Although the mainstream media is yet to pick on the news, social media platforms like Twitter are already abuzz with satires, criticizing the UPA government for 'being a mother to all scams'. A Twitter user with the handle, @jayganguli mocking the mammoth amount believed to be involved tweeted: “Please warn us to increase our Screen resolutions before revealing #Thoriumscam value. All the zeros wont fit in normal screen.
Though the newspaper report hasn't attributed the figures of loss of monazite and the amount of money lost in the process, but the very fact that thorium is being stealed from beaches doesn't seem unfounded. Action Committee against Corruption in India (ACACI), chaired by Janata Party chief Subramanian Swamy and other experts to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, according to Sunday Guardian had recently in a letter alleged that illegal mining of thorium is taking place from the beaches of Manavalakurichi in Tamil Nadu and Aluva and Chavara in Kerala.
The coastline be handed over to the Army since it contains the world's largest reserve of thorium, easily extractable by bare hands from sea sand. Also, a Mines Regulatory Authority, like the Telecom Regulatory Authority, be set up immediately and a policy be made to exclude strategic mineral resources from privatisation,” the letter had recommended.
The seriousness regarding the thorium, a very clean nuclear fuel, can be gauged from the fact that India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was very critical of the fact that it was being shipped off to France. Not a surprise, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), the nodal egency for the development of nuclear fuel in India, in one of its first decisions after its formation after Independence, banned the export of thorium.
According to the Atomic Energy Research Bureau (AERB), the 'tailings' have to de disposed of by mixing with silica-rich sand and backfilled at the mined out site, if their quantity is large and the monatize content in them is relatively low (less than 5 per cent). But if the monatize content is high (more than 5 per cent) and the quantity of tailings is comparatively less, it has to be stored in trenches and topped with silica-rich sand to bring it to the background level.
Although it seems a little premature to suggest that this is another UPA scam but that doesn't mean that the Congress-led coalition can be absolved of its responsibilities to take care of the resources of the country. According to the government, monazite is exported only by Indian Rare Earth Limited (IREL), a public sector undertaking under the Department of Atomic Energy.
One major question for the government to answer would be its change in plan regarding heavy minerals. According to a 2006 notification of the Department of Atomic Energy vide ref. S.O.61(E), heavy minerals such as ilmenite, rutile, leucoxene, garnet, sillimanite, zircon and monazite were delisted from the prescribed substances list. This meant that license from the Department of Atomic Energy under the Atomic Energy (Working of the Mines, Minerals and Handling of Prescribed Substance) Rules, 1984 is not required for the handling of these minerals.
But, what might come to the rescue of the government is that individual processors of beach sand have to separate and safely keep the monazite content of such sand under the guidelines framed by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB).
Consequent to this notification, according to the concerned government department, no individual or entity is permitted to process monazite in any manner without a licence from DAE. Also, government had last year, while replying to a question in Lok Sabha, responded that 'no licneses have been given to any private party to process monazite and separate thorium.'
If there have been losses, as reported by The Statesman, the government would have to come clean on the issue. It has to answer where the missing thorium landed at. Given the importance of thorium as a strategic fuel, the government needs to respond to the accusations of illegal mining at various beaches across the country.
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