Exploration Efforts: Recent developments and initiatives in mineral mining

The main driver of resource development in any nation is exploration. India is endo­w­ed with an abundance of resources for a number of minerals, and the necessary geological conditions for the occurrence of a number of others. Exploration activities in India have been largely focused on surficial minerals such as coal and iron ore. The governme­nt is making continuous efforts to encourage mining activities in India.

The Geological Survey of India (GSI) and Mineral Exploration Corporation Limited are the key organisations responsible for conducting such exploration throughout the nation. Explo­ra­tion is carried out each year under field season programmes, for which annual targets are set. In the case of coal, the Central Mine Pla­nning and Design Institute, under the Ministry of Coal, conducts drilling/exploration activities both in Coal India Limited (CIL) and non-CIL areas.

The National Mineral Exploration Trust (NMET) is a channel through which the government funds projects. Recently, the government approved funding worth Rs 1.55 billion to NMET for mineral exploration and to boost ca­pa­bilities in the country. These projects include exploration for minerals such as graphite, iron, coal, zinc and bauxite. To this end, NMET is also providing financial assistance for the procurement of machinery, laboratory equipment, instruments, etc., to the states, to the extent of up to 10 per cent of the total approved exploration projects in a year.

Government efforts in the Northeast

The government has implemented a variety of policies to improve the nation’s mining and mineral exploration activities over the years. Mineral exploration in the Northeast has been accorded top priority under the Prime Minis­t­er’s agenda to transform India. The Northeast is the focal point of India’s “Act East Policy”. In the last five years, the GSI has undertaken 108 projects in the region on various mineral commodities. As per the latest updates, 23 mineral exploration projects are currently active on the field. Two NMET-funded mineral exploration projects in Nagaland for limestone and iron ore have recently been finished.

The government is planning to organise trai­ning programmes in collaboration with GSI and the Indian Bureau of Mines for state geological departments and other functionaries in order to build capacity. However, there are still concerns regarding the auction process in different north-eastern states, which need to be resolved.

Mineral exploration initiatives by GSI

As of November 2022, GSI has completed 7,198 sq km of its 19,000 square km speci­alised thematic mapping target for 2022-23. Further, it has completed 81,974 square km of national geochemical mapping, of the total target of 250,000 square km for 2022-23. Si­milarly, 29,506 square km of the 100,000 sq­uare km national geophysical mapping target has been completed.

As per the National Aero-Geophysical Map­ping Programme (NAGMP), a flagship program­me of GSI for acquiring uniform aero-geophysical data over the pre-identified obvious geological potential areas, as of mid-December 2022, around 25,086 line km has been flown to identify potential areas for further exploration. Me­anwhile, 322 mineral exploration projects have been taken up during 2022-23.

Additionally, GSI has taken up 125 projects on critical and strategic minerals such as lithium, rare earth metals, fertiliser minerals, tungsten and graphite during 2022-23 in order to encourage the exploration of strategic, critical and fertiliser minerals.

GSI has implemented the Online Core Busi­ness Integrated System portal to fulfil the res­ponsibility of disseminating multi-thematic geoscientific information freely for the use of all concerned stakeholders through Bhukosh, the flagship geospatial portal of GSI, following its policies and guidelines. This data can be utili­sed for mineral prognostication as well as to generate new knowledge through research.

Private sector participation

In recent years, like other sectors in India, private sector participation in mineral exploration has been getting a push from the government. The Mines & Minerals (Development & Regu­lation) Act was amended recently to allow pri­va­te agencies to participate in mineral exploration. Such organisations must ob­tain accreditation from the National Accre­di­tation Board for Edu­cation and Training under the Quality Council of India. Recently, in No­v­ember 2022, 13 private agencies were ac­credited for carrying out mineral exploration activities in India. With this, there are now a total of 22 private agencies engaged in mineral exploration.

In another development, the government is moving to open up offshore mining to the private sector, in a bid to reduce dependence on other countries such as China. As per the latest draft amendments to the Offshore Area Mineral (De­ve­lopment & Regulation) Act, the auction route will be opened up for private sector mining of mineral resources in India’s territorial waters and the continental shelf along its 7,517 km co­astline. As per the latest updates, identification of mineral blocks has begun and auctions are pl­a­nned to take off by the end of December 2023.

Key challenges

Exploration, by its very nature, involves a lot of unforeseen challenges. The economic viability of mining might vary greatly, even though the reserves may be known. This, in turn, makes the outlook for any given mining project uncertain. Another issue preventing the sector’s expansion is a lack of coordination among multiple government agencies involved in the sector.

The mining sector also faces huge gaps with regard to skilled manpower and technology deployment, and this affects exploration wo­r­ks. Moreover, local people frequently pro­te­st against exploration activities out of concern for their way of life. One of the main causes of this is the lack of community involvement and poorly carried out rehabilitation and resettlement programmes.

In sum

India has a lot of untapped new mines for coal, iron ore and bauxite, and there are a lot of prospects for future subsurface deposit discoveries. As a result, India has immense drilling and exploring potential. Further, the country is starting to enter into collaborations with foreign players for different exploration activities. As per an announcement in February 2023, Norway is exploring the possibility of entering into an arrangement with India for the supply of rare earth minerals, which are critical for energy transition and other strategic products.

The government is planning to raise the contribution of the mining industry to the GDP to 2.5 per cent by 2026-27. It is planning to bui­ld an investor- and industry-friendly environment in order to achieve the desired growth in the sector. The government is pushing private players to participate more in the sector.

Further, the discovery of lithium deposits in Jammu & Kashmir can be a potential game ch­anger for the country’s clean energy manufacturing ambitions. This might reduce the reli­ance on the import of lithium-ion cells, which are a key component for electric vehicles and other clean energy technologies. However, the­re is a major challenge associated here. Accor­ding to industry estimates, approximately 2.2 million litres of water is needed to produce 1 tonne of lithium. This still needs to be looked into and explored, as the mining process for lithium, being water intensive, leads to significant soil degradation, water shortage and air pollution, among other concerns.