New Mining Policy in J&K: Interests of locals are paramount, not revenue
It is the responsibility of the government to acknowledge and respond to the concerns raised by the locals vis-à-vis the new mining policy and make sure that the policy does not undermine their interests
The Special Status enjoyed by the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir would not allow the non-local contractors to participate in the “open-auctioning’, which is now “e-auctioning”, of leasing and renting of mineral blocks in the region. However, the revocation of Article 370, that marked the end of the J&K’s Special Status, paved the way for the participation of non-local contractors in the e-auctioning of mineral blocks in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
The order in this regard was issued by the Department of Geology and Mining in September 2019 and the e-auctioning began in January 2020.
According to officials, the e-auctioning was introduced with an objective to put in place a “transparent process” for allotment of mineral blocks in line with a 2019 high court order. “The e-auctioning meant increased competition, thus brought in more money for each block,” they said.
“As the blocks put to e-auction are geo-referenced with defined coordinates and boundaries, this shall augur well for the Department in checking illegal mining, regulate mining activities and shall also generate revenue for the Government,” Director Geology and Mining Department, Vikas Sharma, was quoted as saying by Daily Excelsior.
While the Director claims that the e-auctioning increased competition and generated more revenue, first the absence of all types of internet connections and then high-speed internet put local contractors at a disadvantage.
According to media reports, some local contractors were able to participate in the online bidding process after waiting for hours in queues outside government-run internet kiosks in Srinagar or by travelling to other parts of the country to complete formalities. That said, the absence of easy internet access deprived the majority of local contractors from a level playing field in the online bidding process.
Worth mentioning here is that on the intervening night of August 4 and 5 last year, internet services were cut across the newly created Union Territory. And it was on January 25, 2019 that the government ordered the restoration of 2G internet in J&K.
The statistics of mineral resources in J&K
There are around 554 mineral blocks in J&K, of which 261 are in the 10 districts of Kashmir. Of these 261 blocks, each of which measures a maximum of 10 hectares. According to the Indian Minerals Yearbook (Part- I) 2013 published by INDIAN BUREAU OF MINES, the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir is the only place in the country with huge borax and sapphire resources and possesses 36% graphite, 21% marble and 14% of gypsum.
“Coal, gypsum and limestone are the important minerals produced in the State. Coal occurs in Poonch, Rajouri and Udhampur districts; gypsum in Baramulla and Doda districts; limestone in Anantnag, Baramulla, Kathua, Leh, Poonch, Pulwama, Rajauri, Srinagar and Udhampur districts; and magnesite in Leh and Udhampur districts,” reads the Yearbook.
“Other minerals that occur in the State are bauxite, ball clay and china clay in Udhampur district; bentonite in Jammu district; borax and sulphur in Leh district; diaspore in Rajouri and Udhampur districts; graphite in Baramulla district; lignite and marble in Kupwara district; quartz and silica sand in Anantnag, Doda and Udhampur districts; quartzite in Anantnag district; and sapphire in Doda district,” it reads.
The economy of mining
The Department of Geology and Mining was established in 1960 with an objective to explore the hidden treasure of minerals in the erstwhile state. Since then, the department has found minerals like limestone, gypsum, bauxite, magnetite, dolomite, quartzite, borax, fuel mineral, lignite, decorative building stones, slate, China clay, bentonite and gemstones in J&K. These materials have varied uses in the manufacturing of cement, calcium carbide, quicklime, bleaching- powder, glass, paper, paints, fertilizers, paper filler, rubber, textiles, plaster of paris and sanitary ware, aluminum, as also in so many other products and industries.
After the bidding process of mineral blocks was held online, as per the official data, the auction bid for 15 blocks in Pulwama surged from the previous Rs 2 crores to a whopping Rs 17.82 crores; in Srinagar district, all the 10 blocks were acquired by non-local contractors by paying a lease amount of Rs 5.08 crore. Previously, these blocks were leased out at Rs 1.85 crore. In Budgam district, seven blocks were auctioned at Rs 4.67 crores; in Baramulla, 38 blocks earned Rs 20.15 crore to the department.
Explaining the fissures in mineral extraction on a local level
It goes without saying that the exploitation of mineral resources is rampant in J&K. The sand mafia has always taken advantage of the tense situation (unrests, curfews and lockdowns) in Jammu and Kashmir to lift sand at night and transport the minor mineral in tippers and tractors to different parts of the valley. Despite a ban on mechanized mining of river-beds, the sand mafia had installed the sand excavation machines in Jhelum and other places to illegally extract sand and other materials.
This illegal riverbed mining was carried out with impunity in stretches of various rivers — Ravi, Tawi, Jhelum, Chenab — and other streams of J&K.
This would not have been possible without the active complicity, and patronage of the various government agencies. With the alleged connivance of officials, the sand mafia controlled not only the supply but also the rates of sand, gravel and other mined materials. It is no wonder that the price of sand and cement has almost doubled during the past year alone.
Official reports peg the revenue losses for erstwhile state at around Rs 300 crore annually. The situation hints at a lack of management and coordination among various government agencies –Geology and Mining, Revenue, Police, Fisheries, Environment– and also raises uncomfortable questions about the possibility of an unholy nexus between sand mafia and government. Also, by excluding the Irrigation and Flood Control department from the auctioning process, the government violated its own rules and paved the way for environmental degradation.
To tackle this “open loot and scoot” and the shortage of construction material, the administration amended the governing rules of mining. ‘Jammu and Kashmir Minor Mineral Concession, Storage, Transportation of Minerals and Prevention of Illegal Mining Rules, 2016’ was amended and Panchayat institutions were given the privilege of ‘short-term permits’ of mining on land up to 1 hectare till September 2021.
Under the amended rules, the Department of Geology and Mining has the duty to secure clearance and permission from other departments on behalf Panchayat institutions. As per administration, the decision was taken to “empower” Panchayat institutions to raise funds through mining surpluses and address the shortage of key construction material in the local market, besides keeping a check on their prices. However, Panchayat institutions in J&K have not been able to acquire the status and power – due to a number of reasons- required to function as an institution and implement the crucial rules such as “governing rules of mining”.
The bottom line
For obvious reasons, the change of mining rules in Jammu and Kashmir has been met with “opposition and suspicion” by the general public. The sand miners, diggers, boat-owners, et al., find themselves at a disadvantage in this new mining policy. The sand diggers who belong to the working-class community have been the worst hit due to the introduction of the new mining policy in Jammu and Kashmir. According to the sand diggers’ association, this move of the government will render about one lakh families without livelihood, as police and authorities have recently banned them from extracting sand. It is the responsibility of the government thus to acknowledge and respond to the concerns raised by the locals vis-à-vis the new mining policy and making sure that the policy does not undermine their interests.
One way of ensuring that the concerns of the local people are taken into account is by employing local labour force for the extraction work and ensuring the rates of extracted materials are kept in check. The contractors should be directed to avoid the use of heavy machinery in the extraction process. This will ensure that people associated with mining do not lose their jobs, and above all, the extraction process will be carried out in an eco-friendly way.
The Jammu and Kashmir government can also take a cue from Himachal Pradesh and Uttrakhand and emulate their models of e-auctioning processes that are designed to safeguard the interests of locals in minor mineral extraction processes and ensure the livelihood of the people associated with the job.