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The other side of mining myths

If an opinion poll of lay people was taken on an industry that should be banned, chances are mining may top the hit list. Conversely, if an opinion poll was conducted amongst informed persons about an indispensable industry that sustains modern civilisation, chances are mining may top the list. The first result would be due to misperceptions, the second due to proper perceptions.

For the Doubting Thomas amongst readers, one needs to substantiate the above assertion. Minerals manifest themselves in people’s daily lives in the form of everyday products that they buy and use every second. Minerals are as indispensable as air, water and food. But people fail to appreciate this fact because they don’t buy minerals in the raw state but use them as finished products such as clothes, computers, cell-phones, cars, toothpaste, soap, steel, pen, pencil, paper, medicines, a house, roads, etc., etc. – the list is endless.

Mining Boosts Growth

Whether people realise it or not, almost everything used in modern homes requires heavy minerals in some form or the other during their manufacture. Even agriculture is heavily dependent on minerals in the form of fertilizers that are needed for mass cultivation of food crops.

And all these minerals can only be procured through mining. Without mining, economic growth and modern life would be inconceivable. History shows that per capita growth of minerals has to rise if the standards of living and the quality of life of the downtrodden are to improve. Urbanization and modern development in the US in the 19th century, Russia in the 20th century and China in the 21st century would not have been possible without mining and its steady supply of minerals. India’s GDP has grown steadily since Independence because it is backed by robust growth in the production of minerals such as iron ore, coal, copper, zinc, aluminium, magnesium, limestone, etc. Worldwide, mining is akin to oxygen for the manufacturing industry. Without mining, manufacturing would soon collapse like a pack of loose cards. To boost India’s GDP and make inclusive growth a reality, mining needs to grow in a big way and hurdles cleared in the mineral supply of industry. Economic growth, poverty alleviation and employment generation cannot become a ground reality unless supported simultaneously by mining. Indeed, mining and its downstream activities together possess the potential to employ millions of people.

Sustainable Mining

Before condemning mining for all the ills on Earth, it is imperative to ponder the present situation. There is no doubt that mining does have drawbacks such as pollution of the surroundings. But it’s equally true that there are global best practices and time-tested techniques to mitigate such drawbacks. For instance, mining companies can adopt sustainable mining practices to curb the environmental impact. Sprinklers at mining sites minimise the spread of red dust in the atmosphere. Reclamation and rehabilitation of dormant mines can be done through afforestation and other techniques. Recycled water from mines can be supplied to nearby villages for secondary use. Mechanised road sweepers can clean up the surroundings on mining routes.

While environmental concerns can be appreciated, it should be borne in mind that mining is site specific. Different types of minerals occur in diverse geological conditions. Irrespective of whether minerals are located by the riverside, below agricultural land, near springs, hilly forests or coasts, one has to reach that location and mine the mineral from where it exists. Mining cannot be undertaken where minerals do not exist or occur in unviable quantities.

In many regions, minerals are located in undeveloped tribal areas. Unless mining is undertaken here, growth and development will not take place and the living conditions of people won’t change. Basic amenities as well as health, education and sanitation facilities never reach people in remote regions. For such deprived people, slogans like inclusive development are mere rhetoric. African nations that failed to exploit their minerals resources are a classic example as they still wallow in poverty and backwardness. In India, such undeveloped areas are also prone to extremist influence, which has been witnessed in many states presently under the sway of Maoists. It should be noted that minerals are a finite, non-renewable resource. Mining is therefore a temporary activity till the resource is exhausted. The impact of mining on the environment is a temporary phenomenon, which can be minimised via sustainable mining. Once mining ceases in an area, the land can be quickly rehabilitated and returned to its pre-mining state. Where open-cast mines exist, these can be converted into a lake for pisciculture (fish farming) or even reclaimed to plant trees. Afforestation of such abandoned mines speeds up land rehabilitation.

Facilitating Nation-building

Compared to other countries, India has a teeming population. As the numbers burgeon each year, the pressure on land soars. Simultaneously, there is pressure to provide basic amenities to all these people. In such a scenario, it is important that the authorities formulate policies to ensure mineral resources are tapped well in time through sustainable mining practices that ensure the needs of industry are met, while simultaneously heeding ecological concerns. Mining of mineral resources can facilitate faster nation building through speedy infrastructure development.

This will facilitate job creation, drive economic growth, boost foreign exchange earnings and spur development of industries such as transport, shipping, manufacturing, FMCG, etc. Moreover, mining will reduce India’s dependence on imports of ores and other products. In turn, this can conserve foreign exchange, curb the current account deficit and help reduce rupee volatility. On the flip side, any ban on mining will erode all these benefits and stoke inflationary pressures – something evident during the past few years after iron ore mining was suspended in some states. Banning mining is not the right solution and can be extremely counterproductive. This is apparent in Goa, where mining of iron ore was suspended on 10 September 2012. Since then, around 430,000 people directly or indirectly dependent upon mining have lost their livelihoods. The state’s economy has been hard hit by the sudden shortfall in revenues. Even the Central Exchequer has been hurt due to loss in revenues, especially after the suspension of ore exports.

Imagine what would happen if nations worldwide suddenly ban mining overnight. Without mineral resources, modern civilization would gradually grind to a halt. Before long, humans would return to the Stone Age when minerals and other natural resources were no longer available. Such an eventuality would benefit nobody. It is therefore in the interests of all stakeholders to adopt a practical approach and ensure sustainable mining activities are allowed to continue.

The author is former director at dept of Geology and Mining, Tamil Nadu
R Srinivasan

R Srinivasan

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