Eye on ore


The Supreme Court has instructed several mining enterprises based in Anantpur district of Andhra Pradesh — including one, the Obulapuram Mining Company, that is associated with the powerful Reddy brothers of Karnataka — to stop operations while investigations are conducted into whether they are mining in areas which they aren’t supposed to touch. This is a welcome check on the Reddy brothers, who must have begun to think of themselves as pretty much invincible by now. The court, recognising that commercial enterprises can’t afford to shut down in an open-ended manner, has asked the Survey of India to investigate, and submit an interim report in two weeks. If the Reddys have indeed moved many of the posts marking the edge of their claim into protected forest land, this is a necessary preliminary step in a process that will hopefully end with a full accounting of their trespasses, literal and figurative.

Two points, however, are thrown into sharp focus. The first is that “illegal mining”, as the Reddys are accused of, goes beyond simply extending ones own claim in this straightforward and quantifiable manner. It includes bringing out more from your mine than you are technically supposed to; it includes ducking or wriggling out way out of environmental assessments. Most twistily, it includes the habit — one which, as a recent set of articles in this newspaper demonstrated, the Reddys are widely accused of having — of expanding your influence by forcing other lease-holders to share their leases with you. These are crimes which are tougher to catch; if the Reddys are guilty of some or all of them, any investigation will take some time to conclude.

The second is a larger point. It takes an institution as insulated and as distant as the Supreme Court to get things moving, to force a response from the state administrations. (On Monday, the Andhra Pradesh governments suspended or transferred three officials who had cleared various Reddy projects.) The local authorities, and increasingly state governments, are too close to mining interests to ensure the sector is cleaned up. This is not a state of affairs that the Centre can allow to happen. Of India’s 50 mining districts, half are largely tribal, and more than half are among India’s 150 poorest districts. Devolving control of extractive mining entirely to careless or extractive state governments will leave us with a basket of problems, all born of political interference, of thuggish crony capitalism. That is not something that a fast-growing economy can afford. New mining legislation should ensure that independent supervision of mining processes is quick and transparent. The Supreme Court cannot step in every time.



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