Five years of curbs later, Govt keen to open beach sand minerals mining

The proposal in the Prime Minister’s action plan to open two restricted sectors — beach sand minerals and offshore mining — for exploration by the private sector seeks to reverse a series of measures taken by the Centre over the last five years to restrict the involvement of private players in the sector with the stated objective of curbing illegal mining, a review of multiple notifications and guidelines issued earlier reveal.

The proposal to set up a panel to reopen the sector to private participation could have strategic implications, given that monazite and other minerals such as garnet, ilmenite and zircon — commonly known as beach sand minerals as they are found along the coastal regions of peninsular India — are refined and used in stages of the country’s nuclear power programme and hi-tech defence electronics applications.

A note issued by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) as recently as July 2021 on measures for “restricting illegal mining” specifically flags that the mining of beach sand minerals by private parties has “been terminated” as part of the efforts to curb unlawful mining.

The Indian Express reported Tuesday that the Centre has prepared a comprehensive 60-point action plan following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with secretaries of all departments and ministries on September 18.

“Two Sectors are currently restricted – Beach sand minerals (only Department of Atomic Energy can do mining) and Offshore mining (currently only through PSUs). A High level Committee may be set up for opening up these two sectors for exploration and production by private sector,” the action plan said.

The NDA government had issued a detailed notification in July 2019 for reserving the prospecting and mining rights of offshore minerals under Offshore Areas Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act, 2002, exclusively to government-owned companies and entities, after specifically citing the need to “safeguard” strategic interest of the country and curbing illegal mining of atomic minerals. The restrictions on the private sector were also extended to mineral concessions in offshore areas, and the rules were brought at par with the regulations governing mining of these minerals in onshore areas.

Among these beach sand minerals is monazite, the mineral from which thorium is extracted. Thorium is a key ingredient of India’s three-stage nuclear programme that can be turned into nuclear fuel after being combined with a fissile material such as plutonium. Since the other beach sand minerals and monazite generally occur together, companies handling beach sand minerals were earlier required to get a license from the atomic sector regulator AERB (Atomic Energy Regulatory Board), with the licensing conditions requiring the licensee to, after separating the beach sand minerals, dispose of the tailings, which contain monazite, within its company premises or as backfill. Inspectors from AERB then surveyed these areas to ensure the licensing conditions were met.

These rules were tightened progressively by the NDA Government from 2015 onwards, all the way up to the July 2019 notification, to effectively restrict the activities of the private sector in the mining of practically all these minerals. The AERB stopped renewing the license for operation of mineral separation plants by these private parties under Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules 2004 for radiological safety considerations.

The Ministry of Mines and the Directorate General of Foreign Trade had also initiated measures to restrict private sector involvement, including through the specific action mandating that the exports of these minerals were done through state-owned canalising agents.

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