New Delhi: The Centre tried to sidestep a pointed question that asked if illegal mining was continuing in Meghalaya despite the ban imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014, but conceded that several cases have been registered for such offences.
BJP Rajya Sabha MP Rakesh Sinha asked the Ministry of Coal if “it is a fact that illegal mining of coal in Meghalaya is continuing despite the ban” by the NGT, also asking the government to list the steps it has taken to stop such illegal mining.
In his response, minister Pralhad Joshi did not provide an answer to Sinha’s pointed question on the continuation of illegal mining. Instead, he proceeded to list a series of actions that the government has taken to “ensure that no illegal mining of coal takes place in the state”.
Among these measures was the concession that “250 cases have been registered” under Section 21 of the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) [MMDR] Act, which penalises illegal mining operations, since March 2019. This clearly indicates that illegal mining has continued in Meghalaya despite the ban, a fact that will not come as a surprise to many within the state.
In fact, as recently as January 21, six persons died inside a mine after a crane carrying them snapped in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills district. Officials had revealed that sections of the MMDR Act had been invoked in this instance too.
Sinha had also asked about the amount of loss caused by illegal mining to the government and whether “it is also a fact that cement and power companies are hand in glove with illegal mining activities”. He asked if these companies owe Rs 43 rupees as fine, which they have not deposited.
To this, the minister did not specify how much loss has been incurred, but said the government would have lost royalty of Rs 675 and cess of Rs 300 per metric tonne of illegal coal. “There are no cases registered against cement and power companies for illegal coal mining,” he said.
He added that the NGT had asked power and cement manufacturing plants which had utilised illegally mined coal to deposit Rs 614 crore to the Meghalaya Environment Protection and Restoration Fund. This order was kept in abeyance following an appeal by the companies in the Supreme Court.
The NGT had imposed a ban on rat-hole coal mining in Meghalaya in April 2014. In January 2019, the tribunal imposed a Rs 100 crore fine on the state government for failing to curb illegal mining. The fine was imposed after 15 miners were trapped in a 370-foot-deep illegal rat-hole coal mine in Lumthari village of East Jaintia Hills district on December 13, 2018. Search operations were abandoned on March 2, 2019 and only two decomposed bodies were recovered during the search.
In July 2019, the Supreme Court allowed mining operations on privately and community-owned lands to continue, subject to permissions from the concerned authorities.
The apex court’s order upheld tribal ownership over resources and land in Meghalaya, which enjoys constitutional safeguards under the ‘sixth schedule’. It said, “The operation of a mine will be allowed subject to environmental clearance, obtaining a mining lease under the Minerals (concession) Rules, 1960 and the Mines Act, 1960 as well as regulations laid under the Coal Mines Regulations, 2017.”
During the hearing, the state government had admitted that a large number of mines were operating illegally in the northeastern state.
The state government is yet to formulate a mining plan to adhere to the conditions set by the Supreme Court. Therefore, any mining activities in the state are still considered illegal.