(How Meghalaya Govt is encouraging illegal coal mining in contempt of Supreme Court’s order)
The illegal coal mining in Meghalaya continues unabated inspite of the judgement of the Supreme Court dated July 3, 2019 in the matter of State of Meghalaya Vs All Dimasa Student Union Dima-Hasao District Committee upholding the ban imposed by National Green Tribunal on illegal, unscientific and environmental destructive mining practises in Meghalaya.
It is shocking, that Conrad Sangma rather than working to eradicate the menace of illegal coal mining in Meghalaya and respecting the orders of Supreme Court of India is blatantly encouraging the criminal illegality of the coal mafia in Meghalaya. It is appalling that Conrad Sangma defended the criminality of coal mining at the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly through wilful misrepresentation of the existing reality.
NGT Ban and Transportation Orders: When the National Green Tribunal imposed the ban on coal mining in 2014, the State government made a claim that there was already extracted coal lying around various mining sites, which needed to be transported in order to prevent baneful environmental impact of such extracted coal. The Government of Meghalaya rather than objectively identifying the amount and location of such coal extracted, merely asked the ‘illegal’ coal miners to make a self declaration of the amount of their extracted coal so that the miners could be offered Mineral Transportation Challan (MTC) to transport and sell their coal.
Without any independent verification mechanism, this order by the government allowed the coal miners to make outrageous claims regarding their extracted coal stocks. This inflation would have opened the gate for them to continue illegal mining as well as transport and sell their illegal coal brazenly.
Noticing this blatant subversion of the intent of the ban, the National Green Tribunal ordered the State government to set up a committee to create guidelines regarding identification of such ‘extracted coal’ as well as fool proof method of its transportation.
A committee led by K S Kropha, Chief Secretary of Meghalaya took this task seriously and went around the State locating the coal dumps, identifying the miners and geo tagging the extracted coal. Except for South Garo Hills and parts of West Khasi Hills, this committee managed to locate all the coal dumps and list them out officially. They found that the amount of declared coal by the miners was either non-existent or had been inflated.
Noticing this discrepancy, NGT ordered that the miners before receiving the Mineral Transportation Challan had to pay a penalty on the amount of “Self Declared Coal”. Moreover, the Kropha Committee also made certain guidelines about the transportation of such extracted coal including holographic marking of transportation challans, parking the trucks, identifying the routes etc.
It is important to state that ONLY THE COAL EXTRACTED PRIOR TO THE BAN IMPOSED BY NGT WAS AND CAN BE TRANSPORTED FROM MEGHALAYA
The transportation orders issued by the Hon Supreme Court was supposed to deplete this ‘extracted coal’ but in absence of any supervision by the state State government’s transportation orders meant that coal miners used transportation challans to begin mining afresh, the stocks which were supposed to deplete kept on rising. Moreover in absence of any proper securitisation of transport challans and transportation routes and weighing system, there was an illegal market in such challans.
Although the miners and State government made various petitions to the Supreme Court regarding the coal left to be transported, where it seemed that illegal coal stocks were depleting. For instance, on November 22, 2017, the counsel to steering committee for coal miners said according to State government records, about 7.8 lakh metric tonnes of coal is yet to be transported. On December 5, 2018, the State government said that as on May 31, 2018, the extracted coal yet to be transported is 1,76,655 metric tonnes. The State government senior counsels – Advocate General Amit Kumar and Ranjan Mukherjee supported the plea of the coal miners’ forum to allow transportation of the remaining extracted coal.
So if the coal left to be transported was merely 1,76,655 MT on December 5, 2018, how come the Secretary to the Government of Meghalaya, Mining and Geology Department filed an additional affidavit on April 10, 2019 claiming that there was 32,56,715 MT coal yet to be transported?
It is clear that the Government of Meghalaya has not been an independent body when it comes to stopping the illegal coal mining in Meghalaya.
Even the Supreme Court noticed this and they passed final orders which — (1) upheld the ban imposed by NGT, (2) ordered that Justice B P Katakey Committee of NGT shall prepare a plan for the auction and transportation of already extracted coal by Coal India limited and not allow the coal miners to transport their extracted coal (3) the coal, which had been seized by the State in illegal transportation or illegal mining for which different cases have been registered by the State, is not to be dealt with as directed above. The said seized coal shall be dealt by the State in accordance with Section 21 of the Act, 1957 and on being satisfied, the State can take a decision to recover the entire quantity of coal so illegally raised without lawful authority and the said cases has to be separately dealt with in accordance with law.
One of the first important interventions by Justice Katakey was to not take the government’s claim that there was 32,56,715 MT of extracted coal waiting to be auctioned and transported. Justice Katakey, knowing that there has been constant inflation of the amount of illegally extracted coal, wanted to ensure that there is proper verification of stocks and location of such claimed stocks. Keeping in mind security and conflict of interest issues, Justice Katakey suggested based on capabilities and presentations by North East India Space Application Centre (NESAC) that the coal stocks can be independently estimated and located through satellite imagery as it is a global practice. Moreover based on time series image data which NESAC holds, even the curse of illegal mining can be plotted.
Knowing that Katakey Committee recommendations would have removed the loopholes which allowed illegal mining and transportation to have continued, the Meghalaya government stopped cooperating with the committee forcing Justice Katakey to submit his resignation.
The next NGT committee headed by Justice Agrawal went back on most of the enabling recommendations of Justice Katakey which even included allowing miners to transport their coal to the Coal India Limited’s depots for auction as requested by the State government. This would have allowed the State government to issue transportation challans, which as we know through previous experience opens the floodgate of illegal mining and transportation.
The State government even issued orders regarding this where coal miners were supposed to declare their coal and get mineral transportation challan to transport their coal from the pithead to the depot. Luckily, this order was rescinded by the main NGT bench which made it very clear that coal meant for the auction was to be transported and weighed only by the State government itself.
PANDEMIC AND ILLEGAL TRANSPORTATION OF COAL: With the lockdowns and partial lockdowns and with the absence of public scrutiny it was also reported in the local media about the continuing illegal coal mining and transportation with the collusion of the State government.
It is very clear that once the State government gets an opportunity to issue mineral transportation challans, it is very clear that these challans become a passport to start mining and transporting the illegal coal.
JUST ONE EXAMPLE: Notice the recent order which revalidates older ‘unused’ challans for transportation in violation of Supreme Court orders. But it is not only revalidation which is unusual but also it uses the ‘route’ trick to allow challan holders to misuse and transfer/sell this challan to transport coal from almost anywhere in Meghalaya. The order was issued by the Directorate of Mineral Resources to George S. Marak on October 16, 2020 approving revalidation of the unused Mineral Transport Challan. This challan is for coal in Nengkra in East Garo hills. For coal extracted in East Garo Hills, Dudhnoi in Assam is the nearest depot. It takes around two hours to reach. But surprisingly the order creates a new route for this coal – Nengkra-Rongjeng-Nongstoin-Shillong-Guwahati – a journey of eight hours. It is worth pointing out that the trucks will cross the Shallang mining area in their journey as well as meet the trucks coming from Jaintia Hills near Shillong allowing challans to be transferred/exchanged/copied. This is just one example of showing the serious collusion by the State government when it comes to allowing illegal coal mining to continue.
Moreover, the State government is misusing the order of the Supreme Court of India which said that: The coal, which had been seized by the State in illegal transportation or illegal mining for which different cases have been registered by the State, is not to be dealt with as directed above. The said seized coal shall be dealt by the State in accordance with Section 21 of the Act, 1957 and on being satisfied, the State can take a decision to recover the entire quantity of coal so illegally raised without lawful authority and the said cases has to be separately dealt with in accordance with law.
This is being misinterpreted by the State government and coal miners to create a new opening for illegal mining and transportation. The method is simple and smart — (1) illegally mine your coal (2) get it seized by the government (3) government auctions the coal (4) miners buy the coal at dirt cheap auction rate (5) miners apply to the government for Mineral Transportation Challan to transport the coal they have bought in the auction and (6) the illegal coal has become legal.
This anyway is wilful misreading of Section 21 of MMDR Act. Under Section 21, the government has to not only seize the entire quantity of illegally mined coal without any recompense to the criminal miner but also impose a penalty including royalty, rent and even the price of the while arresting the illegal coal miner.
And keeping in mind the persistent violation of the Supreme Court’s upholding of NGT ban, all transport and sale of the coal has to be done by the State government and Coal India Limited. The Meghalaya government rather than penalising the miners indulging in criminality, is actually letting them profit from their illegal actions.
SO WHAT DOES TUR WANT: (1) The B P Katakey Committees’ recommendations to be implemented in toto (2) There should be no auction of coal before the extracted coal is located and geo tagged and transported to the depots (3) Based on the satellite data any coal extracted after the NGT ban should be seized and sold by the government without any payment to the illegal coal miners. (4) No Mineral Transportation Challan should be issued (5) All transportation of illegal mined coal should be carried out by the government without any compensation to the miners (6) An independent person or persons from Civil Society who have been working on the coal menace should be made part of the monitoring committee set up by NGT (7) State government officials should be penalised for the illegal actions done after the order of Supreme Court.