India’s Mining Sector Sustainability Ambitions

Published on:
by Jithin Joshey Kulatharayil
Image of mining trucks at India coal mine

The South Asian giant is one of the largest economies in the world and is only continuing to grow. India has already set its ambitious goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2070, which displays the nation’s commitment towards the world and its people and, while it will necessarily involve significant challenges in steep emissions cuts, has been lauded by the scientific community as a bold step. 

In response to the climate crisis, India has developed  sustainable goals in almost all its industries: minerals, automobiles, textiles, generic drugs, chemicals, steel, IT, aerospace, leather, and construction, among others. The mining sector in particular plays a crucial role in overall economic development as mining company operations are not just confined to one region, they are active across the length and breadth of the country. However, as the population continues to grow, India’s non-renewable mineral resources will deplete, causing further economic strain. 

So, it is significant that the nation’s mining sector must be managed sustainably, considering people, the environment, and the planet. 

Sustainability in the mining industry

India’s massive mining industry can work towards sustainability just like any other sector. Specifically, this means reducing environmental impact on local ecosystems and biological diversity through effective management of mining and resource use, while also ensuring local communities are not adversely affected, either socially or economically, by the operations. 

Mining operations become sustainable when environmental and social goals are given top priority, incorporating responsible mining practices, improving the health and well-being of workers, prioritising the needs of local people, and increasing the overall efficiency of day-to-day processes.

Following are some of the practices that the mining industry can adopt to promote sustainable pathways:

  • Encouraging biodiversity conservation

  • Using renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power

  • Workers safety and well-being, protective equipment with more safety features

  • Engaging with local communities and listening to them with due consideration

  • Carrying out awareness programmes for locals, and ideally by locals, to encourage sustainable practices within the area

  • Addressing concerns regarding health and medical aid. For example, people in the Vindhyan region of Uttar Pradesh are adversely affected as a result of mining operations.

Every mining company in India has a responsibility to promote sustainable thinking in the industry. The country's coal reserves alone are the world's fourth largest, while the ore and metals extraction sector are massive and growing. A more active participation with governments and local people will help them achieve social and economic goals. Indian public sector companies such as SAIL, ONGC, and CIL are pioneers in promoting sustainable mining in the country. Featured Article: How ESG Is Crucial To Saving The Mining Industry

Mining company sustainability

Mining has always been controversial in this country. Although the Indian government has taken several steps to bring sustainability to the mining operation, the road ahead is still long, and several challenges need to be dealt with. 

The Government of India needs to take stern measures in terms of regulating the mining sector and owing to a lack of regulation and enforcement of laws, many mining companies such as Sesa Goa, Timblos, Salgaonkar and Chowgules are exploiting the environment and the local communities at large. Red tape is another hurdle the country faces that prevents any such regulation from becoming law.

Adding to the continuous misery is the existence of mining activities in ecologically sensitive areas such as wetlands and forests in the Aravalli hills, the Western Ghats, the Eastern Ghats and Deccan Plateau. This will destroy the natural habitat and lead to soil erosion, biodiversity loss, water pollution, and other issues. 

Even with all of these problems, there have been efforts to make mining in India more sustainable. The government has put in place rules to stop illegal mining, and there have been efforts to make mining more eco-friendly, such as using renewable energy sources and better technologies.

However, there is still a long way to go to ensure that mining operations in India are sustainable. Illegal mining needs to be stopped, so there should be stricter rules and better ways to enforce them.

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Illegal mining in India

India’s mineral-rich states, including Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh, are at the forefront of mining operations in the Deccan Plateau. The size of mining in these states is much larger compared to other states where mineral resources are scarce.

Illegal miners take advantage of the sheer size of the majority of these states, sometimes with the assistance of local governments, under political patronage, and with the assurance of impunity that comes from knowing someone who has influence in politics.

Illegal mining is still rampant in multiple locations in the country. Some of the examples include Pandala Hills near Gairatpur Bas village, the Aravalli area near Tikli village, Tauru police station in Tauru Block, Palla village in Nuh Block, and Baghola village in Ferozepur Jhirka block. 

Excavation with machinery and tractor marks was observed in the Aravallis near Jalalpur Sohna village. Additionally, 1,980 metric tonnes of ordinary clay were extracted near Kotla Khandewla village near the Manesar police lines complex without the required permission from the Mining Department. 

The Mining Department also extracted 15,750 metric tonnes of ordinary clay without a short-term permit (STP) in the Tauru block, near Bissar Akbarpur. Lastly, illegal mining of 3,240 metric tonnes of stone occurred in Ferozepur Jhirka block, near Hirwari Bamatheri village. 

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What happened after these instances of illegal mining? 

The Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement submitted a petition, and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) established a joint committee to look into it in 2022. The committee has to determine whether any illegal mining has taken place in the area and whether such mining has occurred before or after prohibition orders. It was also directed to assess the amount of mining that had occurred and to find out the environmental and financial costs of such mining on the surrounding ecosystem.

Typically, these committees will come up with a sound plan to stop the threat under the direction of experts from various environmental fields and high-ranking officials, but many people frequently ignore it for their own advantages and profits.

An effective solution to the problem requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders with the utmost sincerity and honesty. This includes the government, law enforcement agencies, mining companies, civil society organisations, and local communities.  

Indian environmental legislation

The Indian government has several environmental laws and rules to help the mining industry grow sustainably. Following are some of the mining regulations in India:

The Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act of 1957 regulates mines and minerals and emphasises the conservation of mineral resources.

The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974 prevents the movement of pollutants and other toxic chemicals into water bodies.

According to the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, the central government must approve any use of forest land for purposes other than forestry, such as mining. 

The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981 has a set of standards that require mining companies to ask permission from the state pollution control board. The main objective of this act is to control the emission of air pollutants.

The Environment (Protection) Act of 1986 tells companies to follow environmental rules and get permission from pollution control boards. 

The Sustainable Development Framework for Mining, which came out in 2016, gives guidelines for how to mine sustainably. Mining companies are also required to use these guidelines.

The National Mineral Policy for 2019 also wants to encourage mining methods that are good for the environment through the use of new technologies and involving local communities in making decisions. 

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Looking ahead 

Mining forms 10-11 percent to the country’s economy, and this is a critical moment for the nation to decide its future. The double challenge India needs to encounter is both to safeguard its economy and embrace sustainable mining practices.

The legislation above, if properly executed, will go far to promote sustainable mining operations. However, the lackadaisical approach of various forms of government in the country, when it comes to environment and protection, and providing justice to the exploited, is still an issue that needs to be addressed objectively.

India is a technological hub for sure. If it leverages its cutting edge technology such as artificial intelligence, robotics and automation, it will help enhance efficiency, reduce wastage, improve safety and well-being of workers, as well as address the growing burden of climate change. 

The country’s mining sector faces many problems such as social issues, environmental damage, health and safety risks. These problems can only be dealt with if there are stringent regulatory frameworks put in place. Not just that, the mining companies need to develop a sense of belonging and responsibility for the country’s sustainability, to limit the effects that exploration and extraction may have on the many species, plants, and other organisms that have a right to thrive, not to mention humans. 

Land development can be beneficial, yes, but not at the expense of the riches already within our ecosystems that constitute our natural history. 

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