With several projects stuck on account of want of ore, India’s steel ministry is looking at a proposal that will create special mining zones in reserved forests, national parks, and wildlife sanctuaries.
“The concept is still in the draft stage,” said an official in the steel ministry who did not wish to be identified.
The proposal suggests that “specified agencies” under the Central and state governments may be allowed to carry out exploration and mining in the reserved area after introducing appropriate statutory provisions, or amending existing statutes. At present, four separate Acts govern mining, environment, wildlife and forests.
The proposal comes at a time when environmentalists are raising concerns over depleting forest land and companies and governments are engaged in court battles over mining licences.
The steel ministry’s proposal also calls for the creation of a high-level committee at the Centre to monitor and blend the requirements of protecting the environment and extracting minerals for economic development.
Nearly 20% of India’s minerals are in forest areas, according to the new mineral policy. Chances?of?finding?iron ore and bauxite—used to make steel and aluminium—in dense jungle areas is some 40% higher than the chances of finding it in other areas in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa.
Apart from private steel firms such as Posco and Tata Steel Ltd, state-owned firms have embarked on expansion projects to meet growing demand. Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL), the country’s largest steel producer, has put its requirement of iron ore at 1,119 million tonnes (mt) for expansion of its existing 4.5 million steel plant in Bokaro, 60km from Ranchi. The firm plans to achieve the target of setting up a 17mt plant by 2020, but the Jharkhand government refused to renew few of its mining leases, with the matter now pending in court.
Hyderabad-based National Mineral Development Corp., the country’s largest iron ore producer, is similarly locked in a legal controversy with the Chhattisgarh government for ore reserves. The firm has announced plans to set up a 4mt steel plant in a joint venture with SAIL and Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Ltd.
The government and environmentalists continue to differ on mining in forest land.
As per statistics given out by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an environment lobby group, the volume of forests cleared or “diverted” for mining activity has risen sevenfold between 1980 and 2005, and the number of mining leases issued for exploration in forest area has risen from?317?in 1980 to 881 in 2005.
“We have to recognize that mining is a destructive activity and each area has its own carrying capacity,” said CSE associate director Chandra Bhushan, regarding forest diversion. “What we need to do is start a process of assessing forests of ecological value. The rest of it can go for mining with proper safeguards.”