Before January, 2015, while signing the letter of intent (LOI) with any company, a number of state governments — such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh — had promised them an environment or forest clearance before the grant of mining licence. However, the environment ministry has now told the Union mines ministry that there is no provision in the law which obliges it to give a prior clearance for any such proposal.
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As per government data, around 65 and 45 such proposals are stuck for the want of the environment and forest clearance respectively, either with the state or the Centre. In total, around 288 non-coal mining proposals are stuck at various levels. With the January 11, 2017, deadline looming large, the Centre is learnt to be working overtime to clear them as soon as possible.
“Gyanesh Bharti, joint secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, ruled out the prospect of granting any sort of general or conditional or provisional environment clearance by the environment division, for facilitating lease execution in such cases, under the provision of Environment Protection Act (EPA) and rules there off,” the minutes of the meeting, which took place on September 20, between environment ministry and mines ministry, noted.
The 288 cases — including the 65 and 45 cases stuck for the want of environment and forest clearance respectively — are unique as the proposals were under process either with the state government or the Centre even before January 2015, when the new mining law came into effect. Under the old law, the firms were granted mining licences by the states on a discretionary basis. The new law introduced a new way of granting mining licences — through auction.
While the new law stipulated that all licences henceforth would be granted only via auctions by the respective state governments, it also said that if any firm was issued a LOI by the state under the old law, the license for that block should be directly granted by January 2017. Moreover, if any proposal has been approved by a state government under the earlier law, but got stuck with the Centre, the licence for that too was required to be issued by January 2017.
With environment ministry showing the red flag, the mines ministry is likely to take the opinion of law ministry regarding this issue. It is checking if the mining licence could be granted by the state governments by imposing a condition that all legal requirements of the EPA (including getting an environment clearance) would have to be fully met by the company itself before the mining operations commence.
About forest clearance, the Union environment ministry has given a similar opinion as that for environment clearance. During the meeting, it told the mines ministry that in case a conditional clearance is given, the company would be free to mutate the forest land in its favour and would use it for non-forest activities and the very purpose of the need for ‘forest clearance’ would be defeated. Therefore, no prior or conditional or provisional forest clearances can be given for quicker grant of mining licences.
The central government is likely to auction the 288 mines, in case they are not granted to the companies — by respective state governments — by January, 2017. However, the companies may then take the cases to court as the new mining law clearly stipulates that they should get the licences for these mines on discretionary basis by the state governments as mentioned in the LOI.