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Kerala's NOC for mineral sand mining revives controversy

G.K. Nair

Large-scale extraction of sea sand could upset the ecological balance of the coastal systems. Experts, however, feel that mineral sand mining could be undertaken in a controlled manner.

Kochi , Sept. 19

THE no-objection certificate to the Kerala Rare Earths and Minerals Ltd (KREML) for mineral sand mining has revived the row over the issue.

Mr K C Venugopal, Alapuzha MLA and Tourism Minister in the Ommen Chandy Ministry, and Mr V.M. Sudheeran, ex-MP, have come out strongly against the government's decision. Mr Sudheeran has said that he would again spearhead an agitation against the decision.

According to official sources, the NOC was issued on Wednesday for facilitating the company to seek the permission of various government agencies for mineral sand mining. It has been clearly mentioned that the KREML "shall not conduct any mining operations until further orders are obtained from the High Court," they said. The Union Government had recently cleared the company's project subject to the condition that it should obtain all the required clearances of the concerned government departments/agencies.

On a petition filed by a private party earlier, the High Court had stayed the government policy on mineral sand mining by the private sector.

The latest decision has evoked stiff resistance from the public, environmentalists and political leaders.

Following the Centre's clearance of the project recently, the company - a joint venture of Indian Rare Earths Ltd, Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation and Cochin Minerals and Rutiles Ltd, approached the court, which directed the State Government to issue the NOC.

However, according to technical experts here, mineral sand mining should only be allowed if "stringent environment management plan" are followed. In the resource-poor State, such resources should be utilised fully through environment friendly methods but "the government and the people should benefit from such commercial exploitation," they said.

Large-scale extraction of sea sand could upset the ecological balance of the coastal systems. Consumption of large quantities of fresh water, which is becoming a scarce commodity in the coastal belts, will lead to shortage of drinking water. It will also disturb the coastal dwelling and their hamlets, besides increasing sea erosion.

The beach sand is a source of abundant mineral wealth and is to be utilised for the benefit of the people. "This does not mean that plundering of the coastal belt by the vested interests is allowable," Dr M.P. Sukumaran Nair, an environmental expert and technocrat, said.

However, he said, extraction of sand could be undertaken in a controlled manner under the framework of a definite Environmental Management and Action Plan formulated for the purpose. "Large-scale mining should be avoided. Instead, modular units catering to the requirements of a 30,000 tonnes per annum synthetic rutile plant can be taken up. Accurate environmental impact assessment is to be done."

According to Dr Nair, a second unit may be taken up only upon confirmation that the first unit did not cause any irreversible damage to the eco-system. Expansion can further continue on this line. "Whenever large-scale ecological upsets are noticed, suitable remedial action is to be developed and implemented to reverse the trend. If it doesn't serve the purpose do not expand further," Dr Nair, who was instrumental in successful implementation of a pilot project to manufacture synthetic rutile by the State-owned Travancore Cochin Chemicals Limited (TCC), said.

Mineral sand is available in a stretch of about 3,175 km on the country's western coast, of which 600 km are on Kerala's coast line. There are about ten locations along the coast having heavy mineral concentration. Out of 75 million tonnes of ilmenite found in Kerala, the famous Chavara deposit located between Neendakara in the south and Kayamkulam in the north over a coastal of 22 km contain 62 million tonnes of ilmenite.

This has placed the Chavara ilmenite deposit as the single largest deposit in the world. The titanium dioxide (TiO2) content of ilmenite varies between 60-62 per cent. The beach area falls under the purview of the Coastal Zone Regulation Act, Dr Nair added.

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