Urmi Goswami, ET Bureau Aug 24, 2012, 
(Ramesh has pitched for a…)

NEW DELHI: Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh has pitched for a moratorium on new mining projects in the worst Naxal-affected regions and particularly in areas recently recaptured from insurgents, saying it was essential to quell the Maoist problem wreaking havoc across much of India’s hinterland.

Tribal affairs minister Kishore Chandra Deo had earlier made this suggestion. In comments certain to draw the ire of industry, parts of which already view him as anti-development, Ramesh also said mining was part of the problem, and called it one of the key issues contributing to the Maoist stranglehold over mineral-rich forest areas

“There should be a 10-year moratorium on new mining in the worst Naxal-affected areas, particularly those areas which have recently been liberated from Maoist control and where we need to re-establish the presence of the state, improve governance and ensure that Maoists don’t regain the foothold,” he told ET in an interview.

Ramesh said that mining as it has been and is being undertaken was “neither ecologically sensitive nor socially inclusive”. He said it had aided Maoists gain control over large swathes of central India’s tribal belt, as he argued that it was essential to address issues arising from mining activities if the state is to consolidate and re-establish its presence in the Naxal-affected areas.

A moratorium on mining, Ramesh said, will buy the central and state governments time to first provide the basics in tribal areas and then help equip the local population to be able to participate in economic activities such as mining.

“What we need to do is build up the skill set of the local population, improve governance, and train the local people so that they are in a better position to participate in this economic activity,” he explained.

“If you have a free for all for mining in these areas, given that our track record in mining has been so disastrous, what you will have in the initial years will be that all the jobs (skilled and semi-skilled) go to outsiders and the menial jobs will be done by the locals.”

Such a situation would over time breed resentment among the locals and end up becoming a recruiting sergeant for the Naxal cause, he added. Limiting mining activity would also help cut off a key funding source for the Maoists, whom Ramesh described as being fuelled by “levy and not ideology”.

“The moment you expand mining activities you will find a proliferation of groups operating under the garb of Maoist ideology, but who are basically extortionists,” he said.

With his stance on mining, Ramesh is potentially placing himself once again in the firing line of detractors who blame him for a lot of the country’s present economic problems.

In his previous job as environment minister, Ramesh pushed a policy demarcating forests as ‘go and no-go’ areas for mining, a move that made him a lightning rod of criticism both within and outside the government.

Other ministers and some in industry circles have blamed him and his policy for raw material shortages and resultantly a sharp drop in economic growth rates.

Coming at a time India’s GDP growth rate – at just over 5% – is hovering at levels unseen in a nearly a decade, Ramesh’s latest intervention on the mining issue could, for some, buttress his anti-development and anti-growth image.

But the man remains unfazed. “What is more important – social peace or growth? What use is this growth if large parts of your own territories are not amenable to any form of governance by democratically elected institutions?” he asks.

An IIT-Mumbai, Carnegie Mellon and MIT alumnus, Ramesh, says that he is not anti-growth, but there is a need for balance. “This monotheism that we have practiced since 1991 that ‘nothing matters except GDP growth’ is very unwise.

Growth is essential. There is no doubt about that,. This is not an argument for going back to worshipping a 3.5% growth rate, but what it calls for is a certain balance. It calls for making strategic choices,” he said.

Although Ramesh in his stint as environment minister succeeded in giving the ministry, long viewed as a rubber stamp department, a big public profile, his move to rural development, albeit with a promotion to full cabinet rank, was viewed in some quarters as a punishment by the Prime Minister for hobbling the cause of industrialisation and economic growth.

Given the challenge posed by the Maoists, Ramesh is confident that the Prime Minister will take this proposal under consideration. “I don’t think the Prime Minister is insensitive to these issues.

I have had extensive talks with him. Every time I go to one of these Naxal-affected districts, I brief him and I have never found him not supportive of what I am trying to do,” he said.

To his detractors who argue that he does not see the larger picture, Ramesh tosses some ancient lines of wisdom from the Bhagwad Gita, especially the one in which Krishna tells Arjuna that “it is better to die doing one’s own duty than to die doing someone else’s duty”.

“My duty is not to promote mining industry, my duty is to ensure that the process of mining does not lead to undesirable social and ecological consequences. The job of the mining minister is to promote mining, he says, adding that ultimately whether a project takes off or not depends on the wish of the locals.

“Niyamgiri didn’t work out not just because of my decision, but because the local Dongaria Konds (tribals) didn’t want it,” he says, referring to Vedanta Resources’ stalled multi-billion dollar project to mine bauxite in Orissa’s Niyamgiri hills.