With the increase in the pace of development, the demand for minor minerals such as sand and gravel has crossed 60 million metric tons in India. This also makes it the second largest extractive industry on the planet, after water. However, while laws and monitoring have been made stringent for the mining of major minerals consequent to the unearthing of several related scams across the country, the fact is that rampant and illegal mining of minor minerals continues unabated. In many instances, one comes across gravel being removed from agricultural lands or fallow lands of the government near major highways or construction projects, as the contractor finds it easier and cheaper to do so even though the estimates for such work include the distance (called ‘lead’) to transport such gravel from authorised quarries.
Issue of regulation
Unlike major minerals, the regulatory and administrative powers to frame rules, prescribe rates of royalty, mineral concessions, enforcement, etc. are entrusted exclusively to the State governments.
The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notifications of 1994 and 2006 made environmental clearance compulsory for mining in areas more than or equal to five hectares. However, the Supreme Court of India after taking cognisance of a report by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on Environmental Aspects of Quarrying of Minor Minerals (2010) directed all State governments to make the requisite changes in the regulatory framework of minor minerals, requiring environmental clearance for mining in areas less than five hectares. Consequently, the EIA was amended in 2016 which made environmental clearance mandatory for mining in areas less than five hectares, including minor minerals. The amendment also provided for the setting up of a District Environment Impact Assessment Authority (EIAA) and a District Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC).
However, a State-wise review of EACs and EIAAs in key industrial States such as Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, shows that these authorities review over 50 project proposals in a day and the rejection rate at the State level has been a mere 1%. This raises a pertinent question on whether introducing clearances alone can help eliminate irregularities in the illegal mining of minor minerals? The situation now indicates that the problem is even more complex and widespread and that a robust technology-driven enforcement approach is required.
The problem of illegal mining of minor minerals is often under-estimated, thus accentuating undesired environmental consequences. There have been numerous cases of the illegal mining of dolomite, marble and sand across States. For example, in Andhra Pradesh’s Konanki limestone quarries alone, 28.92 lakh metric tonnes of limestone have been illegally quarried. However, the relentless pace of sand mining poses grave concerns.
Observations by agencies
The United Nations Environment Programme, in 2019, ranked India and China as the top two countries where illegal sand mining has led to sweeping environmental degradation. Despite this, there is no comprehensive assessment available to evaluate the scale of sand mining in India. Nevertheless, regional studies such as those by the Centre for Science and Environment of the Yamuna riverbed in Uttar Pradesh have observed that increasing demand for soil has severely affected soil formation and the soil holding ability of the land, leading to a loss in marine life, an increase in flood frequency, droughts, and also degradation of water quality. Such effects can also be seen in the beds of the Godavari, the Narmada and the Mahanadi basins. As has been pointed out in a study of the Narmada basin, sand mining has reduced the population of Mahseer fish from 76% between 1963 and 2015.
It is not just damage to the environment. Illegal mining causes copious losses to the state exchequer. As per an estimate, U.P. is losing revenue from 70% of mining activities as only 30% area is legally mined. Similarly, the absence of royalty has caused a loss of ₹700 crore in Bihar while non-payment of various cesses due to unregulated mining has resulted in a loss of ₹100 crore to Karnataka and ₹600 crore to Madhya Pradesh in 2016-17.
Judicial orders, state response
Judicial orders are often neglected by State governments. For instance, as in the report of the Oversight Committee by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), Uttar Pradesh (where illegal sand mining has created a severe hazard) has either failed or only partially complied with orders issued regarding compensation for illegal sand mining. Such lax compliance can be seen in States such as West Bengal, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh too.
A State-wide review of the reasons behind non-compliance suggests a malfunction of governance due to weak institutions, a scarcity of state resources to ensure enforcement, poorly drafted regulatory provisions, inadequate monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, and excessive litigation that dampens state administrative capacity.
Protecting minor minerals requires investment in production and consumption measurement and also monitoring and planning tools. To this end, technology has to be used to provide a sustainable solution.
The power of technology
Satellite imagery can be used to monitor the volume of extraction and also check the mining process. Even for past infractions, the NGT and administrative authorities can obtain satellite pictures for the past 10 to 15 years and uncontrovertibly show how small hillocks of earth, 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 sand extraction and transportation from the riverbeds. Well-planned execution of these directions increased revenue from minor minerals mining in all these States.
Additionally, drones, the internet of things (IoT) and blockchain technology can be leveraged to monitor mechanisms by using Global Positioning System, radar and Radio Frequency (RF) Locator. State governments such as Gujarat and judicial directions such as the High Court of Madras have employed some of these technologies to check illegal sand mining.
Amar Patnaik is a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha, from Odisha. A former Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) bureaucrat and an academic, he practices law now. The views expressed are personal