New Delhi: A new set of guidelines issued by the Central Government, apparently for the ‘ease of doing business’ in the mining sector, are likely to jeopardise the environment by lessening restrictions on miners to extract minerals, without obtaining mandatory forest clearances. The guidelines were issued on June 3, during an extended lockdown period to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The Union Ministry of Mines, headed by cabinet minister Pralhad Joshi, has issued guidelines for a fresh round of auctions of greenfield mineral blocks that have ‘pre-embedded clearances’. The pre-embedded clearances will allow successful bidders of greenfield mineral blocks, who will be chosen at a later date through an auction, to immediately commence mining operations, instead of having to wait indefinitely for mandatory clearances from the government.
The ministry’s guidelines follow a set of reforms announced for the mining sector by the Central Government. In May 2020, while announcing the fourth tranche of the Centre’s Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package aimed at tackling the economic downturn due to the pandemic, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said that 500 mining blocks would be offered for auction through an open and transparent process. She had also promised to introduce a seamless and composite exploration-cum-mining-cum-production regime in the mineral sector.
Through the latest guidelines, the Central Government has asked state governments to identify five mineral blocks each that can be taken up on a pilot basis for auction under the new system of pre-embedded clearances. State governments, on behalf of the project proponent, will have to form a special purpose vehicle, called a Project Management Unit (PMU), which will procure mandatory clearances and get the mining plan approved. The successful bidder, after being selected, will bear the costs incurred by the PMU for procuring the clearances.
“The Indian Bureau of Mines will approve the mining plan/scheme of mining submitted to them by the PMU within a period of fifteen days, allowing successful bidder the flexibility to either enhance or reduce the production limit by 25% (sic),” the guidelines stated.
The list of clearances includes the Environmental Clearance, which, the guidelines state, ought to have the flexibility for the successful bidder to either enhance or reduce production limit by 25%, without having to seek fresh approval. The PMU will obtain land rights for the mining operations as well.
The special purpose vehicle will acquire only the prior approval for Stage 1 of forest clearances, needed for the diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes. Stage 2 of the forest clearance will have to be obtained by the successful bidder.
“High costs are involved at FC Stage II … Hence, PMU will obtain FC Stage 1 only. And, the successful bidder will make payments accordingly and obtain FC Stage II,” state the guidelines.
However, the guidelines are silent on whether mining operations will be allowed pending Stage 2 of forest clearance, a procedure which is mandatory as per the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The guidelines bat for immediate commencement of mining operations following the auction, however.
“Even after Stage 2 approval, which is provided by the central government, the forest clearance application comes back to the state government. Forest diversion comes into effect only when the concerned state government issues an order under Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act,” said Kanchi Kohli of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank.
It is perceived that different assessments and appraisals will not be an easy task for the state government to accomplish, if the agency responsible for mining is not in the picture.
“There is also the question of liability. The state government might get you the approvals but it is a mining agency that will actually be conducting the mining. Once the approval comes in, will the terms and conditions be acceptable to the mining agency? If the mining agency will be relying on the state government for all paperwork, who does the liability rest with; on the agency or on the state government? It is a risk even for the agency that will be mining. You do not have a say in submitting the plans and paperwork that the state government is going to get for you,” added Kohli.
The mining industry is enthusiastic about the new guidelines, as it believes that the new concept of pre-embedded clearances will act as a single-window system that will expedite the process of mineral extraction.
“Of the 97 mineral blocks that have been auctioned since 2015, 47 are greenfield blocks. Till date, mining leases have been executed for none of these greenfield blocks. None of the blocks have been converted to operating mines. It is for the state governments again to show the zeal and capacity-building in order to auction blocks with pre-embedded clearances. About the forest clearance, a statute already exists for the purpose and that cannot be violated,” said B.K. Bhatia, Joint Secretary-General, Federation of Indian Mineral Industries.
As per legal experts, the set of guidelines, issued in the form of an order by the Union Mines Ministry, cannot precede rules framed under the Forest (Conservation) Act, since the latter has been passed by the Parliament. It is believed that the guidelines may not lead to ‘ease of doing business’ in reality, since a host of other formalities need to be completed even after Stage 2 of forest clearance.
“After Stage 2 approval of forest clearance, a government order has to be issued by the environment and forest department of the concerned state. Thereafter, the process of handing over and taking over of forest land begins. After the land comes under the custody of the project proponent, it has to make an application to the Department of Mining and Geology of the concerned district for agreements and undertakings,” said R. Ravi, Chairperson, mines, Minerals & PEOPLE, an alliance of organisations and communities working in the field of mining.
The Centre has claimed to have issued these guidelines for greenfield mineral blocks in line with a similar order notification for brown field mines, that had been issued in April 2020. The earlier notification had been issued by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC), transferring all clearances, for a limited period of two years, to new successful bidders after expiry of old leases, without conducting fresh assessments regardless of whether the older clearances had been issued 20 or 50 years ago.
The writer is an independent journalist.