Conflict Over Resource Rights in India

Matthew Fishback is a recent MA in International Relations graduate from Queen’s University Belfast. His dissertation focused on the evolution of Kashmir’s 30-year insurgency. He is currently living in the US and is a researcher with Silah Report. His interests include researching the global arms trade, South Asian affairs, and geopolitics broadly.

India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and yet this pace of development comes with a heavy ecological price. According to one calculation, India extracts 1580 tons/acre of natural resources, a much higher rate than the world average of 450 tons/acre [1]. Though the total extraction is high, the government maintains that the productivity of such extraction is low and the environmental damages are tremendous [2]. Likewise, India imports nearly 100 percent of its “critical materials,” such as copper and lithium, for technology industries and around 80 percent of its crude oil [3]. Paradoxically, India is the second largest producer and importer of coal [4]. India’s massive energy needs require equally massive amounts of coal, but its mining and usage produces pollution and degrades the environment.  Plans to expand natural resource extraction in order to become energy self-sufficient have been hampered by conflicts in resource rich regions like the North East and Kashmir. Indigenous peoples and ecological activist groups have also opposed the expansion of destructive extraction efforts in many areas. This all culminates in a situation where India needs more resources to be self-sustaining and provide materials for the global economy, yet also needs to improve its ecological footprint though the use of the same materials. For instance, highly polluting industries make the technology and finished goods used in renewables, such as solar panels or hydroelectric dams – energy self-sufficiency and “going green” effectively necessitate more pollution in the short term to reap longer term benefits [5]. This non-sustainable cycle of consumption and development for India is an issue which the government is currently trying to solve.

One major concern for the government is the country’s energy needs. India uses massive amounts of energy for its population but relies primarily on coal to do so. The issue here is that many of the nation’s coal deposits, along with other minerals, are in regions complicated by ongoing Naxalite and other insurgencies, especially in the North and East of the country [6]. In recent days, clashes broke out in Nagaland when eight coal miners were accidentally killed by the military. The Indian army supposedly thought they were insurgents. Subsequently, a total of 13 civilians and one soldier were killed during confrontations between locals and security forces. This goes to show the perilous situation of relations between the government and community where resource extraction takes place [7]. Making matters worse, the Naxalites also extort mining companies in order to earn revenue for their movement [8]. Likewise, unregulated mining is more destructive to the environment and hurts government efforts to clean up the environment.

Similar to Naxal controlled areas, the Kashmir region is rich with hydroelectric power, forests, and mineral resources like “coal, lignite, copper, lead, zinc, cobalt, limestone, bauxite, borax and precious stones” according to one government report [9]. As with the Naxalites, the Kashmiri militancy has prevented most access to mineral rich areas since 1989 and has and stopped most companies from investing in resource extraction. Despite this, limited efforts have been made to build hydroelectric power facilities which produce green energy in lieu of coal. Thus, limiting resource extraction helps the environment by reducing the area of land being damaged by extraction and its associated pollution. Equally so, the country faces a dilemma between preserving the natural environment and producing “green technologies,” like solar panels or wind turbines, using extracted resources in its transition to energy and resource self-sufficiency.

Finally, difficulties addressing the concerns of indigenous groups and environmental activists pose the last major hurdle to India’s development of its natural resources. Mining in India has almost always tended to harm the poorest communities in the country with few clear benefits going to them in return [10]. Due to public pushback around this issue, the Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh has denied mining permits in a number of cases, citing environmental concerns and the impact such mines would have on “forests and tribal livelihoods” [11]. At the same time, India’s record of dealing with indigenous and tribal groups is one of conflict and mistrust. Research group Land Conflict Watch recorded 703 land conflicts in India, with mining projects as the second highest cause of conflict and 852,488 citizens affected [12]. Equally, environmental activists have opposed any expansion of mineral extraction and coal mining since India pledged 175 Gigawatts of renewable power by 2022 and at least 350 Gigawatts by 2030, yet has also opened 55 new coal mines. These groups have yet to be convinced by the government’s vision that resource extraction in the short term will be necessary for building renewable and clean energy infrastructure in the longer term.

In essence, India is facing a near impossible dilemma in how to approach its multitude of conflicts over resource extraction and development. Foreign entities are not going to invest in a region which is subject to conflict and criminal activity, but these regions need investment to get out of the conflict cycle. Some argue that expansion of mining could make regions wealthier and less prone to conflict – this assumption is however not to be taken for granted, given how the Naxalites are using gains from mining to strengthen their forces. Equally, tribal and environmental groups oppose any resource extraction, but these materials are needed to transition away from the practices, like coal burning power plants, that harm these exact communities. The government has had a mixed track record over the past 50 or so years fighting domestic insurgencies, so it’s unlikely a decisive victory will come anytime soon. Likewise, the current status quo of conflict, crime, and polluting practices can’t continue either, and the government has acknowledged this in its policies and statements [13]. Thus, the government faces a complex dilemma in improving its environmental footprint, increasing resource and energy self-sufficiency, and also improving the lives of those who oppose its policies, be they peaceful environmentalists or populations living in close proximity to insurgents. Clearly this is not a black and white issue and the policy response shouldn’t be either. National elections in 2024 and the current government’s approach to these issues in the meantime will likely decide India’s direction on the topics discussed in this article for the coming decades. The ruling BJP party has not historically been light handed with opposition, but has also driven current self-sustainability efforts and the development of some eco-friendly policies. While policy improvisations may be expected, whether there will be any concerted attempts to solve or circumvent existing conundrums remains to be seen.

Risk-o-Meter for India’s Resource Rights Conflict

  • What is the probability the risk will materialise? 3/3

As of present, conflict in certain regions of India over control of natural wealth is ongoing. New hotspots are likely to develop in the short to medium term.

  • What is the predicted size of the impact? 2/3

India is one of the world’s biggest economies and is on track to become a world economic leader in the near future. Disruptions to its supply of raw materials will harm domestic and foreign development alike.

  • What is the predicted speed of onset? 2/3

Certain regions, like the North East, have seen conflict with local actors and government forces for decades and this is unlikely to change. Other regions, such as central India, have been relatively peaceful and conflict may develop as resource extraction expands.

  • Will regional or non-regional actors be involved? 0/3

Though China and other nations have ties with regional business interests, it is unlikely that any state level actor will get involved in this issue. The UN and other international bodies are expected to condemn violence and ecological damage but this is not expected to change the situation.

  • What is the probability of spill over? 2/3

Currently, the Kashmiri and Naxalite conflicts are affecting India’s bordering neighbors to some extent, though the issue of natural resource extraction is not the primary cause of this. India’s lack of access to natural resources for development will probably harm the domestic and global economy as the shortages get more severe over time.

Risk-O-Meter Score: 9/15 (Notable Risk)



[2] Ibid.











[13] Ibid.

Image Credit:


Aggarwal, Mayank. 2020. “India’s Mining Sector: Present Is Tense and Future Could Be Imperfect.” Mongabay. 

Choudhary, Srishti. “How India Plans to Save Its Critical Resources for Future.” mint, August 3, 2019.

Dubochet, Lucy. 2010. “Naxal-Affected States: Will the Curse of Natural Resources Be Avoided?” IPCS.

Falkenhagen, Andrea. 2011. “Mining and the Maoists.” Stimson Center.

Michael Kugelman, Michael. 2011. “A Crucial Connection: India’s Natural Security.” New Security Beat.

Nagdeve, Dewaram A. “Population Growth and Environmental Degradation.” Princeton University. Accessed November 29, 2021.

PHD Research Bureau. 2011. “Jammu Kashmir State Profile.” PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Jammu and Kashmir Government.  

Shellenberger, Michael. 2021. “Dark Side To Solar? More Reports Tie Panel Production To Toxic Pollution.” Forbes.—including-that-its-clean-and-cheap—was-wrong/?sh=368bc4c25fe5

TWC India Edit Team. 2019. “India Extracts 3 Times More Natural Resources than Global Average: Draft Resource Policy.” The Weather Channel.

Yasir, Sameer and Hari Kumar. 2021. “Anger Spreads in Northeastern India After Security Forces Kill 14 Civilians.” The New York Times.

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