SC seeks MoEF’s stand as Mines Ministry refuses cap on mining in Odisha
A public interest litigation filed by NGO Common Cause said that due to excessive mining, iron ore reserves in Odisha were fast depleting and will get exhausted in another two decades.
The Supreme Court on Monday sought the Environment Ministry’s response on capping of iron ore mining in Odisha after the Mines Ministry said it was not in favour of imposing such a cap that will push input cost on production of steel, having a cascading impact on inflation.
A bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud had in August sought the view of the Centre on imposing a cap on mining while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by NGO Common Cause, which apprehended that due to excessive mining, iron ore reserves in the state were fast depleting and will get exhausted in another two decades.
At present, there is no cap on iron ore mining in Odisha unlike Goa and Karnataka where the court imposed a cap on the quantity of ore to be extracted.
“The environmental aspect has not been considered in this affidavit,” said the bench, also comprising justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra as it told additional solicitor general (ASG) Aishwarya Bhati, “The Ministry of Mines will look at the issue from the point of view of tapping of resources. It is the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) that will give us a view on the overall impact considering inter-generational equity.” The MoEF has been granted 4 weeks to file its response.
The affidavit by Mines Ministry filed on December 1 said, “If there is a capping on production of iron ore, then it may distort the mineral production and supply in favour of the existing lessees...This may raise the price of minerals thereby raising the input cost for downstream industries and having a cascading impact on overall inflation.”
Bhati told the court that the affidavit by Mines Ministry was prepared after consulting all ministries concerned. However, the court did not find any mention of this fact in the affidavit. Talking of inter-generational equity, the affidavit said, “Inter-generational equity has to be understood holistically taking into account the developmental needs of the country, resource/reserve augmentation and potential for recycling.”
Odisha currently contributes to over 54% of the iron ore produced in the country. With total iron ore resources of over 35.280 billion tons, India is one of the leading producers of iron ore in the world. In 2022-23 the total iron ore production in the country was 257.86 million tons, of which Odisha’s share was 140.43 million tons, nearly 54.46%.
The affidavit said, “Putting a cap on production of a mineral in a particular state, which is resource rich in that commodity, will jeopardise the economic development of the nation, mineral availability for the downstream industries and the requirement to subserve the huge population base of the country.”
Odisha has 58 iron ore producing working mines and even these areas have not been fully explored. At the same time, iron ore resources in the state have shown an increase from 4,180 million tons in year 2000 to 9,737 million tons in 2023 even with tripling of production in the past two decades.
The Centre refuted the claim of the petitioner that iron ore reserves in the state will exhaust in 20 years as “wholly unfounded” and said, “There are abundant iron ore resources in the country and in Odisha to meet the existing and emerging developmental needs of the country.”
Senior advocate ADN Rao assisting the court as amicus curiae informed the court that the view of MoEFCC will be crucial as Mines Ministry will only consider the “commercial” aspect. He said that in the past, the court had imposed a cap on mining in Karnataka and Goa based on recommendation of court-appointed expert body called the Central Empowered Committee (CEC). He urged the court that the Centre’s response should be forwarded to CEC for its suggestions on whether there should be a cap on Odisha mining as well.
The state was represented by senior advocate Rakesh Dwivedi who said that the Mines Ministry has given a holistic picture as the available resources is in plenty and the ore produced in the state serves as the “backbone” for steel production in the country. “Any curtailment will affect the future of the steel industry,” Dwivedi said.
On July 1, the Odisha government informed the court that the total iron ore reserves pertaining to the geologically explored area of the state stands at 9,220.728 million tons. According to the state, the total ore being mined at the 58 working mines annually comes to 227.13 million tons.
Common Cause represented by advocate Prashant Bhushan said that there is a serious cause for concern as at the current rate of mining, the total reserves in the said mining leases would last only for around 20 years. However, the state countered this by stating that over 71% of the state’s obvious geological potential (OGP) is yet to be geologically explored. Moreover, the affidavit by Centre pointed out that the current per capita consumption of steel in the country is 77.2 kilogram which is much lower than the global per capita average consumption of 208 kg. By 2030-31, India’s consumption is estimated to increase to 150 kg, still lower than the global average.