Make no mistake, India has a lot of mineral wealth in the ground. Iron, bauxite, gold, lead, zinc, manganese, coal and copper are some of the dozens of minerals found in almost half of its landmass. However, despite the recent heavy foreign investment into its thriving mining sector, a recent report by an Indian environmental non-profit points out that most of these valuable resources lie in areas that are either ecologically precarious or heavily populated with indigenous peoples — a cause for concern in light of the government's dismal record of neglect for its tribal communities.
New Delhi's Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) released their sixth State of India's Environment Report last month — titled "Rich Lands, Poor People — Is Sustainable Mining Possible?" — challenging the industry and government's stance that mining is good for growth and creates jobs. The report presents the state-by-state impacts of mining, highlighting the vast array of socio-environmental issues that India is facing due to lack of regulation and sound policy in its mining industry (preview here).Mining seen with "unrealistic assumptions"
In particular, the report tackles the recommendations for national mining policy earlier this year. Though the government proposal mentions applying a "sustainable framework" for future mining activities, it also forecasts a further boost in foreign investment and the introduction of cutting-edge technology, which the CSE report asserts does not reflect reality.
"Based on unrealistic assumptions, the policy fails to take into consideration the social and environmental problems happening due to mining. It is bound to promote large-scale exploitative mining and will, therefore, exacerbate conflict,'' says Sunita Narain, director of CSE.
Most of the mineral concentrations are in areas of the south, central and northeastern states of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand, areas that are home to a majority of India's 90 million tribal peoples. More than three quarters of the 2.6 million people displaced by mining from 1950 to 1991 have yet to be rehabilitated.
Effects of industry liberalization
Widespread troubles began when Indian mining policy was liberalized in 2000, followed by the 2006 decision to allow 100 percent direct investment by international companies, resulting in firms with questionable human rights and environmental reputations — such as De Beers, Broken Hill Property Co. and Rio Tinto — acquiring significant prospecting rights in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.
Despite all the apparent growth in the mining sector, the boom has only boosted national GDP a meager 2.5 percent, with government revenues much lower than expected.
Small-scale mines a "massive employer"
So why is there this discrepancy? According to the report, it is because of the proliferation of small, illegal mines, which are defined as being less than 5 hectares in size and do not require Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). According to the Indian Bureau of Mines, small-scale mines (SSMs) are also manual, open-cast mines that do not use explosives and employ less than 25.
Yet illegal SSMs account for a large part of the mining industry's "informal sector" — no official records exist on their numbers, but it's estimated that they make up to 11 percent of total revenues and could possibly number in the hundreds of thousands, employing anywhere from half a million to 12 million.
"Small scale mining is a massive employer, is highly productive and profitable. But it's also polluting, unsafe, disruptive, and in many cases, outside regulatory regimes," notes the CSE website.
In addition, rampant corruption, lack of regulations, safety standards, medical care, protective gear and appropriate technologies make small-scale mining a risky, if profitable, occupation. Workers often pay for their own food, fuel and water, and are on their own if they are injured. Typically, it is the most vulnerable groups of society who work in these mines: landless migrants, sometimes entire families. Women do a majority of menial jobs in the mines, while child labour is common (and well-documented).
Environmental and industry recommendations
To address the problem, CSE suggests clustering mines in order to regulate them. Worker cooperatives could also be one way to manage mines, allowing better working and living conditions, especially if less people are employed per mine. The pay in such cooperatives is much higher, there is job security, and profits are used for schools and health facilities.
Another necessary measure would to be modify India's Air and Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Acts, which only permit pollution control agencies to monitor only 'point' (ie. final) sources of pollution, which avoids most of the contamination caused by mining.
Narain said her group is seeking to "create a dialogue" between the various stakeholders of mining in India. "Our idea is not to polarize the discussion, but to integrate industry into it," she said.
::InterPress Service via Centre for Science and Environment
Related Links on Mining in India
"Rich Lands, Poor People — Is Sustainable Mining Possible?" (download a sample chapter or purchase report)
Photo Gallery (CSE)
End Child Labor in Indian Mines and Quarries (The South Asian)
World Day Against Child Labour 2005: Digging for survival - The harsh reality of child mining worldwide (UNI)
Gandhi, King, and Climate Change