(Civil Appeal No: 10720 of 2018)
Decided on July 03rd, 2019
The significant Judgment by the Honorable Supreme Court of India has spurred up the talks on the illegal rat-hole mines in the country. The case that happened in the hills of Meghalaya’s East Jaintia were, fifteen miners encroached into a flooded coal mine which had become the most significant human tragedy of the illegal rat-hole mining that continues under the very nose of the authorities. The rat-hole mining means, the miners are involved in the digging of narrow and barely three to four high tunnels for the workers to pass through it, to extract the coal which earns a high profit. Water from the river flooded the mine, only five miners were able to climb the mine, rest all were trapped heavily criticised officials for being sluggish in mounting an effective rescue operation.
The pumps used to drain out the waters were inadequate capacity. So the rescue attempt was delayed as the authorities didn’t have sufficient Materials. National Green Tribunal’s Ban, Four Years ago which made the operation that brought economic benefits, it had been challenged by the state government in the Supreme court of India who permitted the transport of the extracted coal until January 31st 2020.
The bench of Justices, Ashok Bhushan and KM Joseph have partly directed the state of Meghalaya to transfer a sum of Rupees Hundred Crore, from the Meghalaya Environmental Protection and Restoration Fund (MEPRF) to the Central Pollution Board (CPB). It has also said that the amount that has been imposed by the court is neither penalty nor fine that has been imposed on the State but is aware of the situation. The Central Pollution Board shall only use the amount for the restoration of the Environment.
The Supreme court was hearing the appeal from the National Green Tribunal (NGT), where all the orders which challenged the coal mining in the State. The Dima Hasao Students Association’s Secretary (Applicant) has filed the petition in the representative capacity to help the cause of the people of Dima Hasao, Assam. The latter is consistently and continuously facing the adverse impact of the aforementioned illegal activities in the Meghalaya State. The Jaintia Hills, well known for the coal mining which leads acidic to the water in the form of Acid Mine Drainage to the river Kharkor and its tributaries were causing water pollution. After giving direction and measures that have to be taken in the unregulated coal mining, which has resulted in the loss of many lives in the state and also it affected the environment of that area.
The All Dimasa Students union district committee filed O.A. No:73 of 2014 before the Tribunal that the rat-hole mining operations were going on in the state of Meghalaya, without being regulated by any law the last many years. The Tribunal which passed the orders after hearing the applicant ordered the Chief Secretary and D.G.P. of Meghalaya to stop all the mining operations that are ongoing in the state immediately, and any illegal transport of coal shall not take place until further orders.
The Tribunal also stated that in its order dated 09.06.2014, that the illegal, uncontrolled and indiscriminate rat-hole mining in different parts of the State caused significant Air, Water, and environmental pollution. The Tribunal also noted the environmental degradation and contamination of the water bodies in the State and observed that the drastic measures were needed to take up for the contaminated water bodies, for which it authorised the State government to collect 10% on the Market value of the coal.
The State of Meghalaya in 2016, said that to guide and record the exact current amount of Coal as of 01.04.2015 and the precise amount of coal lying on 16.05.2016 and its value including the status of Coal lying and mining anywhere in the state of Meghalaya. The State also directed to submit its proposal on how the state should deal with the fuel that is invested in the state primarily for the reason that the total coal has been extracted illegally.
In the year 2018, the Tribunal deliberated on environment conservation and victim recovery for which funds were available. The tribunal formed a Committee with members from the Central Board and Indian school of Mines, Dhanbad, headed by Justice B.P. Katakey Former Guwahati High Court Judge. The Tribunal took many steps for the Conservation of the Environment in the State Of Meghalaya.
In 2019, Justice Katakey submitted its report before the tribunal. After considering the report, the Tribunal came to the conclusion that the State of Meghalaya had failed to perform its duties as per the recommendations of the States Pollution Control Board. The Tribunal opined that the interim amount of Rs. 100 Crore to be deposited towards the restoration of the Environment within two months to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The State Government filed two appeals questioning the order of the ban rat-hole mining and the request of the justice Katakey committee. The ban on coal mining effectively closed the doors to the significant source of revenue for the District council functioning, which empowered it to collect taxes under the Sixth Scheduled of the constitution. The State questions the Jurisdiction which depends upon two conditions that are 1—the Significant problems relating to the environment and 2. The Enactment stated the Scheduled I should enforce.
It has submitted that the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act 1957 (MMDR Act, 1957) not being specified in Schedule I and the NGT have failed to exercise the jurisdiction to examine the violations of the Act. It also states that the tribal’s in the Khasi Hills, Jaintia Hills and Garo Hills are the owners of the sub-soil and the minerals of the land and is the property of those villagers. It has different tenure systems of vesting the land from the pre-Independence period, and the NGT has committed an error on the coal mining that the tribal’s of the area cannot do coal mining without obtaining the lease from the state government. It also claimed that the NGT still has no authority to establish any fund or a continuous mandamus, since the Tribunal is not a Constitutional Court.
The Tribal’s of the Hills of Meghalaya depended upon the coal mining for their livelihood. Hence, a large number of tribes deprived by the complete ban on coal mining w.e.f 17.04.2014 and the state must support the cause of the tribals who are not individually before the NGT. It has stated that there is no jurisdiction for the state of Meghalaya to grant mining lease as per the unique nature of land tenure. The NGT has failed in holding that the State has the right to carry out the obligations of the coal mining, as the original holding was of the Central Government under the Act of 1957 to make necessary rules, issues and directions and the State government cannot blame.
It also submitted that the ban on coal mining should be lifted because it infringes Article 21 of the constitution of India. It also said that the tribunal acted beyond its power under section15 of the NGT Act,2010. The Additional Solicitor General submitted that there was no prior approval of the mining rights were given in the critical area by the Ministry of Coal in the state of Meghalaya. The learned Amicus curiae submitted that the State of Meghalaya continues the Illegal Mining as it violates Section 4 & 5 Of the MMDR Act,1957.
A Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and K M Joseph has directed the State Administration to hand over the illegal extracted coal to the coal India limited and passed the order allowing the mining operations in the state. The Court struck down the earlier ban on fuel by the NGT in 2014 and said it irrelevant. The court also noted that while passing the order allowing operation of coal mines in the state will be subjected to the provisions of the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 and Mineral Concession Rules, 1960 and permission granted by the landowners.
Justice Ashok Bhushan at the beginning of the judgment he authored that the Natural resources in the country are not to consume for the men and women of the present generation. He says that the natural resources are treasures of nature which are for the generations to come. The resources should be used in a manner that the present generations who owe a duty will use the resources more intelligently by preserving and conserving the natural resources of the nation so that the coming generations and nation can use it as a whole.
The Court Ordered to impose fine from the Meghalaya Government and said that the government would pay the fine collected from the illegal miners and transporters of illegally mined coals. The court has stood for the protection of the rights of the state’s indigenous tribes who have rights over the land, and they possess the proprietary rights over-extracted minerals. The court also stated that for carrying out coal mining operations in privately owned or community-owned property, the State government is not the authority to grant lease under Chapter V of the rules, 1960. The private owner or the community owner who shall give lease by obtaining prior permission from the Central Government through the state governments.
The Judgment that has been passed by the Honorable Supreme Court on 03rd July 2019, by setting aside the ban on coal mines in Meghalaya imposed by the National Green Tribunal in April 2014. It also ruled that the State should enforce mining laws. The Judgment that was given by Justices Ashok Bhushan and KM Joseph made to support the Healthy environment by saying that the natural resources of the country are not meant to be consumed at present and should be given to the future generations. By saying this judgment, we can see that the conservation of the environment has been deeply embodied by the decision. J. Bhushan said that the environmental degradation by illegal coal mines by unregulated coal mining is proof that the State is running with the illegal mining activities. The committee Report by justice B.P. Katakey, itself says that illegal mining has made the environmental degradation of the Water, Air and Surface. The illicit mining coal has affected not only the environment but also the miners, where we can see fifteen miners trapped in the watery grave of rat-hole mining in the Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya. The drilling has increased the pH value of the water making them unsafe for use. The rivers and streams of Meghalaya have been polluted by the mining activities and made them acidic.
Apart from this, the illegal mining activities that have been done by the state government have been made to stop by this judgment. Also, it has stated that coal mining should be according to the rules and regulations of the laws of mining in the state. The main thing that has happened while the ban was the employment of workers in the coal mine; most of the people are working in coal mines due to poverty. To deplete poverty, most of the people from the children, men, women all work under the same umbrella.
The judgment particularly said that there is no lack of Jurisdiction in NGT. They constituted a committee to obtain the report. It started by saying that the state government, which is under the constitutional obligation to protect its environment and ensure a clean and safe environment for all its citizens, has considerably failed. The committee directed to prepare a detailed plan for the worker in alternate employment in mining areas. After May 15, 2016, the State does not automatically vest the rights of coal, but the persons who have proprietary rights in the mineral have the rights. Also, it has assessed the state government to hand over all the coals in custody to the Coal India Ltd, which is the right thing on the part because there may be illegal mining. The tribal’s that are the part of the land and the illegal miners who buy those land for the extraction of Coal from the tribal’s will be now impossible without the prior order from the central government. The judgment is appropriate, and the activities that have taken to eradicate the problems that persist in the environment in the state of Meghalaya is appreciating.
BY- K.R. AZAD
The National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi