KOCHI: The Kerala government has vowed time and again that it will not stop mining the rich mineral deposits along the coastal areas of the state extending from Chavara in Kollam district to Aarattupuzha in Alappuzha district. It is a fact that the rich mineral deposit is a treasure trove that can change the destiny of the state, which has been fighting continued high levels of fiscal and revenue deficits, mounting debt liabilities and high interest payment burden.
However, local resistance and opposition from environmentalists have been hampering the project envisaged to establish a titanium complex in the state. Government officials and politicians are reluctant to speak about the issue fearing a backlash. “Titanium is a sunrise sector in the chemical industry. There is a demand for eight lakh tonnes of titanium pigment in the country and we are producing only 40,000 tonnes. The country imports around 7.6 lakh tonnes of titanium pigment a year from China.
If Kerala can tap the growing market for titanium mill products and other value-added products from the beach sand minerals to take advantage of the growing demand in the aerospace, aircraft repair, power generation, shipping and biomedical applications sectors, it can power the state economy and create more employment opportunities,” said M P Sukumaran Nair, former chairman of Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd (KMML).
A detailed survey conducted by Atomic Minerals Directorate had found that the mineral sand deposit between Neendakara and Kayamkulam Bar over a length of 22 km with a width of 225 m was one of the best in the world because of high titanium dioxide content in the mineral ilmenite. The reserve of total heavy mineral in the Chavara barrier beach is 127 million tonnes, while in the northern segment, which extends up to Thottappally in Alappuzha district, the reserve of total heavy mineral sand is 17 million tonnes. According to Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Indian Air Force (IAF) will be spending around $150 billion on aircraft and aero engine in the next 15 years.
In India, most of the titanium processing is in manufacturing pigment-grade titanium dioxide. Kerala government entities, Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd produces 40,000 tonnes per annum (TPA) rutile-grade titanium, while the Travancore Titanium Products produces 15,000 tonnes of anatase-grade titanium pigment per annum. Two other small capacity plants are also processing titanium in the private sector. The Kerala government in 2018 commissioned a feasibility study to put up a plant to produce titanium mill products and other value-added products from the beach sand minerals, said Sukumaran Nair. The government had formulated an ambitious plan to increase the production of titanium dioxide to 60,000 tonnes and further increase the capacity of Chavara KMML plant to one lakh tonnes per annum. A committee appointed by the government had recommended to increase the capacity of the titanium sponge plant at KMML and start producing titanium metal alloy.
The government’s proposed mineral-based titanium complex and its downstream projects will be the biggest industrial development initiative so far undertaken by the state. The performance of Travancore Titanium Products and KMML is illustrative of the profitability of the titanium-based mineral industry. “If we opt not to mine it will result in a massive loss to the state’s economy. We may have to learn lessons from activities of this kind taking place in other fragile zones around the world and work out a coastline environment management plan,” he said.
‘OPT FOR METHODS THAT ARE ENVIRONMENT-FRIENDLY’
Regarding the local resistance, Sukumaran Nair said the present method of beach sand mining was not environment-friendly. Sea erosion in Chavara area is very high and the authorities should retain the sea barrier through backfilling. Use of heavy equipment for excavating soil should be discouraged. Local people should be employed as permanent workers and provided a handsome salary. The workforce should be integrated with the industry. The mineral sand that gets deposited every day through sea washing can be collected by employing Kudumbasree self-help groups.
FOCUS ON VALUE ADDITION
The state government has taken a policy decision to discourage export of raw mineral sand and promote export of value-added products. Ilmenite, rutile, zircon and monazite are the major heavy minerals extracted from beach mineral sand. Ilmenite is an important ore from which titanium dioxide pigment, titanium sponge, titanium chloride and titanium metal are made. However, the technology for processing ilmenite is a closed one. India has to source the technology from foreign countries and start processing the mineral sand. The project needs an investment to the tune of around `3,500 crore and the government should explore the possibility of a joint venture to realise the project.
SMUGGLING OF MINERAL SAND
Sukumaran Nair said while the public sector utilities were unable to extract mineral sand due to protests, some mineral sand processing units outside the state are sourcing mineral sand from the state through smuggling. Certain local people are employed by the smugglers to extract mineral sand and ferry it to the barges that reach outer sea. These smuggling lobbies are fuelling the local protest, he said. Industry insiders alleged that many political leaders were hand in glove with the mineral sand smugglers.