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Bengaluru: In an order passed on July 9, the Supreme Court of India rejected pleas by Vedanta Ltd. and the state of Goa to review a judgment that cancelled the company’s mining leases in the state. Notably, the court also criticised both parties for their legal strategy – waiting for judges to retire before filing their review petitions.
Review petitions are usually heard by the same bench that passed the original order except when the judges have retired.
In an order passed in 2018, the Supreme Court had cancelled Vedanta Ltd.’s lease to mine iron ore, which the Goan government had renewed in 2014. The order also directed mining companies to stop all mining operations until they obtained new environmental clearances and leases.
The court was hearing the case after the Goa Foundation, an NGO of Goa-based environmentalists, Sudip Tamankar, Rama Velip and others, filed a petition challenging the legality of the leases.
Various news outlets in India reported the 2018 order as “a mining ban in Goa”. This is effectively true: as of today, no entity holds a valid lease to mine iron ore in Goa. The leases of existing lease-holders have also been suspended; they are required to obtain new leases.
A separate petition that mining companies have filed, arguing that their leases are valid until 2037 under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) (MMDR) Act 1957, is currently pending hearing in the Supreme Court.
Goa sought to review the Supreme Court’s 2018 order and filed four review petitions in November 2019, after Justice Madan B. Lokur retired. Vedanta Ltd. followed with four more review petitions in August 2020 after the retirement of Justice Deepak Gupta.
The practice of filing review petitions after the retirement of relevant judges should be “firmly disapproved to preserve the institutional sanctity of the decision making of this court,” the bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and M.R. Shah said while dismissing the review petitions.
The verdict comes “not just as a renewed responsibility for all Goans, but is also an eye-opener for many,” Ronnan Da Cunha, a member of the Save Mollem Campaign, told The Wire. According to him, the order is a prompt to abide by “intergenerational equity” and eliminate greed.
In February 2018, the bench of Justices Lokur and Gupta cancelled 88 iron-ore mining leases that Goa had renewed for the second time. These leases had originally been granted by the colonial Portuguese government, and had been renewed first in 1987 under the Goa, Daman and Diu (Abolition of Concession and Declaration as Mining Leases) Act passed that year.
This extension validated the leases for the period of 1961 – when Goa was liberated and became a part of India – to 2007. The second renewal followed seven years later, in less than ideal fashion.
In 2014, the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre determined that private operators couldn’t acquire mining rights to natural resources except through auctions. But the Goa government, of the BJP, invoked the spectres of a ‘mining mafia’ and corruption to renew 88 existing leases instead of holding new auctions or re-allocating existing leases to PSUs. As a result, it also sundered a claim of Rs 1.44 lakh crore from the miners.
Further, the 1960 Mineral Concession Rules’ deemed extension clause allows miners to continue mining by filing an application with the state government to have their leases renewed.
But between 2014 and 2018, a particularly important ‘development’ happened. After the second renewal, mining companies resumed operations from August 2015. And within months, the residents of Sonshi village were protesting the foul air, decimated water bodies, the desolation of their lands and the constant movement of ore-laden trucks through their roads. Ravindra Velip, a young adivasi activist and the panch of Caurem village, told Nidhi Jamwal, “Except dried up water bodies and tonnes of dust, there is nothing left in Sonshi for villagers to return to.”
In 2017, the high court of Bombay at Goa took suo motu cognisance of the problem and asked the Goa State Pollution Control Board to submit a report on ways to mitigate the pollution. Then, in its 2018 order, the Supreme Court bench directed miners to obtain new leases under the MMDR Act itself.
According to Rahul Basu, a member of the Goenchi Mati movement for mining reforms, both the companies that held valid leases until the court’s verdict and the state’s politicians want these leases to exist and to be legitimate. Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, echoed this view, saying the companies’ and the state’s review petitions are an effort to keep mining operations at the centre of Goan economy.
Basu also said governments and mining companies in the state operate as a ‘complex’, which has meant mining has been at the centre of Goan politics as well. “Mining has been controlling Goa’s politics since the pre-liberation era because politicians get a lot of money from mining,” he said.
Even after the Supreme Court’s 2018 order, 40 of the state’s MLAs asked the Central government to amend the law in the lease-holders’ favour. Basu and Claude Alvares, as members of the Goa Foundation, wrote for The Wire at the time:
“The alternative of restoring the environment as an economic opportunity is never discussed by Goa’s politicians. Instead, they see only two legal courses of action – fresh mining through a PSU or fresh mining through auctions of mining leases to private entities. Neither is attractive. The existing miners would still need to cough up huge sums and they would nevertheless be debarred from mining for their persistent illegalities. This is a mortal threat to the entire miner-politician-bureaucrat nexus.”
As Kohli put it, the “constant push” to maintain high-impact mining operations in Goa is “a constant reminder of the strong nexus between the government and private mining corporations.” But the apex court’s stand has clarified, she added, “that legacy mining operations will not be revived.”