On January 22, the Madhya Pradesh government notified an amendment to the Madhya Pradesh Minor Mineral Rules, 1996. The amendment tweaks the procedure for issuing permits to quarry 'minor minerals' like dolomite, used in the state's steel and other industries. On January 30, Harshika Singh, the district magistrate of Mandla district, wrote to the sub-divisional magistrates, the CEOs of district panchayats and the divisional forest officers of the district to solicit opinions-and objections-of the local gram sabhas on a proposal to permit dolomite quarrying in certain areas near the Kanha and Bandhavgarh tiger reserves.
The move has sparked fierce protests from locals and environmentalists-on not just the ecological impact of mining but also the consequences of quarrying leases on the nistar rights of local tribal communities, and the fact that the latest amendment is at odds with the spirit of the earlier law.
The state government's amendment follows a decision by the Centre in 2015 to reclassify 31 'major minerals' (including dolomite) as 'minor minerals'-a technicality that makes it easier for states to issue permissions for quarrying leases. The Madhya Pradesh government's amendment on January 22 also included a provision for e-tendering for such quarrying rights.
Opponents of the amendment say the most controversial provision is Section 18 A(2), which reads, in part: 'The notice for submitting opinions [or objections] with regard to [such mining proposals]... shall be given to the concerned gram sabha for notified areas and to gram panchayats for non-notified areas. If an objection is received within a period of 15 days from the concerned gram sabha or gram panchayat, the objection will be disposed of on a merit basis... if no objection is received within the prescribed period, it shall be deemed that the gram sabha/ gram panchayat has no objection [to the proposal].'
Activists argue that this amendment violates existing central laws. Vibhuti Jha, a senior lawyer and activist, says, "PESA or the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, gives gram sabhas the authority to decide on such issues. By stating that objections by gram sabhas to the mining proposals will be 'disposed of on a merit basis', the government's amendment is clearly diluting their authority." What complicates the issue is that while the PESA Act, passed by the Centre nearly three decades ago, seeks to empower gram sabhas in this regard, the state governments have dragged their heels on framing rules for its implementation. Only five states-Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan-have framed these rules so far, with the Madhya Pradesh government's tribal welfare department beginning the process just last week.
"The role of gram sabhas in the state is defined in the Madhya Pradesh Panchayati Raj and Gram Swaraj Act, 1993," adds Jha, "and PESA Act is in force in the state, even if rules have not been framed. The government's amendment goes against it." On this point, Articles 251 and 254 of the Constitution state that in the case of an 'inconsistency' between state and central laws, it is the central law-in this case, the PESA Act-that must take precedence. However, the Madhya Pradesh government's director for geology and mining, Vineet Kumar Austin, insists that there is no contradiction here, saying, "The amendments to the Minor Mineral Rules do not dilute the powers of the gram sabhas in scheduled areas."
The time allowed in the amendment to flag objections is another contentious issue. "Fifteen days is too short a period for gram sabhas to submit opinions and objections to such proposals," says Jha. "In some areas, it is unlikely that the notice [inviting opinions and objections] will even reach gram sabhas on time."
Yet another problem is that some of the areas being considered for dolomite mining fall in an ecological corridor connecting the Kanha and Bandhavgarh tiger reserves, which are classified as reserve forests. This brings the state government's amendment in conflict with yet another existing law-a statutory provision in the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Section 38-O(g) of this Act states that 'areas linking one protected area or tiger reserve with another protected area or tiger reserve are [not to be] diverted for ecologically unsustainable uses, except in the public interest and with the approval of the National Board for Wildlife, and on the advice of the Tiger Conservation Authority'. Despite some of the proposed mining locations violating this provision, the new rules proposed by the state government contain no provisions to seek the approval of the National Board for Wildlife or the Tiger Conservation Authority.
As of now, one gram sabha in Mandla district-Bhanwartal-has filed objections to seven land parcels in its vicinity being identified as potential dolomite mining sites. The gram sabha has said that if mining were to be allowed in these areas, there would be no common land left for residents, that the reserve forests in the area would degrade and that local wildlife would suffer as a result.
According to the Indian Bureau of Mines, Madhya Pradesh has almost a third (27 per cent) of India's dolomite reserves. Within the state, dolomite deposits are found in Mandla, Balaghat, Chattarpur, Sagar, Jabalpur, Katni, Sidhi, Narsinghpur, Seoni, Jhabua, Khandwa and Dewas districts. Dolomite is the second-biggest contributor of revenue among minor minerals to the state government.