Meghalaya govt. fined by SC for failing to curb illegal mining

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Supreme Court on July 3, 2019 decision ruled that Meghalaya state government should pay Rs. 100 crore Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for the restoration of the environment after allowing illegal coal mining in tribal areas of the state.

Facts of the case

Illegal mining has been a major concern for the Meghalaya government. Last year on December 13, an illegal mining operation in East Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya lead to the deaths of 15 miners who were trapped underground inside the tunnels when water from nearby Lytein river flowed in claiming their lives. Since then, only two dead bodies have been retrieved making the whole tragic situation even worse with family members waiting for the return of their loved ones’ bodies.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had taken an unusually hard-line approach after such incidents which was reflected in its January 4 judgment whereby NGT ordered Meghalaya state government to pay CPCB Rs. 100 crores for failing to curb illegal mining operations. Meghalaya government appealed to the Supreme Court against this ruling claiming that paying such a huge amount would likely cause many hardships for the government as their state budget is not big enough to compensate such losses.

Court ruling

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A Division Bench comprising of Justices Ashok Bhushan and K M Joseph heard the instant case while deciding on many such appeals arising from NGT rulings. Apex Court declared, “State is always at liberty to obtain appropriate directions if aggrieved by any act of the committee” while deciding the jurisdiction of NGT. The top court held that NGT under the auspices of Rule 24 of National Green Tribunal (Practice and Procedure) Rules, 2011 has the authority to issue such fines and can also direct the setting up of a committee to decide on the transportation of the illegally mined coal at the mine site. The Court said, “NGT by directing for the constitution of the committee has not delegated essential judicial functions. The Tribunal had kept complete control on all steps which were required to be taken by the committees and has issued directions from time to time.”

Supreme Court acknowledged the state government’s problems and hence ordered Meghalaya government to transfer funds from Meghalaya Environment Protection and Restoration Fund (MEPRF) to CPCB to the tune of Rs. 100 crores so that state government may not be unduly burdened by any ‘hardships’ as claimed and yet the amount is also paid. CPCB can then utilise that amount in restoring the damages done through illegal mining operations. Apex Court stated, “Natural resources of the country are not meant to be consumed only by the present generation of men or women of the region where natural resources are deposited. These treasures of nature are for all generations to come and for intelligent use of the entire country.”

The top court in later parts of its judgment ruled that the Meghalaya state government should hand over all the illegally mined coals in its custody to Coal India Limited (CIL) as per the order issued by NGT. CIL then in consultation with Katakey Committee, set up as per NGT ruling should auction off the coals and handover the proceedings to the Meghalaya state government. The Apex Court advised that the state government should proceed with all the seized coals of illegal mining in accordance with Section 21 of the 1957 Act.

Impact of the judgment

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This judgment is considered to have a positive impact on protecting the lives of poor miners as well as safeguarding the nation’s resources. As the Apex Court has rightly held that our natural resources are not ours to squander away as we owe our next generation a clean and healthy environment, so we should strive to protect our nation’s resources from the greed of unscrupulous officials encouraging unregulated mining operations. NGT had in its previous ruling suggested that the amount imposed on Meghalaya government as a punitive measure could be recovered by the state government from these unscrupulous people and it would serve as an effective deterrent in curbing illegal mining.

Supreme Court in its judgments had always championed the cause of poor and downtrodden populace of our country by protecting their rights and fighting for their safety. All the pioneering verdicts from the Apex Court in the last few decades have been found to favour the common man by bringing justice to the needy. This verdict like the few others are the laudable efforts of the top court in a country recently embroiled with a host of geopolitical challenges, financial woes and crumbling social mores.

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