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Breaking ground

It is heartening that the government has woken up to the perils of illegal mining, which can strike at the base of the state.

delhi Updated: Aug 19, 2010 01:09 IST
Sanjib Kr Baruah

"If things (illegal mining) were allowed to continue, Karnataka would turn into barren land," Justice Santosh Hegde, Karnataka Lokayukta, in January 2009.

Mines Minister B.K. Handique has admitted in the Lok Sabha that illegal mining could lead to a nexus between criminal and anti-national elements, especially in areas affected by left-wing extremism, paving the way for a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the extent of the mess.

Illegal mining is now at the forefront of national debate after the revelations of the activities of the Reddy brothers in Karnataka (given in Justice Hegde's report) and the deviant conduct of former Jharkhand CM Madhu Koda.

Nothing is more disappointing than the manner in which the issue has been tackled to date, as is evident from the lack of facts and figures on the issue.

"Till now we don't have any numbers on the extent and magnitude of this activity but the number of complaints have increased manifold," admits a mining ministry official.

"Everybody is into illegal mining, right from big companies to the local trader. And in the absence of a monitoring mechanism, crores are being looted from the exchequer in revenue losses. The government doesn't even know what is going out and from where," says Xavier Dias from the NGO Mines, Minerals and People.

Illegal mining is rampant in Orissa, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Goa. "It takes place mainly in iron and manganese because the two minerals are much more profitable. The activity picks up whenever the international prices of these minerals go up. So there is an international dimension to it," the mines official said.

Additionally, there are countless "float iron ore" mines where workers manually dig for smaller quantities, in contravention of norms.

Windfall Gains
When profits to the miner rose from Rs 50 per tonne to Rs 5,000 per tonne especially from 2000 onwards, state royalty remained bracketed at Rs 7-30 per tonne. This resulted in huge windfall gains to mining companies that began spreading activities to new areas, throwing legalities to the wind.
It is also only from 2000 onwards that left-wing extremism spread among people.

"It is the mafia that is active in illegal mining ... Maoist elements contribute to the chaos, so there is a linkage," says UK Bansal, special secretary, home ministry.