Rights group says India lets mine operators harm

AP News
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Posted: Jun 14, 2012 6:42 AM
Rights group says India lets mine operators harm

The sugarcane on Rama Velip's farm is darker than it should be, stained by the iron dust that blows from hundreds of mining trucks that pass through the south Indian village every day.

"I see red everywhere," said Velip, whose village lies along the transport route from a series of iron and manganese mines to a cluster of smelters and refineries. "It's not just the dust. Mud from these mines gets washed down the Zuari River and trickles into my fields."

The 49-year-old farmer has lost more than half his harvest every year since India's mining boom began in the early 2000s, watching helplessly as iron dust leeched moisture from his cane plants and mining mud dried up the springs on which he depended.

Over the past 10 years, he has seen the price of iron go from $10 per ton to $130. He has also watched as his wife and two of his three children have become asthmatic.

The plight of Velip's family is shared by thousands of people in the states of Goa and Karnataka, where irresponsible mining has damaged the health of thousands of people, interfered with their livelihoods and poisoned the water, according to a human rights group that blamed the troubles on a systematic failure of governance.

In a report released Thursday, New York-based Human Rights Watch blamed the Indian government for failing to enforce key human rights and environmental safeguards in the mining industry.

The 70-page document found that existing laws have "effectively left mine operators to supervise themselves" and described in detail how regulations rely heavily on dubious assessments of the environmental impact proposed mining projects would have.

The report studied communities in Goa and Karnataka but said the troubles there reflected problems in the mining industry across India. Government authorities did not reply to questions seeking comment about the report's findings Thursday.

"Mining operations often cause immense destruction when government doesn't exercise proper oversight," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "India has laws on the books to protect mining-affected communities from harm, but their enforcement has essentially collapsed."

Ritwick Dutta, a lawyer who heads the EIA Response Center, an environmental group, noted that all mining assessments must be cleared by the federal Ministry of Environment and Forests' appraisal committee _ until recently headed by M.L. Majumdar, who sits on the board of at least four mining companies.

"There are glaring conflicts of interest throughout the system," Dutta said. "For instance, these assessments are conducted by hired consultants (paid by the mining companies). That's why no mining project in this country has ever been rejected."

Experts have also questioned the criteria for environmental assessments.

"They are based on data collected over just three months," said Sujeet Dongre, head of the Center for Environment Education, which is studying mining in Goa. "For mining operations that will last several decades, seasonal changes at the site need to be incorporated _ which is not possible without at least a year's data."

Both Dongre and Dutta say environmental assessments contain either incorrect or fraudulent information regarding proximity to water bodies, wildlife or other natural resources.

"The data has never been consistent with what we have seen on the ground," Dongre said.

Chris Albin-Lackey, author of the Human Rights Watch report, says the overarching problem is that the government has not dedicated enough resources to regulators.

"A few dozen government officials are tasked with overseeing the impacts of every mine in India," Albin-Lackey said. "This makes in-field monitoring impossible, and regulators end up with no idea of how many mining firms are complying with the law or how many communities are being harmed by illegal practices."

The Indian mining industry, which produced about $44 billion of minerals in 2010-11, has been overrun by corruption scandals in recent years. A key bill on mining regulation, which proposes profit sharing between firms and local communities, remains blocked in Parliament.

For now, many farmers like Velip are considering going into the trucking business.

"Our fields keep drying up, and so many people in my village have switched from farming to trucking for the mines," said Velip, speaking over telephone from Goa.

"But what will I do if I take a loan of 1.5 million rupees ($27,000) to buy that truck and the government finally agrees to shut down these mines?"