New Delhi: Citing “public interest", the environment ministry has relaxed guidelines for mining of critical atomic minerals like uranium in fragile coastal regions, even if such minerals are found elsewhere.
Experts said the decision signalled a significant shift in government policy and opened up fragile coastal areas to mining, potentially increasing the vulnerability of fast-eroding coastal stretches of the country.
The decision was taken by Harsh Vardhan-led ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) and notified on 6 October. The step, involving an amendment to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification 2011, was taken without public notice as the government said it was a matter of “public interest".
“The key amendment allows for mining of atomic minerals like uranium or titanium in CRZ areas even if they are found outside CRZ areas. This is a big shift from the earlier practice. Earlier, mining of rare minerals could be carried out with environment ministry’s permission only if they are not found anywhere else," said Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR)-Namati Environmental Justice Programme.
“It also opens up inter-tidal areas of CRZ-1 for manual extraction, which increases the vulnerability of the fast-eroding coastal stretches. Given the widespread implications for all of CRZ, it was important that this notification be debated on public interest, rather than introducing without any feedback in the name of public interest," she added.
CRZ-1 is the most sensitive coastal zone and there are strict norms on activities allowed in this zone.
The decision is significant and in line with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s overall push for atomic power. India currently has 6.7 gigawatts (GW) of installed nuclear capacity but the government has an ambitious target of 63GW of such capacity by 2032.
The notification, which was reviewed by Mint, observed that “atomic minerals are required for strategic and other requirements by the Department of Atomic Energy (under the central government) and are processed for strategic applications including power generation". It will cover atomic minerals occurring alone or together with other minerals.
A total of 11 atomic minerals are covered under the latest notification. Some of them are beryl, lithium, rare-earth minerals containing uranium and thorium, niobium, phosphorites and other phosphatic ores containing uranium and thorium minerals. Titanium-bearing minerals, tantallium-bearing minerals and zirconium-bearing minerals are also included.
The notification does stipulate necessary safety measures for mining in CRZ areas—it only allows for “manual mining" using “baskets and hand spades for collection of ore or mineral" and bars “drilling and blasting or heavy earth-moving machinery".
Last year, the government had said that it is contemplating opening exploration and production of atomic minerals to private mining companies as part of its strategy to expand nuclear power-generation capacity.
Out of the country’s 1,400 sq. km of atomic mineral-rich area, about 1,000 sq. km is along the coast—where minerals are available below specified thresholds. The government plans to offer this area “for prospecting and production through competitive bids".
Norms around coastal zones in India are already facing controversy. In 1991, the government brought out the first CRZ notification which restricted industrial activities and was the main regulatory framework for conservation and protection of the country’s 7,500km coastline.
It was amended 25 times before being comprehensively revised in 2011. In June 2014, the NDA government constituted a committee under Shailesh Nayak, then secretary in the ministry of earth sciences, to look into issues raised by various coastal states regarding the 2011 CRZ notification.
The panel, in January 2015, submitted a 110-page report recommending a complete overhaul of the rules related to the development of coastal areas. Though MoEFCC is yet to take a final call on the report, it has made at least eight changes to CRZ rules drawing heavily from the report.