This is Part 2
The Great Thorium Robbery
Since the UPA government assumed office in 2004 with Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, 2.1 million tones of monazite, equivalent to 195,300 tonnes of thorium at 9.3 per cent recovery, has disappeared from the shores of India. Thorium is a clean nuclear fuel of strategic importance for both nuclear energy generation and nuclear-tipped missiles. The beaches of Orissa Sand Complex, Manavalakurichi in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu and the Aluva-Chavara belt on the Kerala coast have been identified under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, as the main monazite bearing areas in the country. In most other countries, thorium reserves are embedded in rocks which require elaborate processing to extract. Public sector Indian Rare Earths Limited having divisions at Chatrapur in Orissa, Manavalakurichi in Tamil Nadu, Chavara and Aluva, and its own research centre in Kollam in Kerala, is the only institution authorised to extract thorium from monazite sands. If the Comptroller and Auditor-General were to audit the accounts of the IREL and the Department of Atomic Energy, custodians of fissile minerals, the coalgate scam would look like small change. The missing thorium, conservatively estimated at $100 a tonne, works out to about Rs 48 lakh crore, putting all other UPA scams in the shade.
To a question by Kodikunnel Suresh addressed to the Prime Minister in the Lok Sabha on 30 November 2011, about the quantum of monazite being exported to other countries and whether the companies mining beach sand have violated the norms of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, V Narayanaswamy, Minister of State in the PMO, said that beach sands containing heavy minerals barring monazite were being exported. However, he said that licence under the Atomic Energy Act was required for the export of monazite and thorium which were prescribed substances, and that no licence was given for the export of these items. The Department of Atomic Energy, directly under Manmohan Singh, delisted heavy minerals like monazite and ilmenite from the prescribed substances list vide SO 61 (E) dated 20 January, 2006, to facilitate their export by private companies. Licences have been issued with the proviso that â€œhaving undertaken to comply with the conditions prescribed in the Atomic Energy (Working of mines, minerals hand handling of prescribed substances) Rules, 1984, licence is issued with the approval of the Licensing Authority.â€
The Licencing Authority is the Nagpur-based Chief Controller of Mines, under the Union Ministry of Mines. Ever since CP Ambrose, Chief Controller of Mines, an upright officer, retired on 30 June 2008, the post has been deliberately kept open and Ranjan Sahai, Controller of Mines, Central Zone, alleged to be close to private placer mineral industrialists, has been allowed to officiate in place of the Chief Controller. Four years is a long time to keep a key post of crucial, strategic and vital importance vacant. Sahai is said to be the most favoured public functionary of the Union Ministry of Mines working in the field, enjoying dictatorial clout with all officials in the ministry. Several written public complaints against Sahai are pending with the Central Vigilance Commissioner, New Delhi. It is reliably learnt that the Departmental Promotion Committee has already selected an officer working in Nagpur to fill the post of Chief Controller of Mines but his appointment is being prevented by Sahai. Such is his clout in the Ministry of Mines.
According to K Balachandran of the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research, DAE, commercial exploitation of beach sand in India dates back to 1909 when Schomberg, a German chemist, was exploring for monazite occurrences in search of thorium for the gas mantles industry. After the German, the French, who understood the value of thorium, began buying beach sand from Kerala and exporting it to their country. From this starting point many milestones have been crossed with the discovery of ilmenite, rutile, garnet, zircon and sillimanite in our beach sands. When the Department of Atomic Energy was established in the early days of independence, one of the first decisions Prime Minister Nehru took was to ban the export of thorium. India is reputed to have the largest mineral sands resources in the world.
These are also among the least exploited resources having a high potential to meet the countryâ€™s energy needs. Seventy per cent of India energy is met by import of oil and gas. The beach placer mining sector was opened to private entrepreneurs in 1998. Export of beach sands registered a quantum jump after 2005. As if to promote exports, even radioactive minerals, much needed for our nuclear energy programme, are allowed to be taken out of the country unchecked. To add insult to injury, private exporters of prohibited minerals are presented with Special Awards and Certificates of Merit by the Chemicals and Allied Products Export Promotion Council of the Government of India. Indiscriminate mining, if not monitored and regulated, can cause severe erosion in the coastal areas.
At least now the government should exclude thorium producing placer minerals like monazite, ilmenite, rutile, zircon, and mineral complexes together with uranium minerals from the purview of privatisation under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, and the Indian Atomic Energy Act, 1948. These resources should be specified in the Central List of Part XI of the Constitution. The Mines Act should be amended with a mandate for the setting up of a Mines Regulatory Authority on the lines of the Telecom Regulatory Authority or the Insurance Regulatory Authority in order to ensure that any complex minerals which have the potential to produce thorium is not allowed to be mined and conserved with provisos for extraction and delivery of processed thorium to the agencies of the Atomic Energy Commission.
Considering the strategic importance, select thorium bearing areas should be declared as exclusive zones and brought under the security cover of the Army, Navy and the Air Force. The civil administration has proved incapable of handling this responsibility. All private trade, both internal and external, in thorium producing placer mineral complexes should be banned and the entire thorium extracted so far should be brought under the control of the Joint Nuclear Fuel Control Agency. The CBI should investigate illegal mining of thorium resources and bring the culprits to book expeditiously. Since local communities constitute the first line of defence to ensure protection and conservation of the strategic reserves; they should be given a substantial share of the mining profits. To ensure that the distribution of such share reaches the beneficiaries, the Joint Nuclear Fuel Control Agency should pass on the amount to the Panchayati Raj institutions in the mining areas.
As Shashi Tharoor, former Minister of State for External Affairs, said at a recent book release function: â€œGood governance transcends all administrative frontiers. It requires politicians to recognise the importance of working together for a common goal.â€ The UPA government has been squandering Bharat Mataâ€™s gift of nature for private greed and proved in the last eight years that it is incapable of providing good governance. The greatest service Manmohan Singh could do to the nation before another scam even bigger than the great thorium robbery surfaces is to resign and go. Surely we have had enough of his leadership.