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New Delhi: In the middle of the 21-day nationwide lockdown, the Union environment ministry has issued a notification allowing transfer of “environmental clearances” granted to miners, whose leases are set to expire, to successful new bidders for a period of two years, without carrying out any immediate assessment.
Through an extraordinary gazette notification issued by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, a new section 8B has been inserted into the Mines and Minerals (Development & Regulation) Act, 1957 legitimising the transfer of statutory licenses from old leaseholders to new bidders. It includes all valid rights, approvals, clearances, licences and the like vested with the previous leaseholder. The ministry issued the notification on March 28, 2020.
At the same time, new leaseholders have been granted the liberty to obtain “prior environmental clearance” from the regulatory authority within the two-year period from the date of grant of new lease, a fact which has not gone down well with environmental activists across the country.
As per the notification, successful bidders of mining leases who have been selected by auction as per provisions of the MMDR Act, 1957 “shall be deemed to have acquired valid prior environmental clearance vested with the previous lessee for a period of two years, from the date of commencement of new lease”.
The notification further goes on to say that “it shall be lawful for the new lessee to continue mining operations as per the same terms and conditions of environmental clearance granted to the previous lessee on the said lease area for a period of two years from the date of commencement of new lease or till the new lessee obtains a fresh environmental clearance”.
Environmental activists have pointed out the futility of “prior environmental clearance” for its efficacy in serving the purpose for which it has been formulated.
“It basically means a leaseholder can continue mining on the basis of old clearances. A prior environmental clearance is of no use since the leaseholder is already mining. The very concept of environmental clearance is to assess the effects of non-forest activities on forest and environment. Following the expiry of a lease period, the new owner should apply for a new environmental clearance before embarking on any kind of mining activity,” said R Ravi, chairperson of mines, minerals and PEOPLE, an alliance of individuals and communities affected by mining.
The notification has also been criticised for its ambiguity on ownership of “already mined-out material” lying within the mining area at the time of expiry of a lease. A clause introduced into the MMDR Act, 1957 vide the ministry’s notification bars successful new bidders from evacuating “already mined-out material”.
“The evacuation or removal and transportation of already mined out material lying within the mining leases expiring under the provisions of the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 (67 of 1957), by the previous lessee, after the expiry of the said lease, shall not form the part of the mining capacity so permitted to the successful bidder, selected through auction as per the procedure provided under that Act and the rules made there under,” states the notification.
The new notification even lists out as many as 13 activities, considered to fall within the realm of the definition of mining, which are to be exempted from prior environmental clearances. This list includes extraction of ordinary clay by potters and earthen tile makers as well as removal of sand deposits left over by floods in agricultural fields.
“Certain exemptions made in respect of environmental clearances are good for communities. But it can be legally examined as to whether the ministry of environment has the competence to decide on ownership rights of already mined-out material lying in lease areas,” added Ravi.
The list of exemptions includes extraction or borrowing of ordinary earth for linear projects including roads and pipelines.
“In the past, large road projects like the Eastern Peripheral Expressway have consumed a lot of earth. For its construction, large quantities of earth were procured from rural areas of western Uttar Pradesh, through which the expressway passes. It has thereby left its long-term adverse impacts on farming activities and livelihoods. It is debatable as to whether extraction of earth for road projects should be left out of the purview of environmental clearances,” said Noida-based environmental conservationist Vikrant Tongad.
Also read: Draft EIA Notification 2020: ‘Compilation of Environmental Violations’, Say Activists
The author is an independent journalist.