Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Women and Children Mining In India

(Photo: Women make up a majority of the menial labour force in the mining industry CSE)

Despite the grinding poverty found in many parts of India, there is a massive fortune hidden in the ground. Iron, bauxite, gold, lead, zinc, manganese, coal and copper are some of the dozens of minerals found in almost half of the landmass. Despite the fact that an Indian environmental non-profit points out that most of these valuable resources lie in areas that are either ecologically precarious or heavily populated with indigenous peoples, there has been recent heavy foreign investment into its thriving mining sector. One of the greatest causes for concern surrounding the mining sector is the government’s dismal record of neglect for its tribal communities.

The sixth State of India’s Environment Report was released by New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) titled “Rich Land, Poor People – Is Sustainable Mining Possible?” This report challenges the industry and government’s stance that mining is good for growth and creates jobs. This report presents the state-by-state impacts of mining, highlighting the vast array of socio-environmental issues that India is facing due to lack of regulation and sound policy in its mining industry

The report tackles head-on the recommendations for the national mining policy made earlier this year. The CSE report asserts that the government’s proposal which mentions applying a “sustainable framework” for future mining activities forecasts a further boost in foreign investment and promises the introduction of cutting-edge technology does not reflect reality.

"Based on unrealistic assumptions, the policy fails to take into consideration the social and environmental problems happening due to mining. It is bound to promote large-scale exploitative mining; and will, therefore, exacerbate conflict,’’ says Sunita Narain, director of CSE.

Most of the mineral concentrations are in areas of the south, central and northeastern states of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand, areas that are home to a majority of India’s 90 million tribal peoples. More than three quarters of the 2.6 million people displaced by mining from 1950 to 1991 have yet to be rehabilitated.

The Indian mining policy was liberalized in 2000 followed by a decision in 2006 to allow 100% direct investment by international companies. This was the beginning of widespread problems as firms with questionable human rights and environmental reputations – such as De Beers (diamond cartel), Broken Hill Property Co. (gold) and Rio Tinto – were able to acquire significant prospecting rights in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.

Despite all the apparent growth in the mining sector, the boom has only boosted national GDP (gross domestic product) a meager 2.5 percent, with government revenues much lower than expected.

So why is there this discrepancy? According to the report, it is because of the proliferation of small, illegal mines, which are defined as being less than 5 hectares in size and do not require Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). According to the Indian Bureau of Mines, small-scale mines (SSMs) are also manual, open-cast mines that do not use explosives and employ less than 25.

Yet illegal SSMs account for a large part of the mining industry’s “informal sector”. While no official records exist on any of them, it is estimated they make up approximately 11% of the total revenues from mining, could possibly number in the hundreds of thousands and employ anywhere from half a million to 12 million people.

“Small scale mining is a massive employer, is highly productive and profitable. But it’s also polluting, unsafe, disruptive; and, in many cases, outside regulatory regimes,” notes the CSE website.

Besides being a threat to the environment, illegal and unsafe; they are a huge threat to the safety of the workers. The owners of the mines are not hindered by regulations or safety standards as they operate outside the parameters of the law. Since they operate outside the parameters of the law, there is nothing to hinder the extent to which they can carry their corruption. Workers are paid meager wages and often must pay for their own food; fuel and water; and are abandoned if injured.

Typically, it is the most vulnerable groups of society who work in these mines: landless migrants, sometimes entire families. Women do a majority of menial jobs in the mines, while child labor is common and well-documented.

To address the problem, CSE suggests clustering mines in order to regulate them. Worker cooperatives could also be one way to manage mines, allowing better working and living conditions, especially if less people are employed per mine. The pay in such cooperatives is much higher, there is job security, and profits are used for schools and health facilities.

Another necessary measure would to be modify India’s Air and Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Acts, which only permit pollution control agencies to monitor only ‘point’ (i.e. final) sources of pollution, which avoids most of the contamination caused by mining.

Narain said her group is seeking to “create a dialogue” between the various stakeholders of mining in India. “Our idea is not to polarize the discussion, but to integrate industry into it,” she said.

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