Despite lockdown, mining operations continue, scaled down by COVID-19 fears

BHUBANESWAR: While the 21-day lockdown has brought life to a standstill in most parts of the country, mining and transportation of ore continued in Odisha’s mineral belts.

In an order dated March 24 by the state’s Naveen Patnaik government, production, supply and distribution of coal, power, steel and fertiliser, operations of mines — iron ore, coking coal, thermal coal, limestone, dolomite, manganese and chromite — as well as running of ferro alloy and pellet plants (which supply raw material to steel plants) were termed “essential services” and exempted from the shutdown.

Mining royalty is a significant contributor to the Odisha exchequer. This year, Odisha has already collected Rs 10,300 crore in royalties alone.

However, activity has come down by more than 60%, according to the industry association, on account of labour and drivers leaving on their own and restrictions on inter-state transport. “Both the state and central governments have allowed mining as an essential activity. It is mostly the mechanised work that is carrying on,” Eastern Zone Mining Association secretary Prabodh Mohanty said. Much of the house-keeping staff and those handling sorting and grading labour, mostly local villagers, have been sent home because of social distancing norms, he said, adding: “Transport too is down to 40% and being done largely through railway rakes.”

While mining operations have been allowed to function, all the mechanisms for regulatory oversight are restricted, said Kanchi Kohli, who heads an environmental justice programme at the Centre for Policy Research. “At present there are no mechanism available to address accidents, pollution, over extraction. This poses heavy life, health and livelihood risks in mining regions. It is important to note that not all coal mining is directed towards essential coal power. Coking coal is directed to iron, steel and other industries. Much stronger justification is required on the essential nature of iron ore mining even if it is of mechanised nature,” added Kohli.

A mine owner, speaking on the condition of anonymity, justified the move, pointing out that Orissa Mining Corporation, the state’s own enterprise, had already contributed Rs 500 to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. “The government has to also worry about money to be spent on tackling Covid-19,” he added.

For the sector and for Odisha, March end was already a critical time. After a successful series of auction for mining rights, about twenty iron ore and manganese mines and three chrome mines will see a change of ownership come 1 April.


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