New Delhi: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) on Monday moved with alacrity to ban the mining or removal of sand from river beds without environmental clearance from the environment ministry, seemingly responding to the ongoing controversy about the suspension of a young government officer in Uttar Pradesh, but effectively only repeating what the country’s Supreme Court had said in an order in February 2012.
The central government has already weighed in on the officer’s suspension, publicizing its efforts to see whether it can intervene in the issue without compromising India’s federal structure where there is a division of power between the Centre and the states.
On Monday, a bench headed by tribunal chairperson justice Swatanter Kumar said mining cannot be carried out without obtaining a “licence from the competent authorities”.
To be sure, that’s pretty much what the Supreme Court’s 2012 order said.
“Besides violations of law, the mining activity is being carried out on a large scale, causing state revenue loss which may be running into lakhs of crores of rupees,” the order by the green court said.
Environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan said that it is extremely difficult to monitor such mining. “We need to rely on state machinery,” she told Mint over the phone.
The order comes even as controversy is growing over the Uttar Pradesh government’s suspension of Indian Administrative Service officer Durga Shakti Nagpal, who had conducted a drive against the sand mafia in the state. The Samajwadi Party that governs Uttar Pradesh has maintained that it suspended the officer for demolishing the wall of a mosque, potentially inflaming religious sentiments.
The tribunal directed deputy commissioners, superintendents of police and mining authorities in all states to ensure compliance with its order. The ambit of the order covers all rivers in India.
The green court’s order came in response to a petition that pointed to large-scale illegal mining activity on the banks of the Yamuna, Ganga, Chambal, Gomti and Revati rivers, among others. The petition was listed by the NGT bar association on Monday.
The petition also mentions the suspension of Nagpal and adds that “those who have opposed such sand mining, including the field level officials, have been victimized”.
Rahul Choudhary, an advocate, said that this petition was filed to uncover why sand mining without a clearance from the environment ministry was going on, even though a Supreme Court judgement on the matter exists. “Even though the matter was listed only on Monday, it was still taken up for hearing on a priority basis,” he said.
Mentioning the rampant illegal sand mining in the Yamuna river bed, the petition said: “The activity of sand mining is adversely affecting the ecosystem and the overall ecology of the area, and thus there is substantial question relating to environment, wherein the community at large is affected by the environmental consequences.
“This removal of minerals from the river beds is causing serious threat to the flow of the river, forests upon river bank and most seriously to the environment of these areas,” the petition said.
“It is further contended that in terms of the orders of the hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the case of Deepak Kumar vs State of Haryana, even the person carrying on mining activity in less than five hectares, are expected to take EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) clearance from MoEF (ministry of environment and forests)/SEIAA (State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority),” the order said.
The Supreme Court’s order had come in February 2012.
The apex court had said at the time that sand mining is one of the causes for environmental degradation and a threat to biodiversity, the green court said.
Manoj Misra, convenor of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, an environmental activist group fighting for a clean-up of the Yamuna, said that the environment ministry now has a big role to play when it comes to the implementation of this order. “There is immense responsibility on the ministry to ensure that this order as well as the apex court’s order gets implemented,” he said.
Natarajan added that her ministry needed to rely on the state and central government machinery to enforce the ruling. “Land belongs to the state, sand mining leases are given by the state and also the police forces are at the disposal of the states,” she said over the phone.