Following in the footsteps of the coal ministry, which secured exemption from public hearings for capacity expansion of coal mines by up to 40%, the Union Ministry of Mines has now sought a similar exemption for non-coal mining projects.
Though it has not yet recommended such an exemption, an expert panel of the environment ministry has asked the mines ministry to justify the exemption, after which it will make a decision. However, the exemption, if given, is expected to be controversial as the one given to the coal ministry has already been facing a legal challenge. The issue was discussed during the June 12 meeting of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s Expert Appraisal Committee of non-coal mining projects.
The minutes of the Expert Appraisal Committee meeting noted that the Ministry of Mines has requested that “non-coal mining projects involving increase in production capacity up to 40% may also be exempted from the requirement of public hearing” subject to conditions deemed necessary.
In July 2017, another Expert Appraisal Committee, in a recommendation for coal mining projects, said, “exemption from public hearing while considering grant of environmental clearances to the expansion projects of coal mines, involving increase in production capacity up to 40% in two [to] three phases after the due diligence and subject to fulfilment of certain requirements.”
Following this, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in September 2017 approved the recommendation, allowing coal mine expansion up to 40% of capacity if there is no increase in area for the proposed expansion. It had also held that such an expansion can be allowed if “mineral transport is through conveyor system up to the silo and loading to railway wagons, and not by road.”
During the June 12 meeting, the MoEFCC briefed the expert panel that the same conditions on which such an exemption was allowed to the coal ministry may not be relevant to the non-coal mining projects. “Therefore, the ministry decided to refer the matter to the EAC non-coal mining sector for deliberation and recommendation of certain requirements which would be relevant and implementable in non-coal mining projects,” noted the minutes of the EAC’s June 12 meeting.
Public hearings are a requirement under the environment clearance process under which people of an area affected by any project, whether infrastructure or mining, put forward their concerns about a particular project. These hearings are attended by officials of the company doing the project as well as officials of the pollution control board of that state. The concerns raised in these hearings are then recorded and the expert committees of the environment ministry during their meetings could seek the project proponent’s reply to such concerns.
An exemption from public hearings for their existing projects would help industries speed up the process of expansion. However, the concern is that expansion of a project up to 40 percent is a substantial increase and doing away of the public hearing process in these cases could mean ecological concerns of locals may not be addressed.
According to the Ministry of Mines, India has huge resources of minerals and the mining sector is an important segment of the Indian economy. The country produces at least 87 minerals, which includes four fuel, 10 metallic, 47 non-metallic, three atomic and 23 minor minerals – including building and other materials. As per the official data, the value of mineral production in India has increased “spectacularly” in the last 60 years and in 2015-’16 is about Rs 2.82 trillion.
Flouting international commitments
Environmental lawyer Rahul Choudhary said the implications of a decision to omit public hearings for mining expansions would be significant considering the impact it would have on communities living around such mines and their livelihoods. It will also have impacts on forests and on the environment, including the increased pollution load. He stressed that there are many cases of mines not complying with conditions given in the environment clearance and expansion of 40% is a substantial increase.
“Public hearing was included in the environment impact assessment process keeping in mind the country’s international commitment. Now, if we take such a decision, it will mean backtracking on our international climate commitments. If we ignore and circumvent public participation in the process, then what kind of democracy are we even talking about,” Choudhary told Mongabay-India.
“Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided,” notes the Principle 10, adopted in 1992 as a part of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development to which India is a signatory.
Impact on ecology
In the June 12 meeting, the expert panel was briefed about the major differences in coal and non-coal mining, like mining areas for coal are mostly valleys while for non-coal minerals they are hillocks. It also highlighted that the majority of the non-coal mines are located away from the habitation and hence the impact of emissions on the habitation is lower compared to coal mines.
The expert panel considered the arguments and held that the proposals in the non-coal mining sector is unlike coal mining, “diverse in nature in respect of shallow deposits; deep-seated deposits; the magnitude of mining; major minerals, minor minors, strategic minerals, replenish deposits, etc.” It also noted that the coal mines are generally operated by the public sector units and big corporates, whereas the non-coal mines, the operators are of very wide range including government, PSUs and private, therefore the infrastructure and organisation structure available is unlike coal mining.
Given these factors, the Expert Appraisal Committee was of the view that it cannot discriminate the minerals but noted that public hearing is a major concern for any new or expansion activity and asked for a comprehensive proposal. It held that in case the ministry of mines submits a detailed proposal including justification the matter can be further deliberated.
It also noted that there were litigations filed before the Supreme Court on the one-time capacity permissions issued in the coal mining.
Himachal Pradesh-based independent environment researcher Meenakshi Kapoor said non-coal minerals are found in diverse areas across the country. “For instance, several strategic and rare minerals are found in coastal areas while others like bauxite are in forest areas. Similarly, unsustainable sand mining is seriously harming river ecology. It seems that the MoEFCC is just a clearance house now. First, it was the coal ministry and now the mines ministry wants this exemption for the entire mining sector. It is being forgotten that there is a 2009 advisory by the environment ministry to its expert appraisal committees that stated that the exemptions from the public hearing for expansion projects should be given judiciously and reasons be recorded. While reasons are recorded, good judgment is barely applied. This is simply bizarre,” Kapoor told Mongabay-India.
She emphasised that what needs to be understood is that there are serious impacts depending on the nature of mining projects. “For instance, look at Goa where excessive iron ore mining has triggered landslides and change in water drainage patterns in addition to extreme dust pollution. Moreover, such expansions, even if without any increase in pollution load [how will that be made possible is another matter!] and additional land takeover, cause a severe strain on existing natural resources and local ecology,” Kapoor said.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.