New Delhi: A Supreme Court committee on forests has asked for an end to unauthorized coal mining near protected areas in Meghalaya.
The central empowered committee appointed by the apex court has, in a recent letter, asked Meghalaya’s chief secretary to ensure that no mining or laying of roads takes place in violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
Mint has reviewed a copy of the letter.
The Supreme Court had directed the committee to examine the matter in January after the Garo Students Union, an activist students’ group, filed a petition before it in November.
The illegal coal mining is taking place in South Garo Hills, bordering the Balpakram National Park, which also covers the Siju Bird Sanctuary.
“Ecologically, this area is one of the seven hotspots in the world with a viable population of elephants of 1,000,” said Sanjay Upadhyay, counsel for the petitioners against the illegal mining.
Balpakram National Park spans more than 200 sq. km and is home to an estimated 550 species, including seven species of primates, more than in any other part of the country. It is also the sole habitat of the Hoolock Gibbon, the only ape found in India.
V.K. Nautiyal, principal chief conservator of forests for Meghalaya, said none of the coal mines in the area were authorized.
He explained that due to the provisions of the sixth schedule of the Constitution, land laws are different in Meghalaya and most of it is controlled by autonomous district councils and their chieftains.
“The land tenure system is strange here, with overlapping jurisdiction. Many different groups might have jurisdiction and we don’t have clear jurisdiction,” Nautiyal said. “Everywhere else, mining is nationalized. Here, we don’t interfere as local people extract coal for their own use, but now it has become much larger in scale.”
Coal mining in the region had been stopped once earlier by the forest department, but was restarted in 2009.
Upadhyay said the problem is symptomatic. “This sort of rampant illegal coal mining is there not just in Meghalaya, but many parts of the northeast.”
According to the Meghalaya government, the state has around 39.6 million tonnes of coal deposits.
This isn’t the only mining-related problem in Meghalaya.
In February, the Supreme Court had stayed the mining of limestone in the state by Lafarge Umiam Mining Pvt. Ltd after hearing a petition filed by 21 local tribals and the Shella Action Committee, a not-for-profit group.
The petitioners had claimed that Lafarge Umiam had obtained environmental clearance by falsely declaring forest areas as wasteland and non-forest areas.