Desperate to develop its own mineral deposits, resource-hungry India is trying to revive investment by taking aim at illegal miners like the sand mafia — from a few hundred feet in the air.
The government will deploy flying camera drones to track renegades who for years have been extracting everything from sand to coal to iron ore without permits. Unsanctioned diggers pay no tax, violate the mineral rights of others and employ rudimentary methods blamed for widespread environmental damage. They’re also hard to catch, working in remote areas and sometimes getting help from corrupt officials.
“What happens in most of the cases is that when we reach those areas, people get a whiff of it and they run away, they remove their workers, they remove everything,” said Piyush Sharma, technical secretary at Indian Bureau of Mines in Nagpur, about 810 kilometers (500 miles) east of Mumbai in the center of the country. “Drones will be effective in a way that we will have pictures, which can be used as evidence.”
Rogue miners have gotten so bad that the government in 2012 shut down all the iron ore pits in a western state that was the source of half India’s exports of the mineral. A judicial panel estimated illegal operators in Goa had siphoned off 349.4 billion rupees ($5 billion) of ore while dumping toxic waste in rivers and farmland and destroying forest habitat. The ban turned the country from the world’s third-largest exporter of iron ore to a net importer.
One of the biggest mineral thefts is sand dredged from ocean beaches and river beds. Unlicensed extraction has caused flooding and threatened marine life like the endangered Gangetic dolphin. But demand for it as a building material in cement and concrete has soared with the expanding economy.
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