New Delhi: The Union government on Friday made a strong plea in the Supreme Court for lifting a ban on mining of limestone by Lafarge Umiam Mining Pvt. Ltd (LUMPL) in Meghalaya, citing international commitments and diplomatic relations with Bangladesh.

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan; photo by Ramesh Pathania / Mint

The apex court bench headed by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, however, refused to provide immediate relief to the cement company and posted the matter for hearing on Monday.

Meghalaya in north-east India borders Bangladesh.

Justice S.H. Kapadia said gross irregularities had been committed by the company and the court could not allow mining without a detailed hearing. International commitments do not mean the law of the land can be violated, the bench said.

The Supreme Court on 5 February, while hearing a petition filed by 21 local tribals and the Shella Action Committee, a non-governmental organization, had stayed the mining of limestone by Lafarge in Meghalaya.

The petition claimed Lafarge had obtained an environmental clearance by falsely declaring forest areas as wasteland and non-forest areas. It also alleged that the company had illegally transferred tribal land protected under the sixth schedule of the Constitution to itself and mortgaged it in favour of foreign banks to secure a loan of $153 million (around Rs693 crore today).

Attorney general G.E. Vahanvati, appearing for the government, said the apex court order stopping limestone supply to the cement plant in Bangladesh “ is causing a huge international problem" as India had in 2001 guaranteed uninterrupted supply of limestone to Bangladesh.

The stoppage of limestone supply has led to a 15% fall in cement production in Bangladesh and is a severe setback to its housing projects. Lafarge is the largest listed company in Bangladesh, he added.

Harish Salve, amicus curiae (adviser to the court) in the matter, argued that earnings from mining could be used to establish a trust to be used for the welfare of the tribals.

If Lafarge comes with this kind of proposal, the apex court can consider lifting the stay on mining, said Salve.

LUMPL is a 100% subsidiary of Lafarge Surma Cement Ltd of Bangladesh, which operates a 1.2 million tonnes per annum cement plant at Chhatak, Bangladesh.

The plant is wholly dependent on limestone extracted from the East Khasi Hills in Meghalaya.