- Mining is an important sector of the Indian economy and forms the backbone of several other industries as well. A mining project triggers developmental works in the mining areas and the vicinity but is also criticised for adverse impacts on local ecology and the communities involved.
- The mining industry is increasingly being asked to ensure that the transition in the lives of mining-affected people and the local environment is ‘just’. In this context, the concept of sustainable mining is also being pushed by many but there are not many active takers.
- The mining companies note that the process to ensure social and environmental justice is cumbersome as it involves a series of steps which sometimes can seem to be impossible and thus called for more active help from the authorities.
The mining industry is often under criticism for the toll its activities take on the communities living close to mines and the environment. But the mining sector, which has been integral to the Indian government’s plan to revive the economy, has its own share of concerns when it comes to ensuring that the transition of the mining areas is “just” for all the stakeholders involved.
In fact, amendments in the country’s mining laws have been at the top of the Indian government’s agenda over the past few years and it has brought a series of changes to ensure ease of doing business for the mining industry. The government has repeatedly emphasised that the mining sector, especially coal, is crucial in India’s plan of doubling the size of its economy and becoming a five trillion dollar economy by 2025.
One of the mining industry’s major complaints has been that the process to ensure mining is fair on the environment and communities involved, is “cumbersome” and the entire burden is on the companies.
Ramakrishna Chinnamsetty, project head of ArcelorMittal (India), said requirements related to environment and social components in a mining project are important but pointed to the difficulties with the overall process. ArcelorMittal is one of the world’s leading steel and mining companies, which is present in more than 60 countries.
“The process for getting the land for afforestation and the one related to rehabilitation and resettlement of the people is very cumbersome. Some of these issues take years. Another major challenge is the public hearing that is conducted for the projects as it involves getting the consensus of all stakeholders. All these issues together delay the projects by years. For industry, it takes a huge amount of effort and the government should play an active part in ensuring that this should become a smooth process,” Chinnamsetty told Mongabay-India.
Over the past few years, the concept of “just transitions” has emerged as a crucial component of discussions around mining and energy. The idea involves efforts to ensure that mining activities are not leading to harmful impact on the environment and the communities living in close vicinity of the mines. It also entails the energy industry moving to cleaner fuels from coal to renewable power.
Anil Chaudhary, who is the Chair, Minerals and Metals Committee, PHDCCI, an industry body, said, “These days companies are being assessed on ESG criteria i.e Environmental, Social, and Governance criteria.”
“The developed countries have moved beyond judging companies on only environmental sustainability but now issues like fair governance for all its stakeholders as also the society at large are also being given weightage. Even banks and investors are using ESG criteria to avoid companies that might pose a greater financial risk due to their environmental or other practices,” said Chaudhary, who is also the former chairman of state-run Steel Authority of India Limited.
Read more: The two faces of environmental regulation.
He noted that in India the mines are mostly in the tribal and backward areas, hence “courts and the government have put stringent norms on the mining sector.” He claimed that all public sector units are strictly following all laws and are going “overboard to carry out their social responsibility towards the local population and environment.”
“Mining companies, both public sector and private sector ones are using their CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds to provide medical facilities, drinking water, and education to kids of the local populace as also skill development programs to ensure Just Transition and fulfil their social responsibilities and be a corporate citizen,” he said.
In order to ensure a healthy transition of a mining area, restoring the area of the mines is an important requirement but the experience in India shows that once the mineral reserves are finished the mines are often abandoned or the reclamation work is not carried out properly even though that is a legal requirement. Even the courts in India have repeatedly stressed that greening of the closed mines is important for everyone involved whether the local environment, wildlife or the communities involved.
“In order to contribute to sustainable development, a mine must minimise environmental impacts throughout the mining life cycle from exploration, through construction and extraction to closure and reclamation. The principles of sustainability require mining lands to be returned for some other beneficial use once mining operations are finally over,” said PHDCCI’s Chaudhary.
He explained that local communities in mining areas often become dependent on mining companies directly providing or subsidising facilities and services such as schools, hospitals, community centres, sports facilities, roads, self-help activities etc. “Hence local communities and all other stakeholders must be proactively involved in the closure process so that their views and interests are reflected in the closure plan and benefits of mining are sustainable for future generations.”
Read more: India to explore if there can be co-development of mining and ecology
Sustainable mining: Reality or a mirage?
Sustainable mining – which deals with minimising land conflicts, reducing pollution, increasing efficiency, and reclamation of mined-out areas – is a concept often proposed as a solution to control the impact of mining on ecology and people. Additionally, civil society groups such as the Goa Foundation have also consistently called for implementing the concept of intergenerational equity – natural resources are to be shared with and hence secured for future generations – consistently for minerals across the planet stating that it is in line with the sustainable development goals and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The concept of sustainable mining also finds a mention in India’s National Mineral Policy 2019 which calls for studies to assess “state-wise/region-wise ceiling of annual excavation of minerals, considering the availability of mineral resources, the carrying capacity of the region, and the macro-environmental impact on the region while also keeping in mind the principles of sustainable development and intergenerational equity and all other relevant factors.”
The policy also states that environmental, economic and social considerations must be taken into account as early as possible in the decision-making process, to ensure “sustainable development in the mining sector which envisions mining as financially viable; socially responsible; environmentally, technically and scientifically sound; with a long term view of development; uses mineral resources optimally; and, ensures sustainable post-closure land uses.”
But not everyone in the mining industry is on the same page.
A September 2020 report Intergenerational Equity – a bygone concept by the Federation of the Indian Mineral Industries noted that this concept will “not only deprive the present and future generations of the fruits of resources utilisation but, by its very nature, is anti-development.”
“While on the one hand recyclability of metals and the abundance of resources make them infinitely finite, on the other, the so-called renewable resources i.e. fish, agricultural land and freshwater are under intense pressure and the threat of scarcity,” said the report as it emphasised that the concept has lost its relevance.
In fact, the report says that emerging evidence suggests that “through human ingenuity, technology in beneficiating yesterday’s waste, increased focus on recycling and circular economy, the world has been able to increase its mineral resource base multiple times despite growing production. Thus, there should not be any fear of scarcity of resources for humankind in the foreseeable future.”
India has significant resources of minerals and the mining sector is also an important segment of the Indian economy. It produces at least 87 minerals and the value of mineral production in India in 2015-16 was about Rs. 2.82 trillion (Rs 282,966 crores).
Read more: Despite an early vision for sustainability in mining, is India’s progress faltering?
Can clean energy push lead to “just transition”?
The transition from coal to clean energy like solar and wind power is considered a significant solution and over the years India has made rapid strides in the sector. In 2015, it had promised to achieve 175 GW of installed renewable power by 2022 and, at present, India has already achieved over 94 GW of installed renewable power.
Anil Chaudhary of PHDCCI said: “The government of India is aiming to achieve 227 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022, much ahead of its target 175 GW as per the Paris Agreement. A lot of new RE projects are also in the pipeline and will be commissioned soon.” He said he is confident that both mining and energy sectors are bringing about transitions that are “just” to the communities and the environment.
He, however, said there are two major challenges in India’s clean energy targets. “We are heavily dependent for components used for generating renewable energy like solar photovoltaic (PV) cells, panels and modules on imports majorly from China. It is only now that our government has taken some decisive steps for encouraging the manufacturing of these components in India which will show results in coming years,” Chaudhary said.
He also highlighted that as a result of the falling cost of solar power, many state governments are forcing renewable energy producers to “renegotiate earlier signed power purchase agreements which are making foreign as well as domestic investors jittery.”
Read more: As India plans clean energy transition, questions remain about impact
What is the way ahead for the Indian mining industry?
The Indian government’s emphasis on bringing reforms in the mining sector is sufficiently clear. The government, despite the controversy, has also amended the rules and laws to ensure the path is smooth for the industry.
The tribal communities and forest dwellers, living in and around mining reserves, and environmental groups have complained that the changes in the mining laws have been brought without involving them.
The government has also said that mining sector amendments are crucial to India’s efforts in reviving the economy post-Covid-19. Meanwhile, the mining industry maintains that they undertake a lot of work in the mining areas which triggers a lot of development in the area and thus they need government support.
K. Madhusudhana, who is vice president (mines), MSPL Limited, a company involved in iron ore mining for over 50 years and renewable power projects too, explained that the mining companies undertake a series of steps to ensure the safety of the environment and facilities to communities involved.
He recounted steps ranging from afforestation with native species, wildlife management, soil management, dump management, surface water management activities, and reclamation. “Every year, afforestation targets are taken up by mining companies which have improved the green cover of the local areas. It has also led to the improvement of flora & fauna. Exhausted mining pits are being used for natural water harvesting purposes and accumulated water is being used for mining requirements and for local cultivation purposes etc.”
Madhusudhana, who is also the vice president of the Mining Engineers Association of India, highlighted that the companies are providing drinking water facilities, school/education, road connectivity and maintenance, and a local dispensary for the local villages.
“Socioeconomic development of the area is seen due to direct employment provided by mining companies to the locals. Allied industries/activities are also developing in these areas which helps in creating more jobs and wealth,” he told Mongabay-India.
While ArcelorMittal’s Ramakrishna Chinnamsetty stated that a “mining company is mandated by law to comply with a series of environmental laws while pursuing a project.”
“We have to get an environmental impact analysis and environmental management plan to ensure all aspects are taken care of. But sometimes so many conditions are put on a project while granting clearance to a project whether it is related to water bodies, FRA or wildlife. The solution is that the governments where the projects are undertaken can share the responsibility as the project that is being developed is also going to contribute to the state’s economy and give work to the local people,” he said.
PHDCCI’s Anil Chaudhary also said that laws alone do not succeed in ensuring sustainable development in the mineral sector. “There has to be a genuine commitment to the principles of sustainability on the part of mining enterprises and also a realisation on their part that caring for environmental and social issues also makes for good business as it results in minimising social risks and its potential to adversely affect mining investments,” he said.
He advocated that the environmental behaviour of the mining companies “should go beyond mere compliance to the provisions of law.”
“By adopting new technologies like IoT (Internet of Things), AI (Artificial Intelligence), drones, satellite imagery; scientific management techniques; improving energy efficiency and water audit; using renewable energy and green hydrogen and constantly innovating, mining companies can overcome various environmental issues,” he said.
Banner image: Over the past year, the Indian government has amended rules and regulations related to mining to boost growth. Photo by CDE Global/Flickr.