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Mining Policy and Undermining Politics

The judgment of the Supreme Court in Prafulla Samantra and Anr v Union of India and Others (Writ Petition (civil) No 194/2014) on 2 August 2017, asking the mine leaseholders to deposit penalty with Odisha government for the benefits of tribals and area development for illegal mining in violation of environmental clearance, raises many interesting and perplexing issues related to policy, governance and politics.

The judgment of the Supreme Court in Prafulla Samantra and Anr v Union of India and Others (Writ Petition (civil) No 194/2014) on 2 August 2017, asking the mine leaseholders to deposit penalty with Odisha government for the benefits of tribals and area development for illegal mining in violation of environmental clearance, raises many interesting and perplexing issues related to policy, governance and politics.

Much earlier, Upendra Baxi in his provocative study the Indian Supreme Court and Politics (1980) had pertinently described the Supreme Court as a political institution, as the centre of political power and its decisions as political events. The aforesaid judgment is based on intergenerational equity principles in this era of climate change politics. The apex court has handed over the penalty on the existing mines to leaseholders in Kendujhar, Sundergarh and Mayurbhanj districts of Odisha, based on the calculation of excess mineral lifted over the permissible limit without any environmental clearance even within the mining area. It has laid down the principle of intergenerational equity while permitting the extent of minerals to be consumed by the present generation and has directed the central government to revisit the National Mineral Policy, 2008 to strengthen its conservation and mineral development.

The Court has also directed the union government to set up an expert committee to identify the lapses and find solutions for illegal mining. Quite interestingly, the apex court’s order has vindicated the Odisha government’s step as it had earlier slapped hefty penalty, running into thousands of crore of rupees, for illegal mining by the mining companies with the little chance of realising it and of the demands of Maoist insurgents, and the civil society voices in Odisha about the plunder of mines in connivance with bureaucracy, politicians and transport mafia despite regulative mechanisms.

This judgment has underlined and revived an interest among scholars and policy practitioners to think how policy shapes politics. One is inclined to think in terms of Theodore J Lowi’s classic study, “American Business, Public Policy, Case Studies and Political Theory” (published in World Politics, 1964), whether public policy such as mineral policy generates “arenas of power,” which in turn, affects the development of political processes, political structures and issues. Has mining policy generated arenas of political contestation or has the neo-liberal politics of extractive mining sapped the regulative powers of the state? Of course, it would be naïve to believe that opening up the mines for export-driven extraction by domestic and foreign capital is autonomous from the contemporary political and economic development.

Peter Evans in his popular work, Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation (1995), argues persuasively that, a professional- and merit-based bureaucracy with “embedded characteristics” can give the state autonomous space from social groups and can work closely with capital for further growth by playing the so-called midwifery, husbandry and custodian role. The embededness of bureaucracy with capital and maintaining a space for corporate autonomy would make the state developmental; otherwise, it would turn to be predatory.

On the contrary, the mining scam in Odisha reveals that, it is the concerned central and state bureaucracy who have nurtured and sustained “extractive political and economic institutions” to refer to Darron Acemoglu and James A Robinson’s term used in their well-documented, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and the Power (2012). Such extractive institutions may temporarily fuel the state exchequer in the form of mining royalties, but in practice, it had allowed the bureaucrats and political interests to maximise their personal interests in connivance with mining and transport lobbies.

This landmark Supreme Court judgment and the earlier findings of the Justice M B Shah Commission on the mining scams in Odisha and elsewhere have reminded us of James Ferguson’s influential work, The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (1994) about the pitfalls of the techno-managerial development models pursued by the “development specialists” by generating language and practice of development, warranting the state intervention, involvement of capital and foreign aid, and in the process, creating “development fantasies.”

Further, this judgment reveals the dangerous trend of keeping more faith in the impartiality and efficacies of distant institutions like the Supreme Court, army, Central Bureau of Investigation, National Green Tribunal, etc, than having faith in the local and provincial state machineries like district collectorates, house committees, high courts, etc, in securing the constitutional governance as established by a study conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

Lastly, the role and importance of a few committed civil society organisations, howsoever their apolitical motive may be, in creating a space for democratic accountability is established in the present case as the petitioner in the apex court has, in effect, strengthened the enforcement powers of the state. The petitioner of the case, Prafulla Samantra and his civil society groups had earlier brought the Supreme Court to intervene in the Niyamgiri mining lease and chit fund scams that have affected lakhs of people in Odisha and West Bengal.

Pradeep Nayak

Bhubaneswar

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