Shillong, October 20, 2008: The hands-off approach of the Meghalaya government towards the state’s rat-hole coal mines is fuelling destruction of forests, farmlands and water sources in the state: say the writers of Rich Lands, Poor People -- Is Sustainable Mining Possible?.
This is the title of the latest publication from New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) -- its 356-page 6th State of India’s Environment Report – which was released here today by Meghalaya governor R S Mooshahary.
The release was followed by a panel discussion; the panelists included Manas Choudhury, minister-education (higher and technical); R Chatterjee, chief secretary, government of Meghalaya; Shivesh Sinha, development director-Asia, Lafarge Ltd; Samuel B Jyrwa, president, Khasi Student’s Union; and Sunita Narain, director, CSE.
CSE’s ‘State of India’s Environment’ reports have been widely acknowledged as the most comprehensive and authoritative series of publications on the subject of environment and development in India. The report on mining lives up to the reputation and the promise of using knowledge for change. Extensively researched and richly illustrated, Rich Lands, Poor People details the issues of mining in different states of the country, impacts on environment and people, and policy reforms that are essential to practice more ‘sustainable’ mining.
The report paints a horrific picture of the devastation that has been wrought by mining in the country. The statistics are shocking:
“The result of this large-scale ravaging of natural resources is emerging in the form of growing conflicts in India’s mining zones,” said Sunita Narain, director, CSE, speaking at the release function. A large part of these zones is in the grip of Naxalism: 40 per cent of the mineral-rich districts in the top six mineral-producing states are affected by the movement, which is opposing the lopsided ‘development’ mining brings in.
Mining in the northeast: a need for regulation
The northeast contributes about 5 per cent to the total value of minerals produced in India, with Meghalaya (1 per cent) and Assam (4 per cent) accounting for almost all of it. The region also holds a small proportion of the total area under mining leases – in Meghalaya, about 4,177 hectare (0.67 per cent of India’s total) is under mining leases while Assam has 1,294 hectare (0.21 per cent).
However, a variety of reasons make mineral exploration in the region a complex process, with very high environmental and social impacts, says CSE’s report. “Given the topography of the region, any exploitation of mineral wealth here will have a direct impact on forest resources and local ecology”, says the report.
Meghalaya’s rat-hole coal mines are a case in point. Considerable portions of the Jaintia Hills, which has over 46 per cent forest cover, have been converted to degraded land due to extensive mining. Besides the forests, the region’s water bodies are bearing the brunt of this unscientific and highly unsafe method of mining, says CSE. A team of CSE scientists recently conducted tests on water quality in local streams and nallahs in Ladrymbai, Wapung, Klehriat and Sutnga. It also tested water being pumped out from mines. The tests were conducted for pH, total dissolved solids (TDS), arsenic, and hexavalent chromium.
In all the places, the water was found to be highly acidic, with a pH below 4. In samples such as mine discharge water in Sutnga, the pH level was found to be as low as 3.5. The tests also detected traces of hexavalent chromium, though this needs to be confirmed with more sophisticated equipment. Acidic water is directly injurious to aquatic flora and fauna. The CSE team found that most of the water bodies in the region had no aquatic life.
Earlier, CSE had tested water quality from around the Ledo coal mines in Assam, operated by North Eastern Coalfields Ltd. It had found equally acidic water, with very high levels of heavy metals like chromium, lead, mercury and arsenic.
Coal mining in Meghalaya also generates considerable air pollution. A Meghalaya Pollution Control Board (mpcb) study, in fact, says air pollution in the region has increased leading to warmer weather in the coal belt.
“The major issue with coal mining in Meghalaya is the unscientific way it is carried out, the absence of post-mining treatment and poor management of the mined areas. This is largely because these mines are not registered. Safety precautions are non-existent and mine deaths – which go almost totally unreported -- are common. It is high time the state government stepped in and enforced stringent environmental regulations for the coal mining sector,” said Chandra Bhushan, CSE’s associate director and lead writer of the report.
Meghalaya has lately been in the limelight for its proposed uranium mining project. Speaking on the issue, Narain pointed out: “The issue is not whether mining should happen in Domiasiat or anywhere else in Meghalaya or not. The real issue is whether a thorough and effective environmental containment plan can be put in place given the ecological sensitivity and high precipitation in the proposed area.”
CSE researchers point out that the environmental impact assessment report for the proposed UCIL project does not address the environment and health concerns adequately. “For instance,” says Bhushan, “the EIA report completely disregards the severe impacts of mining run-off from mines, tailing ponds and the waste disposal sites during monsoons.”
According to Narain, the debate in Meghalaya should be towards ensuring that an effective system is put in place before mining is given a green signal in Domiasiat. In fact, says Bhushan, “Mining in Meghalaya will probably require the world’s best mitigation and containment plan which the UCIL will have to come up with and implement.”
Is sustainable mining possible?
The CSE report points out that mining cannot be sustainable or truly environment-friendly: one, because all ore bodies are finite and non-renewable and two, because even the best managed mines leave “environmental footprints”. But it also concedes that mining and minerals are necessary. Adds Chandra Bhushan: “As in the case of mining uranium in Meghalaya, the issue is not whether mining should be undertaken or not. Rather, it is about how it should be undertaken. It is about ensuring that mining is conducted in an environmentally and socially acceptable manner.”
Meghalaya, in fact, can set an example for the rest of the nation: it is probably one of the few states where communities are benefiting from mining. The Nongtrai village council receives a royalty on per tonnage basis for every tonne of limestone exported. The money collected is used by the council for community development and also shared between the villagers.
The CSE report goes on to recommend a range of policy initiatives that could help India meet this challenge. Some of its main recommendations include recognizing people’s right to say ‘no’ (mining should not take place without the consent of the people); independent, impartial preparation of EIA reports; disallowing mining in ecologically sensitive area; framing stronger mine closure regulations; and “doing more with less -- a key to sustainable development”.