The draft Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill, or MMDR Bill, includes a crucial provision to share the wealth of mining — 26 per cent of the annual profits — with people who live near the projects. But industry wants this profit-sharing clause dropped. The Federation of Indian Mineral Industries (Fimi) says it will breed lazy people, who will only drink and beat up their women. The Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) have reportedly made similar representations to the group of ministers (GoM) considering this Bill. Clearly, this opposition is not just shortsighted. It completely misses the point that today the poorest in India live on its richest lands.
Let us be clear, the minerals that we need for our growth — from coal for our power to bauxite for aluminium and iron ore for steel — are all found in areas where there are our richest and most dense forests. These are also the lands where the tigers of India roam, where the rivers of peninsular India flow from and where the tribals of India live. The development cartography of India is clear — one, the wealth of minerals is where the poorest of our country live. And two, the wealth of minerals coexists with the wealth of forests and water.
The question is how will India mine these lands for minerals, without destroying the forests, devastating its water futures and impoverishing people even further? Can it?
The fact is, till now the track record of the Government of India has been dismal. Currently, we extract minerals and leave behind a trail of despair and devastation. In fact, the mineral-rich districts remain the poorest and most backward. It is an irony that Bellary — the iron ore district of Karnataka, now also known for its illegal and unregulated mining and mineral barons — has the highest number of registered private aircrafts and is ranked at the bottom of the human development index of the state.
Clearly, therefore, much more will have to be done to correct this resource injustice. We will have to ensure that policies protect the rights of local communities. This will mean strict adherence to the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, which demands that local communities must get land rights over the forests and must agree to displacement. It also means listening to people when they say “no” to a mining project in the public hearing, held under the Environment Protection Act. This non-negotiable right of people to “veto” projects will force governments to build much better policies for sharing the land’s wealth with its inhabitants.
The N C Saxena committee report on the contentious Vedanta project to mine bauxite in Niyamgiri hills of Orissa makes this point forcefully. According to it, the Forest Rights Act is unequivocal about the conferment of the right, not just to the forest but also to “free, prior and informed consent”, to the Gram Sabha to decide about any project that takes over the forest. “The consent of these communities is required before any damage or destruction of their habitat and community forest is authorised,” says the committee, whose report has been accepted by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. I am sure, Indian industry will find every trick now to get this recommendation changed. But again, this would be shortsighted and foolish.
Instead, it is time we accepted that all these changes — sharing benefits or seeking consent of village communities — will still definitely mean that we cannot mine all the minerals under the forests. We have to take careful and nuanced decisions to keep the balance between the wealth of minerals and the wealth of forests. Today we do not value this standing-tree wealth as the protector of our water systems or the provider of livelihoods to our people. Instead, we only value the minerals because we see no other option for growth. In this way, we end up discounting our future for a few rocks more.
This is not the way to go. The answer will be in doing more with less — less minerals to mine but more growth for all. The poor, the real environmentalists of India, are teaching us this lesson when they tell us not to devastate their land: tread lightly on earth. We are not listening when we believe minerals are more important than forests, water or people. This is what we need to change, not the profit-sharing clause in the draft MMDR Bill.