Mining companies will be required to carry out re-grassing in the mined-out areas to make them suitable for the growth of flora and fauna once the mining activity is complete, as directed by the Indian government’s environment ministry.
The direction of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change came after a Supreme Court order earlier this month, on January 8. The decision has now become part of the conditions stipulated by the ministry while giving forest clearance.
Under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, the MoEFCC gives clearance for diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes like mining or infrastructure projects such as road or railways. While giving such clearances, the MoEFCC stipulates that the project proponent shall undertake mining in a phased manner and shall undertake concurrent as well as final reclamation of the mined over the area. The status of reclamation of mined-out areas is regularly monitored by ten regional offices of the environment ministry across India.
Supreme Court order
While hearing a case regarding “deleterious effect of mining on vegetation, after mining activities are over”, a bench led by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde noted that “an area which is mined results in a complete elimination of grass which in turn denies fodder to the herbivores.”
“The only solution can be re-grassing of such mined areas. It is not in dispute that re-grassing technology is available in this country. We see no reason why the area which has been mined should not be restored so that grass and other vegetations including trees can grow in the mining area for the benefits of animals,” said the bench.
“We are of the view that this can be achieved by directing the Union of India to impose a condition in the mining lease and a similar condition in the environmental clearance and the mining plan to the effect that the mining lease holders shall, after ceasing mining operations, undertake re-grassing the mining area and any other area which may have been disturbed due to their mining activities and restore the land to a condition which is fit for growth of fodder, flora, fauna,” said the SC, while directing the Central Government to do so within three weeks by the end of January.
The apex court of India also asked the Centre to devise appropriate methods to ensure compliance of this condition after the mining activity is over at the cost of the mining leaseholders. “This condition shall be in addition to those conditions which have already been imposed for achieving the same purpose under the mine closure plan. This condition shall not be imposed in derogation of any conditions which are already in force,” the SC order noted.
The order is of significance, given the large area under mining across the country. India produces over 80 minerals and less than 3% of India’s Gross Domestic Product comes from mining. To increase the country’s growth rate, there has been constant talk of increasing mining activities. In such a scenario, if there is an increase in mining activities, the proper closure of mines once the activity has ended and reclamation of land – carried out by activities like landscaping, soil improvement and re-vegetation of the mined land – will gain more significance.
For instance, according to official data from 2018-’19 regarding land restoration and reclamation of 52 opencast coal mines projects of Coal India Limited, the total mine leasehold area is 671.44 sq km. Of that, the total excavated area is 255.43 sq km and of that, 60.8 sq km – 23.8% – has been planted or biologically reclaimed, 99.99 sq km – 39.15% – is under backfilling or technical reclamation, and 94.64 sq km – 37.05% – is under active mining. CIL is an important player in mining as it accounts for over 80% of India’s total coal produced and is also considered the world’s single largest coal producer.
“Land reclamation has been part of the environment clearance process but this direction would certainly strengthen it. However, the implementation of these rules remains a problem. There are so many abandoned mines across the country. There is no central data about mines abandoned or land reclaimed after mining is over,” said environmental lawyer Rahul Choudhary.
A senior MoEFCC official said the latest step would strengthen the land reclamation process that is already followed in case of mined-out areas. “Now that re-grassing of mined-out areas has been made a stipulated condition, it would strengthen the land reclamation work that is carried out in mined-out areas,” said the MoEFCC official.
The National Mineral Policy 2019, which guides mining activities in India, also talks about the importance of land reclamation once mining is complete. It stressed that once the reserves in mine are completely exhausted there is a need for scientific mine closure, which will not only restore the ecology and regenerate biodiversity but also take into account the socio-economic aspects of such closure.
“Where mining activities have been spread over a few decades, mining communities get established and closure of the mine means not only loss of jobs for them but also disruption of community life. Mine closure should be done in an orderly and systematic manner. Government has a role in ensuring that post-production mine decommissioning and land reclamation are an integral part of the mine development process...and that consistent approaches are adopted for efficient and effective mine reclamation and rehabilitation,” said the policy.
Following the SC’s order, the MoEFCC on January 14 came out with an order to add this condition to standard conditions imposed in the approvals accorded under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. “The mining lease holder shall, after ceasing mining operations, undertake re-grassing the mining area and any other areas which may have been disturbed due their mining activities and restore the land to a condition which is fit for growth of fodder, flora, fauna, etc,” said the MoEFCC order sent to all state governments seeking compliance of it.
It has also been a regular complaint of environmentalists and activists that mined out areas are abandoned or re-greening activities are not carried out once the mining is over. “If you see a forest as merely a stand of trees, mining a forest might seem a simple matter of removing trees, taking minerals out, and perhaps, putting the trees back in. But if you see the forest for what it actually is – a complex web of ecological relationships – destroying what exists is incredibly costly, and replacing what is lost is nearly impossible,” said independent researcher MD Madhusudan.
“The ways in which a forest provides for a community are varied and complex. This cannot be reinstated simply by sticking trees back in the mud after ravaging a place. Proper ecological restoration is complex and arduous. While we are always happy to add stricter conditions to forest clearances when diverting forests, we almost never audit for compliance, or prosecute violations which are commonplace. I am not aware of any instance of systematic prosecution for violating conditions on which clearance was granted to them,” said Madhusudan.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.