New Delhi: Ignoring a plea by the Union government to lift a ban on limestone mining in Meghalaya by Lafarge Umiam Mining Pvt. Ltd, the Supreme Court on Monday asked the firm to get a fresh environment impact assessment (EIA) done.
The apex court’s decision would further delay the supply of limestone to Lafarge’s cement plant in Bangladesh and could cause a diplomatic embarrassment to India, which in 2001 had guaranteed an uninterrupted limestone supply to its neighbour.
Meghalaya in north-east India borders Bangladesh.
Lafarge Umiam is a 100% subsidiary of Lafarge Surma Cement Ltd in Bangladesh, which operates a 1.2 million tonnes a year cement plant at Chhatak. The plant is dependent on limestone extracted from the East Khasi Hills in Meghalaya.
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.
P.S. Narasimha and Somiran Sharma, counsels for the Shella Action Committee, on Monday argued that “just because there are international commitments does not mean environment regulations would not be enforced”.
Narasimha argued that Lafarge Umiam had obtained environmental clearance and conducted the EIA by falsely declaring forest areas as wasteland and non-forest areas. If a project involves forest land, the project proponent has to receive clearance from New Delhi.
Harish Salve, adviser to the court in the matter, agreed with Narasimha.
Mukul Rohtagi, counsel for Lafarge Umiam, while admitting the error in the EIA report, urged early resumption of mining as undertaking a fresh EIA would take time.
The Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan turned down the plea, saying the court could not make an exception for Lafarge as the firm had not fulfilled the basic environment criterion to carry on mining.
“EIA is a normal procedure for permitting mining activities and we are happy with the honourable Supreme Court’s directive to fast-track the process,” a Lafarge spokesman said by email.
A query emailed to the ministry of external affairs on Monday evening went unanswered.
Attorney general G.E. Vahanvati, appearing for the government, said on Friday the stoppage of limestone supply to the Chhatak plant had led to a 15% fall in cement production in Bangladesh and posed a setback to the country’s housing projects.