Breakdown of Government Oversight Harms Communities, Fuels Corruption
June 14, 2012

Mining operations often cause immense destruction when government doesn’t exercise proper oversight. India has laws on the books to protect mining-affected communities from harm, but their enforcement has essentially collapsed.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director

(Panaji) – India’s government has failed to enforce key human rights and environmental safeguards in the country’s mining industry, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 70-page report, “Out of Control: Mining, Regulatory Failure and Human Rights in India,” finds that deep-rooted shortcomings in the design and implementation of key policies have effectively left mine operators to supervise themselves. This has fueled pervasive lawlessness in India’s scandal-ridden mining industry and threatens serious harm to mining-affected communities. Human Rights Watch documented allegations that irresponsible mining operations have damaged the health, water, environment, and livelihoods of these communities.

“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.”

India’s government has systemically failed to ensure that the country’s 2,600 authorized mining operations adhere to key human rights and environmental protections under Indian law, Human Rights Watch found. These problems are related to and have facilitated a series of high-profile corruption allegations in the mining industry that have rocked India in recent years. Illegality in the mining sector has deprived state governments of badly needed revenues, threatened the industry with costly and unpredictable shutdowns, and generated political chaos that helped bring down two state governments in 2011 and 2012.

The Human Rights Watch report is based in part on interviews with more than 80 people in Goa and Karnataka states, as well as in New Delhi, including residents in affected communities, activists, and mining company and government officials.

Farmers in Goa and Karnataka told Human Rights Watch that mining operations have destroyed or polluted vital springs and groundwater supplies. Overladen ore trucks throw off clouds of iron-rich dust as they pass through rural communities, destroying crops and potentially damaging the health of nearby families. In some cases, people who speak out about these problems have been threatened, harassed, or physically attacked, while government authorities failed to address their grievances.

These and other human rights problems in the mining industry are linked to deep-rooted government failures of oversight and regulation, Human Rights Watch said. Some key regulatory safeguards are virtually set up to fail because of poor design. But in many cases, the problem is that implementation is so shoddy that it renders relatively good laws ineffective, Human Rights Watch found.

“Mining scandals may grab headlines, but the root causes of India’s mining problems are more basic,” Ganguly said. “The government has encouraged lawlessness by failing to enforce the law or even monitor whether mine operators are complying with it.”

Indian law, like that of many other countries, situates core human rights protections somewhat awkwardly within regulatory frameworks designed primarily to mitigate the environmental impacts of mining operations. This places much of the responsibility for monitoring and enforcement with India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests.

The government has sufficient authority to correct the serious flaws in the existing regulatory framework, Human Rights Watch said. For instance, the government relies on mining companies to commission and produce the “independent” Environmental Impact Assessments that are used to gauge a proposed mining project’s likely environmental, social, and human rights impacts. This creates an unnecessary conflict of interest that could be solved by giving regulators the central role in commissioning those studies. The assessments also tend to give short shrift to human rights issues, focusing overwhelmingly on purely environmental concerns.

Enforcement is an even bigger problem, Human Rights Watch found. Regulatory institutions are hopelessly overstretched. A few dozen central government officials are tasked with overseeing the environmental and human rights impacts of every mine in India – and many other industries as well. This makes in-field monitoring a practical impossibility, forcing the government to rely almost exclusively on information provided by mine operators themselves. Many state government oversight bodies have even less capacity to implement their challenging mandates. As a result, government regulators have no idea how many mining firms are complying with the law or how many communities have been harmed by illegal practices.

Similar problems pervade the process for approving new mining operations. Regulators often rely exclusively on the Environmental Impact Assessments commissioned by mining firms to determine whether to allow a project to go forward. Field visits are rare and projects are considered and approved at such a rapid pace that there is no time for serious scrutiny of the conclusions of the environmental impact reports.

Yet the evidence shows that those reports are often rife with incorrect or deliberately misleading information. Under this framework, approval for new mining and other industrial projects is almost never denied. Many currently operational mines may have been given approval to proceed on the basis of false information about potential harm to neighboring communities.

The central government has taken some tentative steps toward improving oversight – like requiring companies to choose from a list of accredited firms to carry out Environmental Impact Assessments. But the reforms have not gone nearly far enough. Human Rights Watch urged the government to adopt a number of pragmatic policy recommendations to narrow some of the most important regulatory gaps.

“Mining is an important part of India’s economy, but that does not mean the industry should be allowed to write its own rules,” Ganguly said. “The government can and should empower regulators to do their jobs more effectively than they can today.”