The Covid pandemic has slowed down economies across the world. Several industrial sectors have suffered owing to the lockdown. Industries and commercial establishments across India have been shut down, apart from essential commodities. Mining operations, however, are getting a boost through reforms that have been put in place to “open a new era in Indian coal and mining sector specially to promote Ease of Doing Business” (Ministry of Coal Press Release, 12 March).

The recently passed Mineral Laws (Amendment) Bill 2020 allows companies that do not possess any prior coal mining experience to engage in mining projects, as well as those that are not ‘engaged in specified end-use.’ This expands the mining industry exponentially, permitting mining for several purposes including sale, own-consumption or any other purpose that may be specified by the Central Government.

In line with the objective of promoting industrial development at all costs, the Draft EIA Notification also aims to dilute norms related to Environmental Impact Assessments and Environmental Clearances. Coal and non-coal mineral prospecting is one of the many types of activities that have been exempted from requiring a prior environmental clearance.

A couple of months later, on June 18, the Central Government initiated the auction of 41 coal blocks, in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. Thousands will be displaced owing to these mining projects. The mining will also cause serious environmental degradation.

Mining contributes heavily to pollution. This has been proved by a number of scientific studies. Sukinda valley in the state of Odisha has 97 per cent of India’s Chromium reserves. It is also one of the top ten most polluted regions of the world. Water, soil and even plants in the area are laced with carcinogenic hexavalent chromium. Orissa Voluntary Health Association (OVHA) revealed that Chromium extraction is responsible for 84 per cent of deaths in the mining areas of Sukinda and 86 per cent of deaths in the nearby industrial villages.

In the Jharia coal fields of Jharkhand, responsible for supplying the nation with the finest coking coal, mine fires are burning unchecked, poisoning the environment and devastating the lives of more than five lakh people. Independent studies have revealed that the PM10 level, a highly dangerous respirable particulate matter, in Jharia is above 290 micrograms per cubic meter, which is almost three times the permissible concentration. The state of Jharkhand is a perfect example of ‘resource curse.’ Thirty-nine per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, even though the state has about 32 per cent of the nation’s coal reserve, 25.07 per cent of iron ore, 18.48 per cent copper ore, and is the only producer of coking coal.

In view of the adverse environmental and social impacts of mining, the Supreme Court of India has pointed out the importance of Environmental Impact Assessments (Goa Foundation Case, April 2014). It noted that there are adverse consequences when “the macro effect of such wide scale land and environmental degradation caused by the absence of remedial measures (including a rehabilitation plan)” is not taken into account (Karnataka mining case, Supreme Court of India, April 2013). To regulate the environmental consequences of this sector, the Apex Court has also stated that mining operations must be conducted within the parameters of the requirements of Article 21 of the Constitution, i.e. the right to a clean environment and pollution-free air, the precautionary principle and the principles of sustainable development and intergenerational equity.

Global standards of good practice have also been evolved to ensure that mining be conducted in a sustainable manner with environmental and human rights standards embedded in the regulatory fabric of this sector. India is a member of the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development (IGF), a global policy forum on mining and sustainable development. The IGF has produced a Guidance Document for Governments on Environmental and Social Impact Assessments related to the mining sector.

The Guidance Document stresses the importance of effective environmental and social impact assessment and management plans to “minimize the negative impacts [of the mining industry] and to optimize the positive contributions of the mining sector.” It goes on that, “the legal framework should provide a clear roadmap for the environmental and social impact assessment and management process” so that the government may be able to meet “all aspects of its sustainable development objectives.” The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights also require the adoption of effective legal and policy frameworks to prevent and redress human rights abuses occurring as a result of business operations.

Furthermore, India’s commitments under international environmental agreements, such as the Stockholm and Rio Declarations, Convention on Biological Diversity and UNFCCC, also require it to adopt a sustainable development framework, which requires that environmental, social and economic interests be balanced. Effective EIAs and Environmental Management Plans are a key aspect of this.

Protecting the environment makes economic sense. Degradation of natural resources puts a heavy burden on the economy. The World Bank reveals that the total annual cost of environmental degradation in India is at about Rs. 3.75 trillion (US$80 billion), amounting to 5.7 per cent of the GDP in 2009, the reference year for most of the damage estimates (World Bank, 2013). This is based on the cumulative cost of air and water pollution, as well as crop land, pasture land and forest degradation. A recent report by Greenpeace (February, 2020) corroborates this, pointing out that the annual cost of air pollution alone in India is US$ 150 billion. The report adds that India bears the third highest cost of fossil fuel air pollution worldwide, after China and the United States.

The Covid pandemic, together with the growing challenges of climate change, increasing pollution and biodiversity loss, have led to a realisation that we need to work towards a ‘new normal’ that embraces a more sustainable pathway and a low carbon, green economy. Which direction is India taking?

The writers are, respectively, Assistant Professors of Environmental Law and Environmental Science at the Jindal School of Environment and Sustainability, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat.