New Delhi: India has no international obligation to supply limestone to Bangladesh from a mining project indirectly promoted by French-Spanish joint venture Lafarge Surma Cement Ltd, according to arguments made in the Supreme Court on Friday.
Submissions by amicus curiae Harish Salve before the court’s forest bench on the multi-million dollar limestone mining project in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya may put the cement giant’s Indian subsidiary, Lafarge Umiam Mining Pvt. Ltd (LUMPL), on the spot.
LUMPL is a 100% subsidiary of Lafarge Surma of Bangladesh, which operates a $255 million (Rs1,155 crore), 1.2 million tonnes per annum cement plant at Chhatak, across the border from India.
Salve, who is assisting the court in the case, said the mining project in Meghalaya, which supplies limestone to Lafarge’s cement plant in Bangladesh, “has no connection with the ‘commitment’ between India and Bangladesh”.
Salve has based this on documents recovered from the state of Meghalaya by the court-appointed central empowered committee.
The Supreme Court had on 5 February, hearing a petition by 21 local tribals and the Shella Action Committee, a non-governmental organization, stayed the mining of limestone by Lafarge in Meghalaya.
On 24 March, the Union government moved the apex court and made a plea for lifting the ban, citing international commitments and diplomatic relations with Bangladesh.
Salve the mining was taking place on forest land. “It is obvious that this area was forest and any suggestion to the contrary is simply not true,” he said.
A spokesperson for Lafarge, in an emailed statement, said: “The issues discussed in the court today were largely in line with arguments and submissions made in the court earlier. Therefore, we do not think anything new has come to light today. Lafarge believes it has a very strong case, and our lawyers would put forth our defence when their turn for arguments come up.”
Shyam Divan, who appeared on behalf of the petitioners, Shella Action Committee, said Lafarge must have known the exact nature of the land. “You can’t just hold up a certificate saying this is not a forest.”
The forest clearance granted to Lum Mawshum Minerals Pvt. Ltd—the original project proponent and now majority owned by Lafarge Surma—in 2000 is in doubt, after the chief conservator of forests said in a letter in 2007 that the mining lease was located “in the midst of virgin and natural forest”. The clearance was transferred to Lafarge in 2002.
“It is obvious that the permissions have been obtained without a candid disclosure of the facts,” Salve said. He based his submission on documents that are on record, “including those filed by Lafarge along with an exhaustive list of dates”.
The court has asked the ministry of environment and forests to submit documents related to the original clearance granted to Lum Mawshum on 18 June 1999.
The consortium of international banks that loaned $157 million to Lafarge for the project could also be included in the case.
The court wants to know if a detailed project report (DPR) was available to the banks before they loaned Lafarge the money.
The bench wants to examine whether the DPR included details of the topography and nature of the land on which the mining was proposed.
Lafarge was directed to place before the court the DPR, if any, that was given to the bankers.
The bankers include International Finance Corporation, the Asian Development Bank, the European Development Bank and Deutsche Investitions- und Entwicklungsgesellschaft.
The institutions wrote to the finance ministry in March, saying “all required authorizations (including those relating to environmental matters) had been obtained prior to the construction of the project”.
The banks said due diligence and approvals for the project “were far more rigorous than is typical for a project of this kind” due to the involvement of multilateral development agencies.
Environmental activist and lawyer Ritwick Dutta wasn’t surprised by Salve’s submissions. “What’s new in limited disclosure in environment clearance applications?” he said.