The Centre plans to reverse a series of measures that it has taken over the past five years to restrict private participation in mining of beach sand minerals and offshore resources.
The proposal is part of the 60-point action plan the government has prepared following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meetings with secretaries of all departments and ministries on September 18.
The government’s action plan states: “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 proposal to set up a panel to reopen the sector to private players could have strategic implications, given that heavy minerals found in beach sand are used in a variety of industries. Ilmenite, rutile, leucoxene, garnet, monazite, zircon and sillimanite are processed to derive rare earth elements as well as titanium. Monazite is the primary ore for thorium, a nuclear fuel.
A July 2021 note issued by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) on measures for “restricting illegal mining” specifically states that the mining of beach sand minerals by private parties has “been terminated” as part of efforts to curb unlawful mining.
In July 2019 the Modi government had issued a notification for reserving the prospecting and mining rights of offshore minerals under the Offshore Areas Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act, 2002, exclusively to government-owned companies and entities. The notification specifically cited the need to “safeguard” strategic interests 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.
Since Monazite is found among other beach sand minerals, companies were earlier required to get a licence from the 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 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 these minerals. The AERB stopped renewing the licence for operation of mineral separation plants by private parties under Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules 2004 for radiological safety considerations.