2 September 2012
As Shakespeare had said in Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood leads to fortune,
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and miseries.
THE UPA II government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has missed the tide. By continually taking unjust decisions, depriving the needy of justice and robbing the poor of their rights, he has lost the right to preside over the destiny of India. His continuance in office can only add to the miseries of the people. In the on-going coal scandal, the question one should ask is what made the Prime Minister cling to the coal portfolio for so long almost as if there was a dearth of talent in his jumbo Council of Ministers and that he did not have enough responsibility without poking his nose into allotment of coal blocks. No Prime Minister before him has coveted coal in quite the same manner.
His explanation that coal blocks were given at subsidised price to private companies so that the common man could get electricity, cement and steel at a reasonable price is an insult added to the injury inflicted on people groaning under the weight of price rise of these items. Cement price has scaled such Himalayan heights in the last few years that building a shelter has become out of bounds for the common man. Steel price is not lagging far behind. As far as electricity is concerned, the less said the better.
Giving away coal blocks to those not equipped to mine and keeping the black gold in mother earth was a definite ploy to create a power crisis to prepare the ground for signing the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement and importing foreign nuclear reactors to generate electricity at huge cost to the exchequer.
Coal is a national asset. Indira Gandhi nationalised the coal industry in 1973 and put an end to profiteering by private mine owners, and stabilised its price for the common good. During Prime Minister PV Narasinha Rao’s time, Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister paved the way for its privatisation in 1993 and opened the floodgates of corruption.
When the UPA came to power in 2004, Sibu Soren was allotted the coal portfolio. On his getting arrested in a murder case, Manmohan Singh took over the portfolio. As charges of corruption mounted, he assured Parliament in 2006 that all future allotment would be done through competitive bidding. The Law Ministry advised that the change could be brought about by an administrative order, but the Prime Minister routed for an amendment to the Mines and Minerals Act to play for time and obtained second opinion from the Law Ministry to suit his plan.
Ministers are there to oblige the Prime Minister. Did he not obtain legal opinion of HR Bharadwaj, former Union Law Minister, before de-freezing Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi’s London bank account into which part of Bofors kickback was remitted? Even six years after Manmohan Singh’s assurance in Parliament, the proposed amendment to the Coal Act has not seen the light of day. Meanwhile, allotment to crony capitalists has continued..
While the Comptroller and Auditor-General assessed the windfall gains to the coal block allottees at Rs 1.86 lakh crore, official records in the Coal Ministry tell a different story. Between 1993 and 2010, 184 mines had been allotted to favoured private parties and a total of 21,531.32 million tonnes of coal had been taken out. The average sale price during this period was Rs 2,500 per tonne. The cost of exploitation, including a profit margin of 25 per cent, worked out to Rs 1,250 per tonne. By this calculation, the presumptive loss to the government is about Rs 27 lakh crore.
If the government’s policy not to auction coal blocks was to speed up industrialisation, one could understand. But that was not the case. It was to leave the coal in the ground until Manmohan Singh’s goal of a Indo-US Nuclear Agreement was signed and precious thorium, the future fuel of nuclear energy, was bartered away for a mess of pottage.
Thorium is the future fuel cycle to produce long-term nuclear energy with low radio-toxicity waste. There has always been a strong incentive for the development of thorium fuels and fuel cycles because of large deposits of this precious mineral in the form of monazite in the country’s beach sands compared to the very modest uranium reserves. Thorium cycles are feasible in all existing thermal and fast reactors without major modifications in the engineering systems, reactor control and the reactivity devices. The proceedings of the annual conference of Indian Nuclear Society on “Power from thorium: status, strategies and directions,” held in Mumbai in June 2000, and the EURATOM report on thorium as a waste management option, give a comprehensive review of all aspects of thorium fuels and fuel cycles.
Former President Abdul Kalam has been stressing the importance of India pursuing the thorium fuels route for its nuclear power plants instead of going with a begging bowl to the USA and the Nuclear Supplier Group countries to fuel the existing 17 nuclear reactors based on enriched uranium, and accept their conditionalities which are detrimental to our national interests. The moment India tries another Pokhran-type peaceful nuclear explosion, the Nuclear Supplier Group would not only stop supplying enriched uranium but also remove past supplies from the 17 running reactors in the country and bring them to a grinding halt.
Thanks to our nuclear isolation prior to signing the Indo-US Agreements, scientists at BARC developed a research fast breeder reactor using thorium as fuel and it has been functioning at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam, 60 km from Chennai, for the last 27 years. Based on the experience gained, work began on a 500 MW fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam which should have been commissioned in 2010 but the UPA government is more interested in importing highly risky uranium based nuclear reactors from foreign countries and going slow on the indigenous technology.
Explaining the salient features of the indigenously built 500 MW thorium fuelled reactor, SC Chetal, director of IGCAR, said that it would breed more fuel than it consumes. Thorium is rated as a clean fuel because of its low radio-toxicity. The long term sustainability of the indigenous nuclear power programme in India depends to a great extent on large-scale utilisation of the vast thorium resources for breeding uranium and recycling the same in self-sustaining closed fuel cycle in thermal breeder reactors.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, in a publication titled “Thorium fuel cycle ~ Potential benefits and challenges,” dated May 2005, says that research studies have shown that thorium-based fuels “do have several characteristics in the tight pitch lattice designs such as a more negative void coefficient, a high fuel conversion ratio, improved non-proliferation characteristics and a reduced production of long lived radio-toxic wastes than corresponding uranium based fuels.”
The Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI) project of the US Department of Energy has developed an innovative fuel matrix consisting of thorium. Japan is pursuing research and design activities on innovative thorium-based hydride fuels for advanced Minor Actinides and plutonium burners with high-safety characteristics. Both countries are mopping up all available thorium from India. The high degree of chemical stability and low solubility of thorium make irradiated thorium-based fuels attractive as waste forms for direct geological disposal.
Therefore, conserving and protecting thorium reserves has the potential to catapult India as the world’s pre-eminent nuclear energy producer. India’s proven scientific talent in fast breeder reactors using thorium to breed plutonium with dual uses should form an integral part of the country’s nuclear doctrine rather than the country remaining a supplicant of the Nuclear Supplier Group.
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 “having 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.”
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 country’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: “Good governance transcends all administrative frontiers. It requires politicians to recognise the importance of working together for a common goal.” The UPA government has been squandering Bharat Mata’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.