New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed the unit of a French-Spanish joint venture, Lafarge Umiam Mining Pvt. Ltd, to resume limestone mining in Meghalaya’s East Khasi Hills after 17 months.
Crucially, the court also issued several guidelines to be implemented by the government, including the creation of a national regulator to grant clearances for similar projects and impose penalties on polluters.
The court’s judgement is a push for more streamlined procedures and greater transparency in environmental regulation in India. Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh had proposed the creation of a National Environment Protection Authority in 2009 so that the executive could reclaim the territory of granting clearances and playing regulator from the judiciary. Ramesh had acknowledged that the government’s regulation of such cases had suffered in recent years.
The court has now given the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) six months to file a status report on the various reforms it has asked for. It has also said that till a regulator is finally set up by the government, the environment ministry should “prepare a panel of accredited institutions” from which alone project proponents could obtain environment impact assessments.
The court said one of the reasons it proposed the creation of a regulator was to avoid “fait accompli” scenarios like the Lafarge case.
Lafarge started commercially operating a 100-hectare limestone mine in October 2006 at Phlangkaruh, Nongtrai, East Khasi Hills district in Meghalaya. It sent the limestone across the India-Bangladesh border on a conveyor belt as raw material for its 2-million-tonne a year capacity cement plant at Chhatak in the neighbouring country.
The matter reached the Supreme Court when a group of 21 tribal activists under the banner of the Shella Action Committee filed a petition alleging that Lafarge was mining on forest land, and did not have the required clearances. In February last year, the court stayed Lafarge’s mining operations.
The crucial questions in the case were whether Lafarge had wilfully subverted the process of getting clearance to mine on forest land, and whether it was aware of the fact that the land was classified as forest as per law.
The forest bench, comprising chief justice S.H. Kapadia and justices Aftab Alam and K.S. Radhakrishnan, held that Lafarge had gone about getting its approvals in a bona fide manner, and that the company believed the land was not forest. Though, the central empowered committee, when it was eventually brought into the case, took the view that the land was forest, the court reasoned that the area was part of a traditional limestone mining belt which had become afforested.
The situation before the bench was finally that Lafarge had done all that it could have on the regulatory front, but it turned out that the mining site was in a forested area. It also emerged that the state government had failed in certain respects—to notify the environment ministry, among other things.
The court said the company had taken the consent of the real custodians of the land—the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council and the Nongtrai Village Durbar—before it started mining in the area. It also reasoned that the existence of the mining operations had brought jobs, schools, healthcare and other benefits to the local communities. It observed that this was “a unique case from the North East”.
“The word ‘development’ is a relative term. One cannot assume that the tribals are not aware of principles of conservation of forest. In the present case, we are satisfied that limestone mining has been going on for centuries in the area and that it is an activity which is intertwined with the culture and the unique land holding and tenure system of the Nongtrai village,” the bench said.
The limestone deposit in Meghalaya is estimated to be 2,165 million tonnes, according to reports in the judgement, with limestone mining in Nongtrai dating back to 1885.
It further held that the villagers were aware of the difference between unscientific and scientific mining, and that they understood that Lafarge would use the second method.
The court was also of the view that the environment ministry’s revised clearance to Lafarge in April 2010 was given after adequate scrutiny.
“On the facts of this case, we are satisfied with due diligence exercise undertaken by MoEF in the matter of forest diversion.”
At a geopolitical level, the ruling will bring some relief to India’s relations with Bangladesh as the supply of limestone was part of an agreement between the two governments. Lafarge Surma Cement Ltd, the holding company of Lafarge Umiam Mining, is one of the largest publicly traded firms in Bangladesh.
“In our view, the natives and indigenous people are fully aware and they have knowledge as to what constitutes conservation of forests and development. They equally know the concept of forest degradation. They are equally aware of systematic scientific exploitation of limestone mining without causing of ‘environment degradation’. However, they do not have the requisite wherewithal to exploit limestone mining in a scientific manner,” the court said.
Lafarge said it was grateful to the governments of both countries and their people.
“We have always acted in good faith, respecting the law of the land and have complied with all the rules and regulations at all times. This court verdict also recognizes the need for sustainable development,” said the company in an emailed statement.