The Jharkhand government has rejected the Narendra Modi government’s proposal to change the definition of “illegal mining” under the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act, the main law governing mining in India. Chief Minister Hemant Soren also opposed the narrow window given to states to give their feedback to the proposed amendments to the existing law.

“The Ministry of Mines had given states only 10 days to respond to proposed amendments in Mines and Minerals Act 1957,” Soren said in a tweet. “These reforms could have a huge socio-economic impact in Jharkhand. We have responded to the [mines] ministry. We don’t agree to their proposed definition of illegal mining.”

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‘Illegal mining’ could soon become legal. Modi government gives just 10 days for public feedback

On August 24, the mines ministry released a notice summarising “proposed reforms” to the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act. One of the proposed interpretations to the law is to change the definition of “illegal mining”. The reform proposes to narrow down the ambit of the definition from the current extraction of minerals in violation of laws and regulations, to extraction done outside the mining lease area. The mining lease area is the defined area within which a company has been granted mining rights.

This means that under the new definition, any violation within the mining lease area – whether over-extraction of minerals beyond the mining plan or by flouting environmental and forest laws – will no longer be considered “illegal mining”. India’s mining law enables the government to recover 100% of the value of minerals extracted illegally, but the new definition will limit the scope of such recoveries from mining companies.

Initially the mines ministry notice invited comments and suggestions from the general public, states and Union Territories, industry and other stakeholders till September 3. This was later extended till September 10.

In a letter dated September 9, the Jharkhand government said this was still not enough time for states to carry out a scrutiny of fundamental questions about the policy. “As this is an important and sensitive subject, the recent amendments and proposed amendments in the MMDR Act 1957 can create a huge impact on the economy, jobs, industrial climate, protection of environment and various Constitutional obligations of the state and central governments,” the letter said.

It added that eastern states, particularly Jharkhand’s economy is majorly dependent on mining and related industries. “And so, any drastic change in the policy may create a huge impact on the existing industrial scenario and socio-economic development of people,” the government said.

On the proposed reinterpretation of the definition of “illegal mining”, Jharkhand said the Supreme Court has already given an “unambiguous and clear” judgement on this matter, adding that there shall be no change in the statutory provision to circumvent the top court’s order. “We do not agree to the proposed amendment and the existing provision shall continue,” the letter said.

In a 2017 judgment, the Supreme Court had directed that mining companies and leaseholders, if engaged in illegal mining, would have to pay compensation equivalent to 100% value of the illegally extracted minerals.

Meanwhile, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh also criticised the Centre and said the proposed amendments to the laws on mining were “truly atrocious”.

“In Mr. Modi’s ‘New India’, what was previously illegal will now be made legal,” he tweeted. “We saw this in the anti-democratic Draft EIA Notification 2020 as well. Now, violations within mining lease area will no longer be considered “illegal mining”....truly atrocious.”