metals, it said the demand is projected to be 0.8 billion tonnes in 2030.

Even India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) submitted to the UN in 2015 focused on clean coal, renewable power and resource efficiency to usher in sustainability.  

At the heart of all the documents that address sustainable development in the mining sector is the idea that the mining activities will be in conformity with environmental and forest laws, including waste management rules. However, ironically, the problems currently caused by mining − displacement, health issues, land conflicts, social inequality and poverty etc. that the government plans to address by incorporating sustainability in the mining sector – are in fact a result of years of unchecked mining activities.

Read more: Recycle & reuse: Indian government proposes a resource efficiency policy 

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Mining sector ills continues

Despite a series of policies and plans to integrate the idea of sustainability in the mining sector, the progress has been tardy. The land conflicts due to mining, on average, affects over 21,000 people which is nearly double the number of people impacted by land conflicts due to other issues.

Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Sambalpur Sumita Sindhi explained that regulations to protect the environment and ensure the rights of communities involved have had a very little impact on the ground when it comes to the mining sector.

“There is no doubt that overall improvement in the lives of communities and environment (like tackling land degradation) is an integral part of the sustainable development goals … the intent is very good but the actual performance on these parameters has been dismal. For instance, studies that I did showed a poor impact on the lives of women. Women were not getting equal pay even if they were doing the same amount of work in mines, sex work in mining areas increase and they faced increased instances of violence with their husbands spending more on liquor due to higher earnings from mines,” Sindhi told Mongabay-India.

Even though there are guidelines for sustainable sand mining, illegal extraction of sand continues unabated. Photo by Arayilpdas/Wikimedia Commons.

She further said that in many cases women had to cover longer distances to procure forest produce or for water which speaks poorly about the transition that came into their lives due to mining.

“What is needed is a stricter implementation of rules to ensure justice for communities and environment otherwise the problems will remain as it is despite a plethora of laws. I also believe the environmental aspects of mining, including water issues, needs to be urgently looked at. This is also important from the perspective of climate change in the context of mining’s impact on land degradation, forests and water bodies,” she said.

Vijay Kumar emphasised that the idea behind involving representatives of communities while deciding how money from mining would be spent for the welfare of people was to ensure their say in the process. “But this has not happened as envisaged. The reason is that implementation of rules remains mechanical, there is not enough capacity of the planning and executing machinery and that there is not enough transparency and accountability,” Kumar said.


Banner image: Involvement of communities is integral to sustainable mining practices. Photo by Environmental Change and Security Program/Flickr.

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