The dilemma of mining and forests

The rejection of Vedanta’s proposal to mine for bauxite in Orissa’s Niyamgiri hill area, home to the Dongria Kondhs, by the environment ministry has been universally hailed as a blow struck for the rights of tribals.

However, in the exultation by editorialists, activists, politicians and sundry others, one crucial factor is being ignored. If this ruling is a precedent, what will happen to India’s metallurgical industry, which is on the cusp of an expansion phase?

“Where is the connection?” the lay person may ask.

The fact of the matter is that more than 70 per cent of the major minerals (such as iron ore, coal, bauxite and chromite) required by the metallurgical industry and thermal power sector are located in the country’s forested areas, which are also the home of the majority of India’s tribals.

Mining these minerals will clearly necessitate clearing some of the forested areas, initially digging up the land and thus reducing it to waste, displacing those who live in these regions

and upsetting their traditional livelihoods, be it farming, gathering forest produce or hunting.

Yes, we have heard of “minimum impact mining”, compensatory afforestation, re-greening of mined areas and all the other mumbo-jumbo that the mining industry throws at the public in an effort to camouflage the fact that mining is basically habitat destructive when it is being done.

If someone can demonstrate how to make an omelette without breaking eggs, then perhaps we can believe that mining can be harmless to the environment. The repair happens, if at all, many years later and after considerable investment and sustained effort. By that time, the initial ecology and the original inhabitants have vanished or been changed beyond recognition.

Having got that clear, we are left with the uncomfortable fact that mining for feeding the metallurgical industries and power sector will be strictly a “No! No!” in India, if legal fiat proclaims that the forests and the inhabitants, including the tribals, should not be disturbed. Does that mean that we bid goodbye to the billions of dollars of investment that these industries could bring in, not to mention the millions of employment opportunities they can generate?

How about importing the minerals needed? After all, Japan and South Korea managed to develop gigantic metallurgical industries mainly through import of the required ore. True enough. But they could compensate the high cost of imports by exporting finished metal products or equipment made from the metals to big consumers like Europe and the USA. That market has virtually dried up long ago. Where will India export to pay for its imports of minerals?

Moreover, India needs the metals and the power for its own development process. For instance, we make today around 55 million tonnes of steel per annum, all of which is consumed domestically. By 2020, it is estimated that we may need nearly 200 million tonnes of steel per year for ourselves, to sustain a 9 per cent per annum GDP growth rate. Where is the question of exporting the material?

Moreover, to make metal, it is far cheaper to use domestically available raw material compared to the imported stuff. Just to give one example: the international price of iron ore is over ten times the cost of mining it in India. This is precisely the reason why the South Korean steel giant, Posco, is

anxious to get hold of an ore mining licence before committing billions

of dollars in putting up a steel plant in Orissa.

So, where do we go from here? Should we put a lid on the ambitious programme to enhance thermal power generation in the country so that we are not crippled by 12-hour power cuts per day in the future?

Should we drastically prune all infrastructure projects in the pipeline which need massive amounts of metals in various forms?

Or, better still, let us bid farewell to the whole industrialisation game, get back to the good old “Hindu” rate of growth which we suffered for the first four decades after Independence and get back to being an impoverished agrarian economy.

The only problem with that is a humongous 250 million youths will be entering the labour market in the next two decades. Agriculture, which is already starved of land, will not give this multitude the jobs they will be demanding.

The only way out of the grinding poverty that afflicts the inhabitants (and this includes the tribals) of India’s least developed states such as Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Bihar is to exploit their considerable mineral wealth.

But this involves mining which involves collateral damage to the local environment which involves harm to the local population.

We can, of course, choose not disturb anything, abjure mining and industry and sit back with the halos intact on our heads.

Of course this will condemn the indigenous people to continue their precarious, “plant to mouth” existence, as they have been doing for aeons. If we are comfortable with this, so be it.

The other path is strewn with many pitfalls, involves shedding our moralistic halos but gives the locals a chance to emerge from the morass of extreme poverty. And that is to take advantage of the bounty of minerals bestowed by nature but do so in ways that minimise collateral damage and, at the same time, ensure the primacy of benefits to the locals — whether it be jobs or profits or contracts or shareholding or habitat or health facilities or education or what have you.

So, what is it going to be, stasis or stumble forward?