Dark side of mining

Published : May 18, 2007 00:00 IST

The reality of Orissa's iron ore mines, where the promise of prosperity is just empty rhetoric.


AS the shadows lengthen on Keonjhar's main street, the tube-lit sign above Hotel Arjun flickers to life, illuminating both the entrance to the hotel and the cigarette seller next to it. A traffic policeman walks up to the crossing right outside the hotel and assumes his position at what is the most significant crossing in town.

Fifteen kilometres down the road, the ground shivers as a queue of trucks, over a kilometre long, shudders to life. Engine after engine revs up as several hundred trucks begin the next stage of their 325-km journey from the iron-rich Keonjhar district in north Orissa to Paradip port on the east coast. This has been the practice ever since the District Magistrate issued orders prohibiting truck movement between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Further up, the highway narrows into the first of many bottlenecks, and branches off, capillary-like, into un-metalled paths that lead into the heart of the district's iron ore mines.

Across the Baitarani river, in Joda, Barbil, Deojhar and Thakurani, the low mountains are illuminated by high-powered halogens, as work continues at a relentless pace in the mines - visible as raw, red gashes on the otherwise thickly forested mountainside.

The source of an estimated 35 per cent of India's total reserves of haematite, Orissa produced more than 46 million tonnes of iron ore in 2004-05, of which three quarters came from Keonjhar. Almost all of it was, and still is, carted away in nearly 30,000 trucks from the 119 mines that dot the district.

The trucks move north from Joda, to the Jharkhand border where they supply ore to Jharkhand's rapidly expanding steel industry, and northwest to Haldia port. But the majority move south through Keonjhar town towards Cuttack and cut through to Paradip port, from where the ore is shipped in containers to one of the few countries that have a bigger appetite for steel than India - China.

Initially seen as the engine of an independent India - the first "swadeshi" steel mill was completed in 1920 by the Tata Iron and Steel Company at Jamshedpur in present-day Jharkhand just across the border with Orissa - it was cast into the shadows by the shining "new economy" of the 1990s.

A five-year rally in international prices has seen the iron and steel sector make a strong return on the business pages of newspapers.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pointed out in his keynote address at the India Steel Summit 2007: "In the last five years, the production and consumption of steel has grown at rates exceeding 9 per cent per annum. The pace of growth has further accelerated in the current year to over 10 per cent."

The recently formulated national steel policy has set the production target for 2020 at 110 million tonnes of steel, and a doubling of the present capacity from around 40 million tonnes to 80 million tonnes by 2012.

A buoyant national economy and a booming construction sector are expected to add to the optimism in the steel sector, and nowhere is this felt more than in the office of Padmanabha Behera, Orissa's Minister of Steel and Mines and Planning and Coordination. "We have signed 45 MoUs [Memoranda of Understanding] till date," he told this correspondent, "and production has already started in 23."

The Minister foresees a resurgent Orissa, propelled forward by his party's mantra of "progress through industrialisation". Behera believes that Orissa's future lies in using its vast mineral wealth to generate employment and, of course, create wealth. However, not everyone in the State shares this vision.

To understand Orissa's trucks is to understand how privilege and corruption operate along dense, intricate networks where the legal and the illegal often overlap, making it impossible to make a concrete accusation. After all, what is an illegal mine? How can it be identified?

"It is hereby declared that it is expedient in the public interest that the Union should take under its control the regulation of mines and the development of minerals to the extent hereinafter provided," states the preamble to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, one of a raft of laws and bylaws passed to govern the mining sector.

First enacted in 1957, and amended almost every four years up to 1999, the MMDR Act serves as the central axis on which mining law is framed. The Act classifies minerals into "minor" and "major" lists, lays down procedures for the granting of reconnaissance permits, prospecting licences and mining leases, and classifies violations and encroachments. While States have complete control over all minor minerals such as clay, gravel, sand and building stones, major minerals such as iron ore come under the purview of the Central government. For such minerals, Central permission is required prior to the granting of licence.

Apart from the MMDR Act, mining is subject to The Mines Act of 1952, the National Mineral Policy (amended in 1994), and a slew of laws concerning land acquisition and environmental assessment.

Acquiring a mining lease for a major mineral like iron ore or coal for a particular area is relatively easy now. The process has been simplified over the last 10 years, a development that has coincided with the liberalisation of the mining sector. Mining leases are granted on a `first-come, first-serve' basis, and the foreign direct investment (FDI) policy of 1999 allows for "up to 100 per cent foreign direct investment" in the mining and processing of minerals other than diamond, precious stones and atomic minerals. Thus, mining occupies a unique governmental space that is simultaneously highly legislated yet remarkably free of constraints for mine operators.

Under the laws governing mining, mines could be declared "illegal" on a number of grounds, the most obvious being that of mining in an area without applying for a lease. However, the pressure of rapid industrialisation has forced State governments to curb such practices.

"No illegal mining is possible without political patronage," says a senior officer in the Directorate of Mines, "and local politicians have realised that the land occupied by illegal miners can just as easily be handed over to giant corporations for similar favours." This is not to say that outright capture of areas for mining has stopped entirely in the iron belt. The most common examples of illegal mining occur on the boundary of legality, where the violator can claim a degree of innocence on the basis of ignorance of the law.

The most common form of illegality is to continue mining long after the lease has expired. A document obtained from the Directorate of Mines under the Right to Information Act provides a complete list of mining leases in Keonjhar. According to the Directorate's own figures, dated December 31, 2005, as many as 52 out of 119 mines, or more than 40 per cent of all mines in Keonjhar district covering 52 per cent of leased area, operate illegally on expired licences. Of these 52 mines, 10 belong to the Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC), a government-owned enterprise, and operate on 7,051 hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres) or a fifth of the total area under mining in the district.

Many in the industry argue that the issue of expired licences is not an indication of corruption per se as the government has been dragging its feet for years over their renewal. The failure to renew leases, particularly those held by a State-owned corporation, seems inexplicable until one unpacks the terms of the mining lease.

As pointed out by Ritwick Dutta in a compilation titled "Undermining India", the renewal of mining leases in forested areas has been the subject of much litigation since the enactment of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. Given that most mines, including those in Keonjhar, fall within the purview of this Act, the key question was whether the renewal of a mining lease required fresh permission of the Central government. The Supreme Court, in successive judgments, particularly in State of Tamil Nadu vs Hind Stones in 1981 and Samatha vs State of Andhra Pradesh in 1997, has ruled that the renewal of a mining lease is actually the grant of a fresh lease. Thus, a good reason for mining companies and associated State officials to go slow on the renewal of leases could be that, theoretically, the company shall have to reapply at the time of renewal and would be subject to monitoring by the Central Pollution Control Board, the Ministry of Environment and Forests and a host of other agencies.

The Forest Conservation Act mandates that the Central government shall after careful examination of the proposal denotify forest land earmarked for mining and the mining company shall be subject to a series of restrictions to minimise the ecological footprint of the mine. It is also a useful tool to ensure that the mining companies stay within the areas allotted to them. Of course, the Forest Act, like any other Act, is only as good as its implementation.

Another document from the Directorate of Mines lists 40 mines in Keonjhar that are operating without clearance from the Forest Department; the OMC, once more, is one of the worst violators. District Forest Officer P.N. Karat says that as of February 2006 all such cases have been dealt with. However, this assessment is impossible to verify independently. In the absence of firm leases, many companies have been granted temporary licences, most of which are issued without guidelines or monitoring.

The absence of adequate monitoring is probably the most disturbing feature of the industry in Orissa. The highly technical language adopted by both the mining companies and the state effectively silences any local articulation of opposition by people directly affected by the projects. Thus, people's testimonies of a change in the colour of groundwater, an increase in the cases of asthma and respiratory conditions and a drop in the fertility of their fields are discounted in favour of Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) readings collected by the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) and the findings of groundwater studies conducted by the State Groundwater Board that pollution is present but is within the mandated safety limit.

Barbil, to cite just one example, is a small town in the heart of the mining belt where it is difficult to breathe freely even during the day when the trucks do not run. But a study obtained from the SPCB states that the SPM readings in Barbil are "only" 456 micrograms per cubic metre against a reference value of 500 micrograms per cubic metre for mining areas, and so is acceptable. However, the Central Pollution Control Board reference value for "residential and rural areas" - which villages outside the mines are - is 200 micrograms per cubic metre and for a reserve forest, which could be classified as a "sensitive area" under the SPCB guidelines, it is 100 micrograms per cubic metre. Thus, the same arbitrarily fixed "standards" used to declare mining areas "pollution free" can just as easily be used to declare them unfit for human habitation.

Similarly, the only way to verify if a mining area corresponds to the area mentioned in the mining lease is to either refer to detailed contour maps in the possession of the government (and hence unavailable to the general public) or physically plot the coordinates of the mine using a global positioning system (GPS), which no one in Orissa has access to. Such opacity on the part of all privilege-holders in the system makes its impossible to level definite accusations against any party. But, as in all camouflaged sites, in Orissa, too, the veil slips occasionally to offer a glimpse of the arrogance of mining corporations vis--vis the law.

The road to Deojhar, as with most roads to hell, is paved with the best of intentions. Ostensibly built to connect Deojhar village to the highway under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana Scheme, it has turned out to be a useful way to connect the mines to the national highway.

Few villagers use this road; there are too many trucks. Of late, the trucks plying on the Deojhar-NH 215 route have had to contend with more than just crater-size potholes - a fleet of bright orange earthmovers engaged in digging deep trenches along the road. These vehicles have been employed by the Jindal company, a consortium of companies with interests primarily in iron, steel and power, to supply water to their 2,000-hectare iron ore mine in the hills above Deojhar village.

"Jindal is laying a nine-kilometre pipeline to draw water from the Baitarani river," says Arjun Saraswat, deputy general manager of Sarda Mines Private Ltd., the company that possesses the lease for the Jindal land. "This water will be made available through the soon-to-be-completed Kanpur dam project." At the time of this article going to print, the digging was almost complete and pipes two feet (0.61 metre) in diameter had been laid along a stretch of 4.5 km.

But has Jindal acquired the necessary permissions for this pipeline?

"The Jindal company's demand for water has been approved `in principle'," says Harish Behera, Engineer-in-Chief (Water Resources) for Orissa. "But the technical parameters are to be worked out. No permission has been granted for any pipeline and, as of now, no project work has begun." Behera is responsible for the allocation of water resources for the entire State, but seems to be unaware that the pipeline work has not only begun but is nearing completion. When confronted with photographs on the project work taken by this correspondent, he said "the matter is currently under litigation".

What sort of litigation? For answers, one is directed to C.V. Prasad, Chief Engineer, Project Planning and Formulation, of the Orissa Water Department (Irrigation). Prasad is more forthcoming. "Jindal has been allotted 1,500 cubic metres of water an hour, drawn in a phased manner, from the Baitarani river project, but the project is still awaiting technical clearance. As of now, the construction is in violation of the law," he says. Prasad adds that his office has written to the company several times asking it to stop construction, most recently on January 16. "We were under the impression that construction had stopped."

Granting a project approval "in principle" is no indication of its merits or demerits; those are only evaluated in the technical approval stage when a detailed project report (DPR) is submitted. "In principle" approval only indicates that the company may go ahead and prepare a DPR. If Jindal's pipeline does not pass muster the company will be forced to remove it. In going ahead with the project, it believes, perhaps, that government approval is a foregone conclusion or that such approval is of little importance.

The Baitarani pipeline also begs another question. At present, where is Jindal drawing its water from? Deputy general manager Arjun Saraswat admits that Jindal is currently drawing water from borewells in their area, but is unwilling to quantify the volume of water drawn every day. "It is only used for domestic purposes," he says. However, officials at the SPCB office in Keonjhar reveal that Jindal uses a 10-kilolitre truck to carry out water sprinkling three times a day in the mining area, that is, 30,000 litres of water a day just for sprinkling.

Apart from this, the scale of the mining operation, with most of the permanent workers living in the mining area, suggests a reasonably high rate of water consumption even for domestic purposes. Even Jindal probably does not know how much water it uses because none of its tubewells is metered. However, one group of people has a fair idea.

Down the road from the mines, the residents of Deojhar have seen their streams dry up, the water table fall and the soil lose its fertility in the six years since Jindal began operations. "The very basis of village life has fallen apart since the project began," says Sridhar Nayak, a leader in Deojhar. The crops have died, there is no place to graze cattle, people cannot collect firewood in the project area and the handpumps yield foul, yellowish water. Nayak says the inevitable dust that any project breeds has severely affected the health of the residents, particularly the young, among whom the number of cases of lung congestion has increased.

When the project first began, protests were quelled by a combination of cajoling and coercion. A significant police presence was backed by promises of jobs, economic regeneration, security and "progress". Needless to say, none of it has materialised except, of course, the police, who regularly show up in impressive numbers to threaten `errant' residents.

The promise of prosperity - schools, hospitals, jobs - is usually the classic argument used to justify the well-documented horrors of mining. Minerals are a country's natural wealth, a gift from Mother Nature, a precious resource crucial to a nation's progress. The booming international market for metals has also cast mines and minerals as earners of valuable foreign exchange. It is hard to unpack the cold, hard logic of capital and corporations without sounding like a hopeless rural idealist. However, the people of Orissa are now asking who the beneficiaries of the mining sector really are. What if mining did not benefit the people it affected the worst?

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