PULLING UP the Meghalaya government for failing to curb illegal mining in the state, the Supreme Court on Tuesday banned transportation of extracted coal till it hears the matter next on February 19.
In April 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had banned illegal mining of coal in the state, specifically mentioning the rat-hole technique. The Supreme Court had later allowed transportation of the coal that had already been extracted, subject to payment of a fee. Since then, the deadline for transporting this coal has been extended nine times — on December 4 last year, the Supreme Court set January 31, 2019 as the new deadline.
Extension of deadlines opened window for miners
THERE HAVE been allegations that mine owners are misusing the relaxation on transportation of extracted coal to flout the ban on mining. In a report in December 2018, an NGT team had said that a visit to a mining site a month earlier had shown evidence of ongoing work — “fresh coal dumps on the roadside”, “temporary sheds in the mining areas” and “a good number of cranes for mining activity”. A Citizens’ Report submitted to the Supreme Court earlier this month had questioned how, from October 8, 2014 to December 5, 2018, the government’s estimates of the quantum of coal extracted prior to the 2014 ban on fresh mining were revised upwards. The report said the “coal miners and transporters, wilfully assisted by the government, via its misleading representations to the Tribunal, kept getting transportation orders extended. In total, from the time of the interim ban till date, 57 months and 15 days, coal miners have got 32 months, 1 week and 5 days of transportation period.”
But on Tuesday, a bench of Justices A K Sikri and S Abdul Nazeer said that “till the next date of hearing, there would not be any transportation of any coal lying on the sites.” The court was hearing applications by some traders seeking extension of deadline.
Despite the NGT ban, the rat-hole mining technique is still followed in the state. At least 15 workers are feared dead after being trapped in a rat-hole mine in East Jaintia Hills since December 13.
Referring to this incident, a bench headed by Justice A K Sikri said it “shows that illegal mining is going on in the state. You may not support it, but you have failed to contain it”. The bench indicated that it may ask a panel to auction the coal that has been extracted, instead of allowing its sale.
The court took exception to the state government counsel’s submission that the state has taken “adequate” steps to curb illegal mining. “Do not say adequate. The word you are using is wrong. If that was so, this (miners getting trapped) would not have happened. Have you ever checked areas where illegal mining is going on and ordered a clampdown,” Justice Sikri asked the counsel.
The court also asked the state government to submit a report on whether any survey was undertaken to identify the areas where illegal mining was being carried out, and the steps taken to stop it.
A bench headed by Justice Sikri is also seized of another PIL seeking the court’s intervention in efforts to rescue the miners.
Senior Advocate Nidhesh Gupta, appearing for a Meghalaya resident, requested the court not to allow further time to transport the coal. He claimed that miners had over-declared the quantity of coal extracted.
Meanwhile, welcoming the Supreme Court’s order, anti-mining activist Agnes Kharshiing told The Indian Express: “The transportation allowance was misused by coal mine owners to transport freshly extracted coal under the excuse of it being mined earlier. Let’s hope that this order brings an end to such illegality.”
But Kyrmen Shylla, state minister and MLA from Khliehriat (headquarters of East Jaintia Hills district), said: “The ban does not help improve the situation. Banning is not a permanent solution to anything, because there are issues of livelihood involved.”
Shylla, whose family owned multiple mines before the ban, said, “Earlier, the deadline was January 31, 2019. But today, the ban came suddenly. It has puzzled mine owners because a number of them had purchased challans (travel permits obtained after paying royalty to the government) for the previously mined coal and now they don’t know what to do.”