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India to monitor mines via satellite after finding illegal limestone extraction

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India will monitor thousands of mines with the help of satellites starting this year, a government official said, after a three-month pilot project found rampant illegal extraction of limestone in a big state.

A general view shows the open pit of Sesa Sterlite iron ore mine in Codli village in Goa December 9, 2013. REUTERS/Krishna Das/Files

Mines Secretary Balvinder Kumar declined to name the state ahead of the completion of surveillance in some other regions, but said the findings echoed a multi-billion-dollar iron ore scam that led to a three-year mining ban and turned India into an importer from a net exporter of the steelmaking commodity.

Local media have reported about illegal limestone mining in two of the top producing states - Andhra Pradesh in the south and Gujarat in the west, home to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The state-run Indian Bureau of Mines is digitising maps of all mines under the purview of the ministry to check - as satellites pass over every 23 days - whether companies are violating rules by mining outside their lease areas.

“We suspect that there is rampant illegal mining by the unorganised sector,” Kumar told Reuters late last week.

“After covering all the major minerals like iron ore and limestone in the next three months, we will look at sand mining. A lot of money is being made there.”

A state minister in Karnataka was arrested in 2011 and iron ore mining was banned for three years there and in Goa after India’s top court found that fly-by-night operators had profited from a surge in Chinese demand for the steelmaking ingredient.

Kumar said the scam had crippled India’s steel industry and the government was keen to avoid a repetition. He said he would soon write to the top bureaucrat of the state where limestone is being illegally mined to initiate action.

Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh states in India’s south, and Rajasthan and Gujarat in the west, are the country’s top producers of limestone, a raw material for making cement.

Gujarat-based Bhaskaracharya Institute for Space Applications and Geoinformatics (BISAG), which is helping the mines ministry monitor mineral extraction across India, said the project was part of Modi’s ‘Digital India’ programme to electronically record most government work.

Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Himani Sarkar