sand mining

 To

Shri Rajiv Gauba

Cabinet Secretary

Govt of IndiA

Dear Shri Gauba,

I have come across disturbing reports (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/sand-minerals-mining-modi-govt-private-sector-7585816/) that the government is making moves once again to permit private companies to mine and trade atomic minerals located in the beach sands of AP, T. Nadu and Kerala. It appears that this step is a part of a 60-point “Action Plan” of the Prime Minister. If there is any such proposal, I would appeal to the government not to go ahead with it, as it will compromise the national interest as explained below.

The beach sands along the sea coast in AP, T.Nadu and Kerala have valuable minerals such as ilmenite, rutile, zircon, monazite, sillimanite and garnet, the first four of which have  been categorised by the Dept of Atomic Energy (DAE) as “prescribed substances” (“atomic minerals”) for use in production of atomic energy and related R&D activities. Monazite, of which India has 7 million tonnes in the beach sands, is the raw material for thorium, which is central to DAE’s long-term nuclear development programme. India’s monazite resources are among the largest in the world and therefore many countries are eager to exploit the same for their respective nuclear development activities, which could hurt India’s interests in many ways.

During British rule in India, export of some of these atomic minerals started as early as in 1922 and went on unhindered till we got Independence. Whichever atomic mineral is extracted/refined/traded, it is bound to contain some proportion of monazite, which is the raw material for producing thorium, a valuable input for generating electricity and other strategic products in the future nuclear reactors.

Soon after Independence, on the advice of visionary atomic scientists like Dr Homi J Bhabha on the strategic importance of monazite, the then Prime Minister Nehru, who himself had utmost respect for science and deeply committed to upholding the national interest, took the right decision in 1947 to impose a total embargo on the export of these atomic minerals. In 1950, DAE set up its own PSUs like Indian Rare Earths Ltd. (IREL) to undertake the mining of these atomic minerals largely for domestic use, especially R&D in atomic science. Incidentally, it was Prime Minister Nehru who initiated and nurtured the development of nuclear R&D facilities in India.

The ban imposed on export of atomic minerals remained in force for more than five decades till the then UPA government in its first term caved in to external pressures, as a result of which the DAE, vide DAE SO 61(E) dated 20-1-2006 excluded ilmenite, zircon, rutile. sillimanite, garnet etc. from the banned list, which implied that private companies could thereafter handle the minerals without having to seek clearance under the Atomic Energy (Working of the Mines, Minerals and Handling of Prescribed Substances) Rules, 1984.

In other words, monazite and thorium were the only substances for which licenses under the Atomic Energy Act were not required. Unfortunately, since each one of these liberalised minerals, once processed, would still contain some proportion of monazite as an impurity, it is difficult to monitor and regulate the quantities of monazite exported surreptitiously as a part of the other mineral export consignments, despite the DAE imposing a low ceiling on the monazite content of the export consignments. The tailings of these minerals released after processing are rich in monazite and they are expected to be stored under the surveillance of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) but, in practice, AERB’s oversight remained fragile, giving scope for the private miners to get away with clandestine export of monazite. There used to be a system of “monazite test certification” for screening the atomic mineral export consignments at the ports but, once again, under external pressure, the DAE had done away with it in 2007 (DAE’s Atomic Minerals Division Note. Id.No.8/1(2)/2004-PSU/Vol.III/2631 dt.18 April.2007), which made it easier for the private companies to clandestinely export monazite as a hidden impurity in the other atomic minerals.

In this context, I had written several times to the then Prime Minister appealing to him to reimpose the embargo on private companies mining and trading atomic minerals but neither the Prime Minister nor the DAE responded to my appeals, as a result of which several private companies blissfully mined the beach sands, often violating the environment laws and perhaps exporting significant quantities of monazite, to the detriment of the national interest.

The matter concerning clandestine export of monazite attracted the attention of the Hon’ble Madras High Court. The DAE which is a respondent in that case is fully aware of the developments in that case, which is pending disposal as on date. I myself have filed a writ (WP(C) No. 500/2018) before Hon’ble Supreme Court regarding  one instance of beach sand mining in Srikakulam district of AP. DAE and, among others, the Union Ministry of Mines are respondents in that case. The Writ is pending disposal as on date.

During the proceedings in WP(C) No.500/2018 before the apex court, the Ministry of Mines, in consultation with the DAE, issued notifications under Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 (67 of 1957) and Rule 36 of the Atomic Minerals Concession Rules, 2016, prematurely terminating all private leases for beach sand mining in India, a fact that was taken note of by the apex court proceedings on 5-8-2019. It was indeed a belated but a welcome development, as it had the effect of preventing any further mining of the atomic minerals by the private companies.

According to the recent news report cited above, “the proposal in the Prime Minister’s action plan to open two restricted sectors — beach sand minerals and offshore mining — for exploration by the private sector seeks to reverse a series of measures taken by the Centre over the last five years to restrict the involvement of private players in the sector with the stated objective of curbing illegal mining, a review of multiple notifications and guidelines issued earlier reveal.”

Read in the above context, if what has been reported is correct, it appears that the government has once again come under intense external pressure as a result of which DAE is being directed to revive the UPA era decision to open the sector to private companies. The recent changes proposed by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MEFCC) to dilute the environment laws, including the CRZ notification, to “ease doing business”, confirms the feeling that the ground is being prepared for allowing private companies to exploit the beach sands.

In my view, the decision to reopen the beach sand mining sector to private companies will be against the national interest, as it will once again open the floodgates to large quantities of monazite leaving the Indian shores. Once the private companies step in, as was the case between 2006 and 2019, neither the DAE nor the Union Ministry of Mines would be in a position to screen the export consignments of atomic minerals to filter out monazite, a substance of strategic importance for India.

I feel that the DAE has not adequately briefed the Prime Minister of the far reaching implications of atomic minerals, especially monazite, going into the hands of private companies and the disastrous outcome of the UPA era decision in 2006 that led to possible large scale plunder of the monazite resources in the country.

The DAE has invsted heavily on R&D in nuclear science, especially thorium-based fast breeder reactor technology as a part of its long-term nuclear development programme and, in that context, to allow private beach sand mining that can result in monazite trade to benefit the other countries would hurt the national interest.

Keeping the above facts in view, I request the government/DAE to

 

  1. Dop all proposals to allow private companies to mine/trade atomic minerals
  2. Direct the Union Ministry of Mines to abide by its assurances given to the apex court in the Writ proceedings involving beach sand mining
  3. Mining and extraction of atomic minerals should be undertaken exclusively by IREL and other PSUS (which are not likely to be disinvested in the coming years) for the exclusive purpose of domestic use
  4. Order a full scale CBI/ED investigation into export of atomic minerals and monazite by the private companies during 2006-2019 and bring to book all those who connived with the errant private companies in conducting illegal trade of atomic minerals, especially monazite
  5. Subsequent to the Dept of Mines revoking private beach sand mining leases, sizeable stocks of atomic minerals and monazite tailings are lying with inadequate oversight. Ensure that IREL steps in immediately and takes over the same under its surveillance
  6. Take all such measures necessary to conserve and safeguard the beach sand minerals in India, both coastal and inland
  7. Grant autonomous status to AERB so that it may discharge its functions independently and remain accountable to the Parliament

I request you to place this letter before the Prime Minister, who looks after the affairs of the DAE under the Business Rules, to enable him to appreciate the background of my suggestions above. In my view, reopening beach sand mining to private companies will hurt the national interest in an irreversible manner.

Regards,

Yours sincerely,

E A S Sarma, Former Secretary to Govt of India


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