CBI begins probe in grant of licenses to explore atomic minerals

Six years after it reported serious procedural irregularities in the process of allocating blocks for mineral exploration, the CBI will begin a Preliminary Enquiry into the granting of licenses to private parties in 2010, during the UPA government's tenure, to explore for and mine atomic minerals.

Alleging a major scam in the process of granting licenses, as only government or government companies are allowed to mine atomic minerals in view of their strategic significance, the CBI is probing various senior government officers involved in the grant of licenses without due diligence.

A Geological Survey of India report indicates that the mineral resources in the area, where licenses were granted for offshore blocks, include monazite, an rare-earth containing mineral prescribed in the schedule to the Atomic Energy Act.

"Officers practiced a pick-and-choose formula in granting 50 mining leases for atomic minerals to companies within the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) area... most of the mining activities have been stopped since 2013," a source in CBI said.

The CBI source said that officers allegedly took advantage of lack of provisions governing handling of monazite, which is usually found along with atomic minerals such as ilmenite, rutile, zircon, etc.,

The government had enacted the Offshore Areas Mineral (Development & Regulation) Act, 2002 in 2003 to develop, regulate, and exploit the mineral resources available in the territorial waters, continental shelf and other maritime zones of India. In 2006, the Offshore Areas Mineral Concession Rules were framed. Both the act and the rules came into force in 2010 and 62 blocks were notified for grant of exploration licenses.

In a first for the country, blocks were notified for grant of exploration licenses. Earlier, no activity related to exploration and consequently mining in offshore areas had been ever undertaken.

But after the CRZ notification was issued by Ministry of Environment and Forest in 2011, all blocks fell under the CRZ areas and attracted restrictions, the source said, adding that only the mining of rare minerals not found outside the CRZ was permitted.

In March 2011, 16 applicants for allocation of blocks were short-listed as per the approved guidelines for 62 exploration blocks. "A committee found out that block numbers 3 and 32 in the Arabian Sea were the same, more than one block was applied for by applicants, many of the blocks notified overlapped with onshore areas, and associated companies of the same group applied for the same block. Despite this, the then Controller General, Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM) went ahead with issuance of order for grant of exploration licences," an internal document noted.

In July 2011, the Chief Vigilance Officer conducted preliminary enquiry and submitted a report highlighting various lapses in the whole process. "Due diligence was not made while scrutinizing the applications; that the document submitted with the applications were very preliminary in nature... for technical collaboration, a very preliminary e-mail has been taken as evidence by the screening committee," the document noted.

In March 2013, the CBI made preliminary enquiry into the matter and submitted its report highlighting serious procedural irregularities. In 2016, the administering authority annulled the notification issued on June 7, 2010 and all consequential actions for grant of exploration licenses were withdrawn.

However, in November 2017, a government counsel made a submission in the Delhi High Court based on "incorrect interpretation" of the October 6, 2017 amendment to the CRZ notifications on the instructions of an officer in the Mines Ministry, according to the document, adding that these instructions were never examined nor approved by a competent authority.

The counsel informed the court that there has been material change in CRZ regulations and now there is no impediment for the order dated April 5, 2011 for grant of exploration license to be processed further in accordance with law, said the document.

The court set aside the notification issued in 2016 and a direction was given to the appellants to take further steps to process the grant of exploration license pursuant as per order April 5, 2011. As a consequence, two deeds for exploration licenses were executed in a hasty manner, the document added.

The CBI had charge sheeted the officer concerned.

In April 2019, the Centre wrote to the CBI for initiating a preliminary enquiry regarding certain irregularities noted by the Mines Ministry related to the allocation of exploration licenses and the subsequent signing of the deed of exploration licenses in favour of certain companies. The Centre filed an additional affidavit bringing on the record its policy decision of banning all the mining activity of atomic and rare minerals through the private parties.

A former senior government officer challenged the CBI's enquiry in the Delhi High Court, which, on May 31, stayed it. The Centre challenged the decision in the Supreme Court, which stayed the high court order, paving the way for the CBI to begin its probe.
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