File picture of Talcher coal mine
New Delhi, April 28: The issue of poverty amidst plenty in Odisha surfaced in the Supreme Court today with the apex court wondering why the state was underdeveloped even as both the Centre and Naveen Patnaik government opposed any move to ban mining in the state pleading it would adversely hit the steel industry.
“But please tell us. So why is the state so underdeveloped? That is the irony. Where is the wealth going? We want to know,” a three-judge forest bench, headed by Justice A.K. Patnaik, said while reserving its verdict on the PIL filed by NGO Common Cause alleging large-scale illegal mining in the state.
The issue of illegal mining surfaced in the state in 2009 with the Opposition alleging that the scam ran into several thousand crores. The state government ordered a vigilance inquiry and later even the Justice M.B. Shah Commission inquired into it, but the Opposition continues to demand a CBI probe.
The bench hinted that if necessary it might impose a ban on the lines of Goa in 2011, which was eventually lifted only recently. The bench consisting of Justice S.S. Nijjar and Justice Ibrahim Kalifulla made the observation even as senior counsel P.P. Rao, appearing for the state, and additional solicitor-general K.V. Vishwanathan opposed the apex court proposal for an interim ban on all mining. They argued that any ban on mining would affect the country’s economy.
Both the counsels harped on the fact that Odisha was the country’s fourth largest steel producer, hence any ban would lead to import of the precious metal.
Rao on behalf of the state government sought six months to take a call on fresh grant of mining leases and “until then your lordships may not impose any ban in the meantime in national interest”.
“I am only speaking in national interests,” he said, when the court wondered whether he was speaking for the state or the mining lobbies.
Vishwanathan on behalf of the Centre pleaded that no ban should be imposed saying “it would hurt the steel industry which had already slowed down after a similar ban on mining in Karnataka”.
The Centre in its affidavit said that Odisha produced 34.5 million tonnes, while the country’s total iron ore production was 68.2 million tonnes during April to September in 2013-14.
Pleading that the steel sector is one of the core sectors, the Centre said the industry at present employed more than five lakh people and was a major contributor to the economy and GDP of the country.
“Ministry of steel humbly states that while all penal actions be taken against specific mines for any illegal action, there should not be any blanket ban on the mining of iron ore.”
While the illegality committed by an individual lessee should be dealt with, there should not be any general prohibition on mining activity, he said. “Any ban would cause a severe impact on the steel industry and result in a slow-down of the economy apart from loss of earnings and employment to thousands of families,” the Union ministry of steel and mines said in an affidavit.