Kerala loses heavily due to large-scale smuggling of mineral sands
By Dr MP Sukumaran Nair
Small-scale mining employing local people through Cooperatives or Kudumbasree units may be undertaken. They may collect the mineral containing sands and supply to co-operative units, which can in turn sell it to processing companies such as KMML or Indian Rare Earths Ltd (IREL).
KOCHI: In order to ensure efficient use of resources, natural and otherwise, the guiding principle shall be maximization of human well-being. We need to ensure a fair distribution of costs and benefits of development for the people, seek to identify and internalize environmental and social costs. With sustained improvements over time, we shall ensure that depletion of natural resources will not deprive the future generations of their right for a fruitful living on this planet.
The decision on whether or not to mine in a certain area should be undertaken through a democratic decision-making process and be based on an integrated assessment of ecological, environmental, economic, and social impacts.
The thirty-eight kilometer-long coastline stretching from Neendakara in Kollam district to Arattupuzha in Alappuzha district is a sensitive ecological region coming under the Coastal Regulation Act. Large-scale mining in this area will cause massive environmental damages to land, water, air and flora and fauna.
In general, the major impacts would be:
a) Threat to fishing activities
b) Disturbance to coastal dwelling and the hamlets and the consequent displacement of people necessitating resettlement.
c) Loss of agriculture and threat to inland fishing and aquaculture
d) Enhanced erosion of beach and coastal area
e) Land pollution caused by effluents, radioactive wastes, heavy metal residues etc, from mineral processing
f) Contamination and increase in salinity of ground water due to disturbance of topography and soil profile
g) Loss of vegetation in the area and coconut plantations along the sea coast
h) Adverse impacts to life of a number of species of birds, fishes, crabs, frogs snakes etc and
i) Emission of dust, and noise pollution from mining operations
Detailed environment impact analysis using a structured approach addressing all major concerns should be carried out by competent professional consultancies in the country. Unless this is done, the arguments on either side can be considered of a generic nature only.
The above-mentioned environmental impacts can be managed to a reasonably good extent by an appropriate and well-developed Environment Management Plan (EMP) covering all aspects in its entirety. Such an EMP shall specify the extent and approach to mining in this ecologically sensitive area.
The beach sands of the region are a source of abundant mineral wealth and are to be utilized for the benefit of the state. The value addition at every stage from the collection of mineral-rich sands to beneficiating it to ilmenite, further processing it to synthetic rutile and to various grades of titanium dioxide pigment, to titanium sponge and metal, alloys, chemicals and thereafter to nano materials indeed is multifold.
The extraction of mineral content of the sand shall be done in a controlled manner under the framework of a definite environmental management and action plan formulated for the purpose.
Kudumbasree should take lead
Large-scale mechanized mining shall be avoided. Instead, small-scale mining employing local people through Cooperatives or Kudumbasree units may be undertaken. They may collect the mineral containing sands and give to co-operative units which can sell it to processing companies such as KMML or IREL. There are reports of large-scale smuggling of mineral sand from this area. Once the local Kudumbasree units become involved in the value chain of the whole process they themselves will guard the whole coastline and prevent unauthorized carry-away of mineral sand. In the initial phase, such units may cater to the requirements of mineral sands needed for a minimum economic capacity synthetic rutile plant size (eg; 40,000 tonnes-per-annum synthetic rutile plant).
Following a rapid Environmental Impact Assessment, a detailed and accurate Environmental Impact Assessment should be done through a comprehensive study involving consultants with good credibility and expertise in this area. These units are to be planned in a modular form and a second unit may be taken up only upon confirmation that the first unit did not cause any irreversible damages to the neighboring eco-systems.
After extraction of the mineral content from the raw sand, the site may be backfilled to maintain the coastline and allow further deposits through beach washings. Whenever large-scale ecological upsets are noticed, suitable remedial action should be taken up and implemented to reverse the trend. If it doesn’t serve the purpose, further expansion may be stopped at this point. Under this strategy the mineral wealth being deposited regularly may be tapped without any serious environmental damages.
In short, it is necessary to promote responsible stewardship of natural resources and environment, including remediation of past damages occurred in the region. Efforts to minimize waste and environmental damage along the whole supply chain from mining to product marketing shall be done meticulously. We have to exercise prudence in areas where impacts are unknown or uncertain and take enough care to operate within ecological limits and protect critical natural capital.
Mining activity in the region will be able to create only a limited number of jobs. Local community expects that the industry shall provide employment benefits to counter the risks and impacts they are subjected to. But providing all with jobs will be impossible. Alternatively the mining company can undertake community development projects like providing safe drinking water, schools for children, housing projects for the poor, empowering womenfolk towards gainful employment etc. The mining and processing activity may be done in the Government sector and the State Government shall mandate that a minimum of 30 per cent of the net annual pre-tax profits earned by the company may be earmarked for community development spending in the region.
The mineral deposits have considerable industrial and commercial economic significance. These rare minerals and their compounds are used in the manufacture of a number of products used in everyday life. The use of titanium-based pigments made out of rutile produced from ilmenite is used extensively in the paint and paper industry. Titanium metal and its alloys find extensive use in aviation, aerospace, and chemical industries due to its high corrosion resistance and its low weight to strength ratio. The metal is produced as a value-added product from titanium dioxide. These products enjoy a commanding position in the mineral chemical industries these days, both in the indigenous as well as export markets. The Government’s proposed mineral-based titanium complex and its downstream projects will be the biggest industrial development initiative so far undertaken by the state. On completion and commissioning of the project, it will certainly be contributing substantially (financial and otherwise) to the state’s economic development. The performance of Travancore Titanium Products, Kochuveli, Thiruvananthapuram and Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd (KMML), Chavara, Kollam are illustrative of the profitability and economic stability of the titanium-based mineral industry.
Hence if we opt not to mine on any account, it will result in a massive loss to the state’s economy. We may have to learn lessons from activities of this kind taking place in other fragile zones around the world and work out a coastline environment management plan and extract the mineral wealth in a sustainable manner for the common good of the people.
(The writer is a former chairman of the Public Sector Restructuring & Audit Board and Secretary to the Chief Minister of Kerala)