As the court rolls back its blanket ban on mining,the state must reassert control through better regulation
The Supreme Court has finally eased its heavy ban on iron ore mining projects in Karnataka,allowing activity to resume in 90 mines in Bellary,Chitradurga and Tumkur districts while cancelling 49 leases in mines where rules were most egregiously broken. This decision has been long awaited. In the two years that the court had directed mining activities in Karnataka and Goa to cease,alongside the mining restrictions in Orissa,overall production had fallen to worrying levels,with destructive ripple effects for the economy. India,once the third-largest exporter of iron ore (after Australia and Brazil),ended up being a net importer. The court had allowed mining to start in Category A (the least problematic) mines at the end of last year,and now it has further widened that rollback.
The courts intervention may have been prompted by the well-meaning intention to fix the failures of the executive,and check the perceived rapacity and rule-flouting in the mining sector,but it reinforced the impression that it had gotten ahead of itself. The court-appointed commission to probe illegal mining ended up suspending all activity,with repercussions for heavy industries and for livelihoods that depended on them. It had the effect of tripping up efforts to return the economy to a higher growth path. In Goa,for instance,even though the chief minister had decided to scale down mining in deference to environmental concerns,the entire sector was shut down by the court. This kind of incursion into areas in the executives domain is not only constitutionally debatable,it also fosters inefficiencies. The judiciary simply lacks the ability to follow through fine-grained administrative decisions,its instruments are blunt and sweeping.
Now it is up to the state and its processes to authoritatively regain control of the mining sector,dispel the associations of corruption,cronyism and disregard for the environment and people that has marred it in popular as well as the courts perception. Reform must be comprehensive,beginning with how the leases are awarded,making sure only credible and reputed companies are involved. The state needs to ramp up its oversight mechanisms,using GIS technology to assist its inspectors. It must identify and check flagrant violations on its own,so that legitimate and necessary mining can carry on undisturbed. Effective regulation is critical for the long-term strength of the sector.