New mining law to empower whistleblowers

Written by Rituparna Bhuyan | New Delhi | Updated: Dec 23 2009, 04:39am hrs
The mining business in the country may be shrouded in a nefarious political economy nexus that abets illegal extraction of mineral wealth. While the Supreme Court has stepped in to stop the allegedly rampant illegal mining operations of firms owned by Karnataka tourism minister G Janardhana Reddy, his peers will find find the going tough under the new law in the works for regulating mines.

Illegal activity in mines could mean cancellation of existing permits and debarment from undertaking any mining activity for the next five years, under the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation (MMDR) Act, which will replace a 1957 legislation. Going a step further, the new MMDR Act seeks to give the common citizen powers to complain against unlawful activity in mines. Moreover, to ensure speedy disposal of illegal mining cases, the new Act mandates setting up of special courts by state governments.

These are some of the steps that the government is mulling to ensure that miners conform to norms while extracting minerals resources. According to data available with the mining ministry, between January 2006 and June, 2009, nearly 80,000 cases of illegal mining activity were detected by state governments The ministry has prepared a draft cabinet note on the new MMDR Act, which was supposed to be introduced in the Parliament during the just concluded winter session but got delayed as inter-ministerial consultations could not be wound up.

A Court may take cognisance of any offense punishable under this Act or any rules made there under upon complaint in writing made by a person authorised in this behalf by the Central Government or the State Government as the case may be, or any other person having an interest, section 56 of the proposed MMDR Act says. At the moment, complaints against illegal mining activity can only be registered by government officials.

The new mining regime seeks to discourage illegal mining activity in a two pronged way. Firstly, violators will have to face hefty fines and even imprisonment for violations. Secondly, any company that has been subjected to action will loose its prospecting license and banned from undertaking any mining activity from the next five years.

According to government data, just Andhra Pradesh accounts for over 35,000 instances of violations of mining norms, followed by Gujarat with more than 23,000 cases and Maharashtra with nearly 18,000. However, only 2,931 FIRs have been filed while 2,181 court cases against illegal mining activity are being tried in courts.

Last week, the Supreme Court stayed an Andhra Pradesh High Court order that suspended the state governments decision to restrain six companies, including Karnataka tourism minister G Janardhana Reddy-owned Obulapuram Mining Company (OMC), from carrying out mining and transportation of iron ore in Anantapur district of the state.

Significantly, the instances of illegal mining have spurted since January, 2008. The Mines Ministry has set up a panel of officials to inspect cases of illegal activity in the first week of December.