Shillong, Aug. 1: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) today refused to lift the ban on rat-hole coal mining in Meghalaya, saying it could not permit economic interests to gain preference over the right to life.
The tribunal stuck to its April 17, 2014 interim order banning coal mining in the state, much to the disappointment of coal miners, traders and exporters.
The tribunal’s circuit bench, comprising chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar and expert member Ranjan Chatterjee, heard three applications — threat to life due to coal mining in South Garo Hills based on a suo moto case taken up by the erstwhile Shillong bench of Gauhati High Court, ban on coal mining in Meghalaya by the tribunal on the petition of the All Dimasa Students’ Union from Assam, and a petition on unregulated mining in the state filed by Impulse NGO Network.
After hearing the cases, the tribunal passed orders which slammed and disbanded the committee it had constituted on June 9 for not performing its duty and formed a new committee. The NGT had constituted the committee to assess the quantity of extracted coal and regulate its transportation. The bench today observed that the committee had failed to comply with its June 9 order, causing economic losses to the state besides failing to protect the ecology.
The committee comprised director of mines, Meghalaya, member secretary of Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board, member secretary of Assam State Pollution Control Board, senior scientist of Central Pollution Control Board, senior representative of the ministry of environment and forests, and principal secretary of Meghalaya mining and geology department.
The new committee will comprise Meghalaya additional chief secretary Kuljit Singh Kropha, principal secretary (forest and environment) M.S. Rao, senior scientist of Central Pollution Control Board not been deputed to any of the northeastern states, member secretary of Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board and a professor, to be nominated by IIT Guwahati, having expertise in mining.
The committee should meet within one week from today and provide a complete picture of the extracted coal lying in various mining sites in Meghalaya.
Within two weeks, the committee is required to frame comprehensive guidelines and modalities related to removal and transport of extracted coal. It will ensure proper checks for its removal and upload the guidelines on the website of the Meghalaya government and circulate it to deputy commissioners and superintendents of police of districts, who would be responsible for compliance of the tribunal’s order, as well as to mining organisations.
Two weeks from today, the government can allow removal of extracted coal subject to strict adherence to the committee’s guidelines. Transportation of the coal should strictly adhere to the tribunal’s June 9 order, it added. If any difficulty on transportation of coal arises, the committee can approach the NGT in New Delhi.
The interim order of April 17 banning coal mining in Meghalaya will continue and no unscientific, unlicensed and illegal coal mining will be allowed in any part of Meghalaya without environmental clearance. The tribunal said there was no prejudice while protecting the environment.
The Hindustan Paper Corporation Ltd, Assam, claimed that its paper mill has been affected due to shortage of coal following the ban. The North Eastern Electric Corporation Ltd submitted a petition saying that its turbines in the Kopili hydro-electric project had corroded as the water in the reservoir had become acidic because of coal mining in Jaintia Hills. As a result, power production was minimised.
The tribunal observed that unscientific rat-hole mining had large disadvantages, affecting environment and ecology, including rivers, streams and groundwater. It said central and Meghalaya pollution control boards had collected water samples and submitted reports to the tribunal. Natural streams form sources of water in Meghalaya and if these are found acidic, it would be injurious to human health. Hence the state needs to regulate mining, it said.
Meghalaya government’s counsel Ranjan Mukherjee pleaded before the NGT that the state and coal miners are economically suffering and that the ban should be lifted.
He said according to the assessment carried by the earlier committee, the quantity of extracted coal is 3.73 million metric tonnes while eight million metric tonnes extracted coal could not be identified and assessed.
“Transportation of 3.73 million metric tonnes of extracted coal will be permitted subject to clearance given by the new committee,” he added.
“The new committee will have to sit within one week and, thereafter, work out the modalities for transportation of extracted coal subject to strict guidelines of the tribunal in today’s order. In the earlier order of June 9, the tribunal has allowed transportation of extracted coal within three months and this period will continue in the present order as well,” he said.
The NGT bench heard the cases today amid tight security. Security personnel were deployed on all streets leading to Meghalaya High Court to ensure that the hearing passes off peacefully.
Section 144 CrPC was clamped prohibiting assembly of five or more persons within 200 metres radius of the high court. As the bench conducted the hearing in a jam-packed courtroom from 10am, people crowded the areas near the lower courts facing the high court, entry into which was restricted.
A few metres away, activists of Hynniewtrep A’chik National Movement, a pressure group, staged a sit-in to protest the ban.
The next hearing on the three applications will be held here on October 7 and 8.
Additional reporting by Andrew W. Lyngdoh