States as much to blame for ‘excessive’ mining
Given that iron ore output fell 40% and exports 85% between FY11 and FY14, roughly the time the ban on iron ore mining was in place in Karnataka and Goa, the lifting of the bans has brought about a palpable sense of relief—for standalone steel mills, large exporters, as well as India’s current account deficit which was hit not just by less ore exports, but had to bear the brunt of more steel scrap imports. How long it will take to get back to normal, though, is unclear. It has been over a year since the Supreme Court lifted the Karnataka ban and allowed up to 30 million tonnes of production, but the output has barely touched 19 million. In the case of Goa, the SC has put a cap of 20 million, but all licences have to be issued afresh and the state has to come up with a transparent procedure for doing this—given this could be open to challenge, it could take months. And in Orissa, though no ban has been imposed, even reputed firms like Tata Steel are in the dock for alleged over production in their captive mines—of the R58,000 crore of penalties imposed on miners in the state, around R12,500 crore pertain to just Tata Steel.
There has, undoubtedly, been rampant illegal mining as well as flouting of environment norms by private firms but, as the SC ruling in the Goa case brings out, the authorities were not keeping records of either the amounts mined or even violations in pollution norms. Indeed, the lackadaisical attitude of the authorities—and the fact that mining licences fall under both the Centre and the states’ remit—added to the problem. In Goa, for instance, mining leases were hardly ever renewed, or rejected—that’s why they were called ‘deemed licences’. In Orissa, similarly, plans for increased production were never regularised, so what looks like massive over-production may actually be the relevant authorities just not regularising applications for increasing production—all of which meant that when the mess was discovered, it had reached gargantuan proportions. There was, similarly, no scientific study of the ‘carrying capacity’ of a state—in the case of Goa, one has been ordered by the SC now.
Whoever was to blame, states have to use this opportunity to clean up their act. For one, clearances should be put online, so that all concerned—including civil society watchdogs—know what is happening. Clearances have to be time-bound—in several cases, especially in Orissa, while the states had renewed the mining permit, the environment clearances not being given in time meant the production was considered illegal. And wherever possible, as in Goa now, licences should be auctioned out in a transparent manner. It is also worth keeping in mind that, by and large, professional mining firms—often global giants—tend to have a far better track record on environmental protection than the small firms who have often got licences to mine in states like Goa and Karnataka. Keeping the size of the mine small—in the name of equity, to ensure more licences are issued—similarly, is asking for trouble as a certain minimum size is required for proper environment management programmes.