India is yet to fully explore over 80% of its reserves of bauxite (an aluminium ore), notes a committee of the Parliament while emphasising that issues related to land acquisition, environment clearance and forest clearance are “major constraints” in the development of new bauxite mines. The committee asked the Union ministry of mines to ensure timely environment and forest clearances, land acquisition and consent to operate so that the industries do not face problems in developing these mines.

In its report presented in the Parliament on March 22, the standing committee on coal, mines and steel, led by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Rakesh Singh, noted that aluminium, while used in many sectors in industrialised counties, is limited primarily to the electric and electronic sectors in India. But multiple initiatives of the Indian government, such as 100% rural electrification, housing for all, smart cities, a national infrastructure pipeline, renewable energy and a scheme for electric vehicles will boost the consumption of the metal (aluminium) in the country.

In its report on the development of aluminium and copper industries in the country, the committee observed that only 17% (656 million tonnes) of bauxite is under “proven and probable” category while the remaining 3,240 million tonnes are yet to be fully explored. There are a total of 3,896 million tonnes of bauxite resources across the country.

The parliamentary panel asked the Union ministry of mines to “facilitate the development of more bauxite mines and ensure that the mining industry gets continuous support from the central /state governments and other supporting agencies”. It asked the government to apprise them of the steps taken “so that industries do not encounter any problem” on account of lack of clearances and acquisition issues.

High imports

According to the report, aluminium represents the second-largest metals market in the world after iron and steel. The total domestic production of aluminium metal during 2020-’21 stayed at about the same level of 3.61 million tonnes (nearly 5.5% of global production) as in 2019-’20. According to the Union ministry of mines, the total domestic consumption of aluminium “during the financial year 2020-’21 has decreased to 3.40 million tonnes as compared to 2019-’20 levels of 3.70 million tonnes”.

The import of aluminium, however, has remained “consistently high” as the panel noted that the total aluminium imports including scrap during 2020-’21 stood at 2.06 million tonnes compared to 2.15 million tonnes in the previous financial year.

India’s primary aluminium industry consists of three major players – National Aluminium Company Limited, Hindalco Industries and Vedanta Limited – that together have a total production capacity of about four million tonnes. The committee asked the government to make extra efforts for overall improvement in the sector to make India self-reliant for aluminium metal.

The ministry of mines, while talking about the challenges faced by domestic bauxite production companies, told the committee that the “first challenge” is that India has resources available but those resources “have not been converted to proven reserves”.

“So, here we require a lot of exploration activities,” the ministry told the committee. “The auction regime has started in the last five years. However, the auction has not been done by the state governments. So, this is another kind of challenge.”

Environmental costs

In its report, the committee notes that a “big opportunity for aluminium in the country shall be in the housing sector, in view of the growing emphasis on the protection of environment and curtailment of deforestation”.

This, however, is ironic, given that many rich deposits of bauxite are in forest areas and its mining impacts people living there. For instance, many ecologically sensitive areas, including the forests of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh have reserves of bauxite which the authorities have consistently tried to unearth despite resistance from the tribal communities. The tribal communities, in several cases, have expressed that they fear such projects would leave them homeless and impact their culture.

A bauxite mine in Dhanagarwadi in the Kolhapur district of Maharashtra. Photo credit: Subodh Kulkarni/ Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

One of the most famous cases regarding such resistance is from Odisha, related to Vedanta’s bauxite mining project at the foothills of Niyamgiri for its alumina refinery. In 2013, the Supreme Court of India gave the power to the gram sabhas (village council) to take a final decision and, in what is considered a milestone environmental case, the 12 villages that are inhabited by the Dongria Kondhs rejected the project.

In another case, a bauxite mining project threatened the Mahuadanr Wolf Sanctuary, which is India’s only protected area for wolves, located in the Chhattisgarh-Jharkhand border area.

Odisha-based Tushar Dash, an independent researcher on forest rights, said it is unfortunate that the panel is seeking faster clearance without even considering the statutory requirements of safeguarding the legal rights of tribal communities under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

“Mining operations in tribal areas have seen blatant violations of the Forest Rights Act and PESA [Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996] in recent years,” Dash told Mongabay-India. “Most of the mining operations run without complying with the Forest Rights Act and without the free prior informed consent of the gram sabhas – a statutory requirement that is often violated. All this has resulted in a massive change in land use in the tribal areas and violation of their rights.”

Many applications

The committee, meanwhile, emphasised that “aluminium is a recyclable and environment-friendly metal” which has a host of applications in diverse sectors such as “power, transportation building, construction, packaging”.

To improve higher per capita aluminium usage in India, the committee asked the Union ministry of mines to coordinate and collaborate with ministries of railways, defence, transport, power and civil aviation, to “vigorously identify and explore the areas where aluminium can replace other metals without compromising quality, strength and cost”.

It highlighted that the future growth prospects for aluminium in India are “seen in the aerospace sector, products like beverage cans, alloy wheels, automobile bodies and railway coaches”.

The Parliamentary panel also appreciated India’s target of doubling its mineral production in the next five years but noted that “urgent measures should be taken for early clearances on procedural, administrative, legal and environmental fronts for the uninterrupted development of the bauxite mines in the country”.

The committee lauded the mineral reforms undertaken by the central government to open up the mineral sector such as the Mines and Mineral (Development & Regulations) (Amendment) Act, 2021, and recommended that “greater transparency should be ensured in auction of mineral concessions with pre-embedded clearances … to achieve optimal utilisation of India’s mineral resources for rapid industrial growth and socio-economic development”.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.