The Supreme Court Wednesday upheld the rights of tribal communities in Meghalaya to grant leases for mining on their land but said the state has ample power “to check, control and prohibit coal mining operations”.
A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and K M Joseph also ruled that a ban imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on mining in the state will only apply in case of illegal mining.
“In Hill District of State of Meghalaya for carrying coal mining operations in privately owned/community owned land it is not the state government which shall grant the mining lease under Chapter V of Rules, 1960, but it is the private owner/community owner of the land, who is also the owner of the mineral, who shall grant lease for mining of coal as per provisions of Chapter V of Rules, 1960 after obtaining previous approval of the Central government,” the bench said deciding a clutch of appeals challenging certain orders of the NGT.
Some of the appellants had questioned the NGT order of April 17, 2014, banning mining activities. “We thus clarify that in the event mining operations are undertaken by the tribals or other owners of hills districts of Meghalaya in accordance with mining lease obtained from the State of Meghalaya as per 1957 Act and Mineral Concessions Rule, 1960, the ban order dated 17.04.2014 of the tribunal shall not come in its way. The ban order is for the illegal coal mining which was rampant…” it said.
The appellants had questioned an NGT direction to constitute the Meghalaya Environment Protection and Restoration Fund (MEPRF) on the ground that the Tribunal had no jurisdiction to do this. The court did not agree.
In an order on January 4, the NGT had asked Meghalaya to pay the Central Pollution Control Board Rs 100 crore, which it said would be used for the restoration of environment in the state.
The SC agreed with the submission of the state government’s counsel that the state “has very limited source of revenue and putting an extra burden to make a payment of Rs 100 crore from its own financial resources may cause great hardship to the state”. It allowed Meghalaya to transfer Rs 100 crore from the MEPRF.
The court also pulled up the state government over the December 2018 mining tragedy in which 15 people were killed in a mine in East Jaintia Hills district. “… (This) proves beyond any shade of doubt that the order banning mining in… Meghalaya was neither enforced, nor were serious endeavours taken to stop pollution,” the judgment said.