Eavesdropping technology to check small-scale mineral robberies

India has greatly underestimated the problem of illegal mining, which damages the environment and causes loss of revenue

India has greatly underestimated the problem of illegal mining, which damages the environment and causes loss of revenue

With the increase in the pace of development, the demand for minor minerals such as sand and gravel has exceeded 60 million metric tons in India. This also makes it the second largest extractive industry on the planet after water. However, although laws and monitoring have been made strict on the mining of primary minerals as a result of the exposure of several related scams across the country, the fact remains that rampant and illegal mining of minor minerals continues unabated. In many cases, it is encountered removing gravel from agricultural lands or government fallows near major highways or construction projects because the contractor finds it easier and cheaper to do so, although estimates for such work include distance ( called “lead”) to transport such gravel from permitted quarries.

Issuance of regulation

Unlike major minerals, regulatory and administrative powers to formulate rules, prescribe royalty rates, mineral concessions, enforcement, etc. are entrusted exclusively to state governments.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notifications of 1994 and 2006 made environmental clearance mandatory for mining in areas greater than or equal to five hectares. However, the Supreme Court of India after taking cognizance of a report by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on Environmental Aspects of Minor Mineral Mining (2010) directed all state governments to make necessary changes in the minor minerals regulatory framework, requiring an environmental permit for mining in areas smaller than five hectares. As a result, the EIA was amended in 2016, making environmental clearance mandatory for mining in areas smaller than five hectares, including minor minerals. The amendment also envisages the creation of a Regional Environmental Impact Assessment Authority (EIA) and a Regional Expert Assessment Committee (EIA).

However, a state-wise review of the EAC and EIAA in key industrial states like Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu shows that these bodies review over 50 project proposals per day and the rejection rate at the state level was only 1%. This raises a pertinent question whether the introduction of permits alone can help eliminate irregularities in the illegal mining of minor minerals? The situation now shows that the problem is even more complex and widespread, and that a robust technological approach is needed for implementation.

The problem of illegal mining of secondary minerals is often underestimated, thus emphasizing the undesirable consequences for the environment. There are numerous cases of illegal mining of dolomite, marble and sand in the states. For example, 28.92 lakh metric tonnes of limestone was illegally quarried in Konanki limestone quarries in Andhra Pradesh alone. However, the relentless pace of sand mining raises serious concerns.

Observations by agencies

The United Nations Environment Program in 2019 ranked India and China as the top two countries where illegal sand mining has led to widespread environmental degradation. However, no comprehensive assessment is available to estimate the scale of sand mining in India. However, regional studies, such as those by the Center for Science and Environment on the Yamuna Riverbed in Uttar Pradesh, note that the increasing demand for soil has severely affected soil formation and soil-holding capacity of the land, leading to loss of marine life, increasing the frequency of floods, droughts, and deteriorating water quality. Such effects can also be seen in the basins of Godavari, Narmada and Mahanadi. As pointed out in a study of the Narmada basin, sand mining has reduced the Mahseer fish population by 76% between 1963 and 2015.

This is not just environmental damage. Illegal mining causes great damage to the state treasury. According to an estimate, UP loses 70% revenue from mining activities as only 30% area is mined legally. Similarly, lack of royalty caused a loss of ₹700 crore in Bihar, while non-payment of various dues due to unregulated mining resulted in a loss of ₹100 crore to Karnataka and ₹600 crore to Madhya Pradesh in 2016-17.

Court Orders, State Response

Court orders are often ignored by state governments. For example, as per the National Green Tribunal (NGT) Monitoring Committee report, Uttar Pradesh (where illegal sand mining has created a serious hazard) has either not implemented or only partially implemented the orders issued regarding compensation for illegal sand mining. Such low compliance can also be seen in states like West Bengal, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.

A country-wide review of the reasons behind non-compliance suggests poor governance due to weak institutions, lack of state resources to ensure enforcement, poorly drafted regulatory provisions, inadequate monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, and excessive litigation that reduce state administrative capacity.

Protecting minor minerals requires investment in measuring production and consumption, as well as monitoring and planning tools. For this purpose, technology must be used to provide a sustainable solution.

The power of technology

Satellite imagery can be used to monitor the volume of mining and also to verify the mining process. Even for past violations, the NGT and administrative authorities can get satellite images for the last 10 to 15 years and irrefutably show how small mounds of dirt, gravel or small stone dunes have disappeared in an area. Recently, the NGT directed some states to use satellite imagery to monitor the volume of mining and transportation of sand from riverbeds. Well-planned implementation of these guidelines has increased minor mineral mining revenue in all these states.

In addition, drones, Internet of Things (IoT), and blockchain technology can be used to monitor mechanisms by using global positioning system, radar, and radio frequency (RF) locator. State governments like Gujarat and judicial authorities like the Madras High Court have used some of these technologies to check illegal sand mining.

Amar Patnaik is a member of the Rajya Sabha from Odisha. A former bureaucrat and academician of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), he now practices law. Opinions expressed are personal

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