In vast areas of Rajasthan as well as in some other regions, court orders have led to the closure of a large number of quarries and mines. These include stone quarries as well as mines of some other minor minerals. The main reason for the closure of these mines is that these were causing environmental damage in vulnerable areas.

There is no doubt that environment protection is very important, particularly in states like Rajasthan where water conservation should be the top most priority. It is also true that ecologically destructive mining practices were being pursued in many areas. Thus the court orders to ban mining are a well intentioned response to real problems. It is also true that the ecology of some mineral zones – such as some parts of the Himalayan region – is so fragile that it is better not to disturb rocks and minerals.

While accepting all these considerations of environment protection, it should also be emphasised that in many mineral zones, a complete ban on mining activity also creates serious problems of loss of livelihood for lakhs of workers who badly need this work. It is true that most of these miners and quarry workers have been badly exploited. But the solution is to check the exploitation and not to stop the work altogether. Let’s face the obvious reality that in these difficult times of economic uncertainty, lakhs of workers badly need these jobs.

Therefore banning mining work in most places can be at best only a temporary step. We’ve to move ahead and initiate steps which can meet both the important objectives of protecting environment and protecting livelihood.

This can be done by forming cooperatives or self help groups of workers which can take up small-scale mining work using eco-friendly methods. As far as possible use of dynamite and big machinery should be banned, particularly in the more fragile zones. To process minerals, the government should promote processing units each one of which will cater to the needs of several small scale mining and quarrying groups.

The government should make available these mining rights to work with a spirit of protecting livelihood and alleviating poverty of weaker sections. Along with rights some responsibilities should be assigned to groups of workers. These include protecting and promoting greenery in nearby areas, disposing the wastes properly and adopting other environmental safeguards.

To facilitate the groups of workers/miners the mining department should share with workers all such technological information as is available with it. The department should also help the workers to gain access to appropriate technology and tools which are suitable for such small-scale work.

At some stage the experiment of handing over a stretch of mineral-zone to workers groups can be considered on ownership basis with the stipulated condition that workers will be responsible for increasing the green cover and protecting the environment of this land.

In a paper ‘Small scale mining and resource development,’ (published in Appropriate Technology journal). Edmind Bugnosen, a mining adviser based in Britain writes, “As a strategy for mineral resource development, small scale mining is valuable, because compared to large-scale mining it allows better wealth distribution. A thriving small-scale mining industry can offer employment and income to rural people and can enable villagers to remains in their community, complementing agricultural activities and seasonal trades.” This paper concludes by saying, “The small scale miner will remain the guardian of our traditional mining practices. He surely deserves our help.”