Dr Mahmood Arshad

Just about two weeks back, Mines & Minerals Department (M&MD) of Punjab claimed a milestone of securing six sandstone bids in Sargodha region for highest ever of Rs2.53 billion.

One of these six reserves mounted to Rs1.19 billion in bid money making it highest ever bid won in the history of M&MD in Pakistan. The lease term is three years. These bids surely reflect and add to financial health of lessee as well as the lesser.

This seems to bring in associated benefits such as development of the area, profitable exploitation of reserves, circulation of wealth, jobs, prosperity, etc. The 'cost' of this new trend of high bids is the hot debate among the stakeholders. Both, the proponents as well as the opponents of high-bids are pointing fingers at the 'mafia'; that is, apparently, the other side presenting the counter arguments for each of the stakeholders. Apparently, this 'mafia' has been very active in exploiting and abusing their powers or authority.

The 'opponents' of the high-bids are of the opinion that this money making on the part of M&MD translates to poor working conditions, unsafe mining practices, environmental abuse, and suffering of labor. The lessee chases after money making 'at any cost' in pursuit of making profits. One top of that, 'shorter' lease terms, three years in this case contrary to previously practiced five years, adds more to adversity. The time constraints further compel the investor towards hasty revenue generation attempts with insufficient planning, deficient precautionary measures, and slanderous consideration of worker and environment. The opponents further argue that the high investments and shorter tenures won't allow peace of mind and enough space for due attention to be given to try meeting the pertinent requirements such as mine plan, standard mining practices, and environmental and reclamation plan.

The 'cost' is ultimately paid in the form of labor and reserve abuse. The argument is backed by poor working conditions such as dust, noise, unsafe blasting, etc., higher incident and death tolls in recent years, and adverse after mining situation of the leased or mined out areas. The 'opponents' believe that M&MD, instead of money making, must focus on assisting favorable environment for investment, ensuring safe working practices, enforcing environmental consideration, implementing proper mine plan and design, and minimizing associated risks.

The 'proponents', on the hand, insist that the sustainable and profitable performance of any department is never a bad idea. The recent investments in the mineral sector is the indication that the sector is prospering and has potential to further grow, M&MD is doing a great job and is trusted by the investors, and that a healthy competition exists among the investors to perform even better. The recent achievements of M&MD may not be equated against exploitation of worker or unsafe mining practices as separate independent departments such as 'Inspectorate of Mines' and 'Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)' are assigned with taking measures against such issues.

The M&MD ensures proper mine development and rehabilitation plans be submitted before the commencement of mine work. Only 'safe' blocks are put to auction and 'unsafe' blocks are never open for bidding. Implying from the past practices, 'longer' tenures have never been a guaranty to safe or proper mine workings.

The 'proponents' reason that profitable excavation is only possible with standard and safe mining practices and that the offender will suffer losses only to get out of business as a result.

Furthermore, 'proponents' stress that the revenue be maximized from such national assets and properties as minerals in the best benefit of the nation and the pubic alike. The fruits of revenues thus generated communicates to mineral sector, community, national gains, and research and development.

Whatever the arguments are, three years do seem like a rather short tenure if the investor has to develop, excavate and reclaim the lease area. It may be suggested that the M&MD develop all the basic and principle plans and lessee only executes and excavates as per these plans. Comforts of the investors alongside national interests are imperative.

Due considerations be given to all of the stakeholders' concerns. Let's prosper individually as well as nationally all at the same time.