Exploring with responsibility
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Mining in India has come a long way in the last 50 years or so. From the Industrial Policy Resolution of 1957 to the National Mineral Policy (NMP) of 1993, and now to the NMP of 2008, it has shown a progressive shift towards bringing the private sector into exploration, mining and downstream value addition. However, the regulatory systems perhaps never managed to keep pace with developments on the ground. Many of our current problems with illegal mining, as well as environmental and social concerns, stem from this failure.
The NMP 2008 diagnosed some of the problems and has provided a sound base for a new legislative framework to incentivise private sector exploration and mining. The Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) (MMDR) Bill of 2011, seeks to reflect not only the NMP 2008 but also current concerns regarding environmental and social issues, and the larger intention of the bill is to facilitate exploration by the private sector while getting better value through bidding for known mineral deposits. The bill provides for the setting up of a mining tribunal and a regulatory authority, which is likely to reduce arbitrariness and improve regulatory compliance.
There is near unanimity in civil society and legal fora on the need to improve mining practices to reduce waste and control environmental degradation. Sadly, there is not enough debate to make the point that general exploration as a venture and some mining as an economic activity is essential for raw materials security and in the national interest. It goes without saying that the progress of human civilisation is in many ways the progress of mining, metal-making and energy production technologies, as we moved from the copper age to the bronze age and the iron age and beyond.
It is a little shocking, therefore, that we are still to wake up to the importance and urgency of our raw materials security in terms of ferrous and non-ferrous metals (including titanium, chromium, cobalt and nickel), base metals (such as copper, lead, tin and zinc), technology metals (molybdenum, tellurium, selenium, rhenium, vanadium, germanium, cadmium, scandium) and energy critical metals (lithium, iridium, gallium, indium) and rare earths (neodymium, dysprosium, europium, yttrium, terbium, lanthanum, cerium, samarium, gadolinium), not to speak of energy minerals such as coal. There is as yet hardly any venture capital investment in exploration at greater depths or even in process R&D to beneficiate low grades or to recover important metals as co-products and by-products from our current mining activities. We raise concerns about the finiteness of our resources, yet we are not doing enough to explore deeper or use relatively abundant lower grade and inferior ores. Many critical resources are now required for new technologies which can give us the competitive edge, yet we are blissfully unaware that there is life beyond limestone, iron ore and bauxite.
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