Saturday 16 June 2012

Human Rights Watch reports on mining in India.

The organization Human Rights Watch issued a report into the mining industry in India entitled Out of Control: Mining, Regulatory Failure and Human Rights in India on Thursday 14 June 2012. The report is fairly damning, accusing the Indian Government of contributing to human rights abuses through a lack of regulatory oversight, that has contributed to a high degree of lawlessness within the industry. 

Human Rights Watch essentially perceive three main problems with regulation of the mining industry in India. Firstly regulation is overseen by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which is primarily concerned with environmental, rather than human rights, issues. Secondly in India companies are required to commission 'independent' reports into the impact of their activities. Human Rights Watch feel this creates a clear conflict of interest, since an 'independent' company producing a report would be unlikely to be commissioned to win the contract to carry out another report. Thirdly government agencies responsible for regulation are notoriously underfunded, leaving them with little ability to intervene when they do perceive a problem, as well as vulnerable to corruption.

The report was based largely upon events in Goa and Karnataka States, where an investigation by central government recently lead to the closure of much of the mining industry in both states, as well as the resignation of Karnataka's Chief Minister, and the voting out of the State Government in Goa. Similar investigations are currently underway in Jharkhand and Orissa States, suggesting that central government in India is not completely complacent about this problem. 

Cuddegalivoril Soddo Mines, Savordem, Goa; one of 45 mines in the state with an uncertain future after environmental clearances granted to them by the Ministry of Environment and Forests expired, as there is now a moratorium on issuing new clearances in the state. The Hindu/Andrea Pereira.

Interestingly most of the human rights issues reported on are in fact environmental issues as well, such as contamination of water supplies and damage to crops due to wind-blown mine tailings, which suggests that regulation by the Ministry of Environment and Forests is not entirely inappropriate. However the mining industry in India has also often been linked to child labour and bonded labour, two very serious issues which would seem to be outside the Ministry's direct mandate. For example Anti-Slavery International quote an estimated 40% of workers in India's gem mines being under 14 years of age, with child laborers not being paid until they complete a two year 'apprenticeship', and being paid an average of one-third of the adult rate. They also estimate that nearly a million children are employed in quarries and open-pit mines in India, including at least 200 000 in Karnataka State. 

The commissioning of reports by mining companies is an interesting issue. Where the companies are the only ones commissioning the reports, and they do so directly, then this is clearly an issue. This is not to say that independent environmental consultants cannot play a role, but they would be more independent if the companies were being asked to fund reports that were commissioned by the government, and where a healthy non-governmental sector was also capable of commissioning reports as well (Disclaimer: I have previously worked in both environmental monitoring and mineral extraction, and could quite possibly do so again). Clearly if there is evidence of corruption by environmental monitoring companies then this is a serious issue, and should be treated in the same way as corruption by any other organization. One of the recommendations that Human Rights Watch makes is the establishment of powerful, independent, anti-corruption ombudsmen at state level in India, which could potentially address many of the country's issues, though this is unlikely to be a remedy that could be introduced either quickly or easily.

Child laborers at a quarry in India. Kevin Frayer/Associatied Press.

The funding of regulators in India is another interesting issue. A current economic philosophy has it that low tax and low regulation are good for national economies, as without them multi-national companies (who it is somehow wrong to regulate) will switch production to other countries. India has subscribed heavily to this philosophy, but it is difficult to see how this really applies to the minerals industry, as minerals can only be extracted where they are found. In addition mineral resources are finite, and in many cases highly sought after. Even if companies do pull out temporarily, they (or someone else) is likely to come back in the future - when the value of the resources is likely to have increased.

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