As the Tobacco Control Act has shown- simple and one-sided arguments without proper research and consultations often makes for bad policy and even worse laws.
It is in this context that one must remember that the debate around mining has become highly polarized, and taking either of the polarized views alone will not be advisable.
One side of the argument quoting RAA reports, ACC reports and environment reports among other show mining to be a harmful activity –one which harms the environment and local community and should be banned. They allege that only a few rich gain at the cost of the environment and health of local residents. They also call for either a complete stop to all mining activities in extreme cases or to drastically scaling them down.
The other side of the debate quotes revenue reports, export figures, foreign currency earnings and employment figures to show the economic relevance and importance of mining in Bhutan. They also highlight the Rupee and Credit crisis and how the country needs to export more. However, this side of debate is also mainly dismissive of criticism, unwilling to change, and at times does not even acknowledge the environmental and health impact of their activities.
Bhutan- given its current economic, environmental and social situation cannot afford to go it alone on either path. Both paths, if taken alone, can spell disaster in the long run. A middle path approach that addresses concerns of both views by allowing for intelligent mining, but also within reasonably strict environmental and human impact regulations would be more realistic and welcome.
Bhutan currently has 81 mines and quarries and this figure is expected to grow in the coming years. RAA reports of 2008, 2013, and ACC investigation in 2009 of Talc Mines, National Council reports and other reports all show that there are many serious issues in the mining sector ranging from corruption to sheer mismanagement, all of which, impact not only the environment and human settlements but also results in the National Exchequer being shortchanged.
Given the above issues, it is no surprise that mining is getting an increasingly bad name and reputation from the grass roots itself, and this is filtering through larger institutions like the NC, RAA, ACC, media, etc., in getting more vociferous and tougher on mining.
As mining companies will acknowledge, it is getting more and more difficult for them to get local clearances to even open up valuable mineral deposits. This is because local communities don’t trust the mining companies to run a clean and fair operation and they don’t trust the government agencies like Department of Geology and Mines to do a good job of monitoring the mines.
In such cases, not only do the mining companies lose business due to poor environmental track records or minimal local benefits but the nation is also unable to tap its mineral wealth and the benefits of industrialization or mineral exports.
Therefore, the way forward in the mining sector is very clear. The government- with its sacred responsibility of good governance and strengthening the economy should institute reform measures in the mining sector. These measures should ensure that mining activities create minimal impact and maximum benefits- not very different from our tourism policy.
The more intransparent and uncooperative the mining companies are, the more difficult it will be for them and the government to convince a largely skeptical nation on the benefit of mining. The mining sector will have to decide whether it would want a short and brutal existence or a long- term and more secure future. It is keeping this in mind that the mining sector should welcome and even champion stricter and more fool-proof regulatory mechanisms that actually work.
One important aspect here is that the country should explore strategic or intelligent mining. One current problem with the mining sector is that there are too many small and medium-sized mines doing much more environmental damage than bringing in actual benefits.
Bhutan should explore the possibility going in for large-scale mines with established national and international companies focused around key deposits that Bhutan is rich in. These minerals can be used as a base for the industrialization of Bhutan. Even here, if the mines would cause environmental and human impact problems, then the environment and human impact should be given more preference albeit in a more intelligent manner than is happening right now with blanket bans.
As a Buddhist country- the middle path can also be applied to some of our most controversial problems and offer a solution that is beneficial to all sides.
“Being trustworthy requires: Doing the right thing. And doing things right.”