- Mining is often accused of being unfair to environmental concerns but to change that an expert forest panel of the Indian government’s environment ministry wants to explore if there is a possibility of co-development of mining and ecology.
- The panel in March 2021 recommended an in-principle approval to a mining project in Odisha and suggested a pilot project to explore a model using the degraded forests, within the mining lease, for raising short rotation forestry crops so that ecological services can continue.
- The panel also asked the mining company to remove the encroachment from the forest area involved in the mining area. But experts working on forest issues said this can lead to the violation of the Forest Rights Act 2006.
As an experiment to see if there is a chance for co-development of “mining and ecology”, the expert forest panel of the Indian government’s environment ministry has asked a mining company in Odisha to use short rotation crops in a mining lease area on the degraded forest land so that “ecological services continue to flow.”
The decision by the Forest Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) came during its meeting on March 24, 2021. The panel was hearing the request of Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) regarding the non-forestry use of 1,243.27 hectares of forest land for Dubna-Sakradihi iron and manganese ore mines in the Keonjhar region of Odisha. Of the total forest area required for the mining project, 957 hectares are moderately dense forest while 175 hectares is open forest.
It was considered earlier by the forest panel in January 2020 when the Committee had deferred the proposal seeking certain clarifications from the Odisha government which was finally sent in February 2021.
The Committee “after thorough deliberation and discussion with the nodal officer of Odisha” and others recommended, “the proposal for in-principle approval” for the project with several conditions.
It stipulated that the encroachment over the forest land in the proposed area shall be removed by the state government and it shall be ensured that “rehabilitation of evicted encroachers does not take place on forest land.”
The expert forest panel observed that the user agency (OMC) “does not propose to subject the whole lease area to mining/ancillary use in one go in the beginning of the proposed lease period.”
“Some areas may be worked 10/20 years after the commencement of leases, and such areas could be productively used for growing short rotation forestry crops in such interim period. If so, the life cycle ecological cost of the mining project would reduce considerably, besides financial benefits to the leaseholders,” said the panel in the minutes of the meeting.
The FAC directed that the Odisha government shall, therefore “initiate a pilot study, at the cost of user agency, through an institute of national repute like ICFRE (Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, IIFM (Indian Institute of Forest Management), which can explore a model of use of the degraded forests within the mining lease for more productive biological uses (raising short rotation forestry crops).”
It noted that these short rotation crops for intermittent periods during the “currency of mining lease period in a way that the ecological services continue to flow in an augmented manner and at the same time mining activities are not adversely affected.”
Some of the ecological services that these rotation forestry crops could provide are biodiversity conservation, carbon storage, provision of clean drinking water and other non-timber goods.
The forest panel was of the view that such a model should enable the mining company to raise additional revenue from the lease area and, “if successful, such models could be replicated elsewhere also for co-development of mining and ecology.
Can a model of co-development of mining and ecology work?
Over the last few years, issues such as the condition of a mining area and the mining project’s impact on the environment and people affected by those mining activities have gained the attention of policymakers as well as experts. The debate now is increasingly about ensuring that the transition which the environment and the affected communities undergo due to mining activities is “just” rather than taking away their rights.
Though the project is not part of an elephant corridor, according to the information given by a local forest official of Odisha and the project area does not fall within any elephant reserve of Odisha, the proposed Karo-Karampada elephant corridor is at an aerial distance of 19.48 kilometres from the mining lease area.
A wildlife conservation plan at a cost of Rs. 121.8 million has also been approved to address the impact of the mining activities in the project as well as the buffer area.
Odisha-based Tushar Dash, an independent researcher on forest rights, told Mongabay-India that “it’s interesting to note that the FAC proposes removal of encroachment from the forest land in the lease areas without asking to ensure compliance of the Forest Rights Act.”
“This can create confusion at the ground level and lead to eviction and violation of forest rights. What would co-development of mining and ecology mean if there is no mechanism to ensure compliance of the FRA?” he questioned.
Dash said: “What would co-development mean if leasing forest areas has been made easy through the amendments in the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act (MMDR Act)? Which allows deemed clearance for new leases for two years without ensuring compliance with environmental laws.”
Mining – whether coal or any other mineral – has been a focus area of the central government over the past few years to strengthen India’s economy. The focus on increasing mining activities and reforming the sector only increased after the economy took a severe blow due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The government has meanwhile said that the mining sector, especially coal, is going to be an important contributor to India, nearly doubling the size of its economy and becoming a five trillion dollar economy. The government has also said that mining sector amendments are crucial to India’s efforts in reviving the economy post-Covid-19.
Changes in mining laws while ignoring the cost to communities and the environment
Over the past few months, the government started the process and had even proposed a series of amendments. But it was severely criticised by civil society experts and leaders of mining-affected communities for carrying out this consultation process during the middle of the pandemic.
Some of the things that were proposed in the amendments of the MMDR Act were the removal of the restriction on end-use of minerals, easing of rules for the sale of minerals by captive mines, empowering the central government to auction mines of states in certain cases, easing the process for the transfer of statutory clearances, providing a way for the extension of leases to government companies, conditions for lapse of mining lease, and non-exclusive reconnaissance permit.
On 15 March 2021, the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2021 was introduced in the parliament and then within the next week, both the houses of the Indian parliament passed the amendments even as there were objections to its provisions.
According to a note by the PRS legislative research, the amendment passed provides that a mining lease will lapse if the lessee is not able to start mining operations within two years of the grant of a lease, or has discontinued mining operations for a period of two years.
“However, the lease will not lapse at the end of this period if a concession is provided by the state government upon an application by the lessee,” it noted.
One of the main complaints of the mining-affected communities has been that the bill was passed without proper consultation with them.
The Mineral Inheritors Rights Association (MIRA), a network of civil society groups, had sent a letter to the union ministry of mines in February 2021 against the amendment stating that “these proposals are fundamentally flawed from a perspective of mineral conservation.”
“In economic terms, it is even not conducive for the best value capture and thus would be an injustice to our future generations” the letter had said.
Banner image: Coal production is an important part of Odisha’s mining activities. Photo by Rakesh Ranjan.