The million rupee question in Meghalaya right now is what is the exact amount of coal lying across the state which was mined before the imposition of the ban on rat-hole mining in 2014?
This question has been the bone of contention ever since then and now even after six years of the ban and more than a year after the final judgment of the Supreme Court on the matter, the spectacle of the Chief Minister, Conrad K Sangma, and the leader of opposition, Dr Mukul Sangma, engaged in a reckless verbal duel over this exposes nothing but the impenetrability of the dark secrets of Meghalaya’s coal business.
But what the leader of the opposition, Dr Sangma, is saying is nothing new, so much so that his sudden interest so late in the day is itself raising some speculation about his motives. “Why is he raising the issue now? He was silent all along. Is he Rip van Winkle?” was a comment from one observer.
In fact, officials say that the first Chairman of the independent committee set up by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to oversee the assessment and inventory of this as well as arranging for its sale and transportation in relation to protection of the environment, retired Justice BP Katakey, had to resign only because state government officials had point blank told him that they could not share the details of where the 32.57 tonnes of extracted coal was located and that “this was the instruction they had received from the government”. They would share it only with Coal India Ltd.
This was after the state government had filed a surprise affidavit in the Supreme Court in April 2019 to this effect. That claim was quite surprising as the state had earlier stated that there was a total of about 23 lakh tonnes of coal. The Katakey panel had been seeking the geo-coordinates of the locations of the coal dumps, district wise distribution, satellite mapping of the dumps by the North Eastern Space Application Centre (NESAC), the location of the depots where the coal was to be gathered for Coal India to collect it and a timeline of the dumps starting from the time the ban was imposed and then for each year to the current time. According to the Katakey-led panel, this was the way to find out how much illegal fresh coal had been added to the coal dumps noted in 2014. But the current government procrastinated over the matter and the years slipped by even as the amount of coal being declared by the state kept climbing.
It is interesting to note that after Katakey resigned over this point, the retired judge who took over the chair, Justice (retd) BD Agarwal, overturned the former panel’s crucial recommendation saying that such an exercise was futile and too expensive. But the NGT rejected this argument in its order in April 2020 because it felt that this was against the ruling of the apex court. It asked the Meghalaya government to seek the services of the Hyderabad-based National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) to do this work if NESAC could not. Observers following the coal case have been wondering how Justice Agarwal can still be heading this independent panel after this embarrassing exposure. His panel had also recommended that the owners of the coal dumps be allowed to transport the coal from their locations to the CIL depots, which was also shot down by the NGT, which reminded him that the SC clearly ordered that the coal should be handed over to CIL by the state government and not the coal owners.
What is beyond doubt is that the figures of the amount of coal have kept changing from mid-2014. When a panel created to assess the amount of coal lying in the state just after the ban was imposed went round asking the coal mine owners, they reached a figure crossing over 1 lakh crore tonnes which was just not possible and therefore not taken seriously. These claims appeared to be nothing more than a conspiracy to create avenues for legalizing coal that had been continuously mined despite the ban as well as the coal they planned to mine in the future. This was said by many important personalities involved in the case, including the counselors and coal businessmen turned whistleblowers who contested the government figure of coal extracted prior to the ban.
The main objective of the Justice Katakey Committee was to improve and restore the environment and this was not possible as long as illegal mining continued, the panel had often said.