NEW DELHI: Environmental degradation by illegal and unregulated coal mining has taken place in Meghalaya, the Supreme Court held Wednesday and directed the state to deposit Rs 100 crore with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for restoration work.
It said however that Meghalaya has very limited sources of revenue and allowed it to transfer Rs 100 crore from the Environment Protection and Restoration Fund.
A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and K M Joseph said the CPCB, as directed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), will utilise the amount of Rs 100 Crores only for the restoration of the environment.
"The allegations of environmental degradation by illegal and unregulated coal mining were fully proved from materials on the record including the report of the experts, report of the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board, the report of former High Court Judge B P Katakey committee, which all proved environmental degradation of water, air and surface," the bench said.
It rejected the stand of Meghalaya that the NGT has no jurisdiction to deal with the issue and said: "The state government is under constitutional obligation to ensure a clean environment to all its citizens.
In cases pertaining to the environmental matter, the state has to act as a facilitator and not as obstructionist".
The bench said that as per the statutory regime brought in force by notification dated January 15, 2016, issued under Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, environmental clearance was required for a project of coal for mining of any extent of the area.
While implementing statutory regime for carrying mining operations in the Hills districts of the state, Meghalaya has to "ensure compliance of not only MMDR Act, 1957 but Mines Act, 1952 as well as Environment (Protection) Act, 1986", it said.
The bench said that the private owner/community owner of the land in the Hill district of Meghalaya, who is also the owner of the mineral, can grant lease for mining of coal as per provisions of law after obtaining approval of the central government through the State Government.
"Meghalaya has ample power and jurisdiction under the Act, 1957 and Rules, 1960 to check, control and prohibit coal mining operations in Hill Districts of State of Meghalaya," the bench clarified.
While allowing the mining operations which were stayed by NGT, the bench said, "We clarify that in event mining operations are undertaken in privately owned/ community-owned land in Hills Districts of Meghalaya in accordance with mining lease with approved mining plan as per Act, 1957 and Mineral Concessions Rule, 1960, the ban order dated April 17, 2014, of the tribunal of the NGT shall not come in way of carrying mining operations".
The top court also clarified that the coal extracted and lying in open after May 15, 2016, does not automatically vest in the State and the owner of the coal or the person who has mined the coal will have the proprietary right in the mineral.
"All extracted coal as assessed by Meghalaya lying in different districts which as per the order of NGT is in custody of Meghalaya shall be handed over to Coal India Ltd. for proper disposal.
The Katakey Committee after discussion with Coal India Ltd (CIL) and Meghalaya shall formulate a mechanism for transport, weighment of all assessed coal," it said.
The bench said that the CIL shall auction the coal so received by it as per its best judgment and remit the proceed to State.
"The expenses of transportation shall be borne by the State of Meghalaya, CIL or by both, which expenses shall be deductible from the price received of the coal.
The State shall be entitled to royalty and payment towards MERP Fund as well as taxes out of the price of the coal," it said.
A report of a three-member committee, headed by retired Justice B P Katakey of Gauhati High Court, had stated that there were around 24,000 mines in Meghalaya and majority of them were operating illegally.
It had also said that not only were there no licences or leases, but also no environmental clearance for operation of the majority of the coal mines.
The NGT had constituted the committee in August 2018 to supervise and look into the issue of the environmental restoration plan and other connected matters in Meghalaya.
The committee was constituted during the hearing of the petition which had sought a ban on coal mining in Meghalaya. It had also taken into account some reports of the state pollution control board.
A total of 15 miners were trapped on December 13 last year in an illegal coal mine in East Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya, about 3.7 km deep inside a forest, when water from the nearby Lytein river gushed into it. Only two bodies could be recovered from the mine.
The apex court had earlier refused to allow the transportation of extracted coal lying across Meghalaya despite several requests by the miners.