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Meghalaya HC Directs State to Implement SC, NGT Orders on Illegal Rathole Coal Mining

Miners continue to use the dangerous and illegal process of mining despite a National Green Tribunal ban in 2014.
Coal mining.

Expressing “grief” and “regret” at the violation of the orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and Supreme Court (SC) on illegal rathole coal mining in Meghalaya, the High Court (HC) has directed the state to implement the same within four weeks.

In an order passed on May 24, the Full Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee, Justice HS Thangkhiew and Justice W. Diengdoh observed: “While it is a matter of regret that the orders passed by the Supreme Court and by the NGT continue to be violated and the directions issued are not implemented, it is necessary that the recommendations made in the preliminary report of May 23, 2022, be immediately taken note of and the relevant matters addressed.”

Making it clear that the time for implementation of the orders will be counted from the relevant dates when such directions were issued, the HC further observed: “As such, all relevant authorities should get their acts in order and ensure the complete implementation of the directions within four weeks from date.”

Despite a ban imposed by the NGT from 2014 to 2019 and a penalty of Rs 100 crore slapped by the SC on the Meghalaya government for flouting the order, rathole mining continues in the districts of West Jaintia Hills, East Jaintia Hills and West Khasi Hills.

Nineteen miners died in East Jaintia Hills in 2018. Noting the number of deaths, the HC made it clear that the dangerous process should be stopped and the SC and NGT directions followed without a complete prohibition on coal mining in the state.

The apex court had slapped the fine on the Meghalaya government following the recommendations of a committee constituted by the NGT and headed by Justice BP Katakey (retired), a former Judge of the Gauhati HC. In an order passed on April 4, 2022, the SC said that a committee like the one set up by the NGT would be formed to ascertain whether the directions had been complied with and how they could be complied with at the earliest.

The HC passed the order following the submission of a preliminary report by Justice Katakey on May 23 and taking suo motu cognisance of a newspaper article that referred to the dangerous process of rathole mining, which can cause collapse and might trap miners, LiveLaw reported.

Illegal miners took advantage of a ‘loophole’ in the SC directions on the sale of coal mined through the rathole process prior to the NGT ban. With sale not complete, the miners continued the illegal process claiming that the freshly mined coal was actually the ‘previous stock’. Therefore, the HC said that the entire stock of coal should be sold as expeditiously as possible after considering Justice Katakey’s recommendations on complying with the outstanding directions, including the sale of available coal under the aegis of Coal India Limited.

According to Justice Katakey’s preliminary findings, except for notifying the Meghalaya Minerals (Prevention of Illegal Mining, Transportation and Storage) Rules, 2022 as recently as March 24, “none of the SC and the NGT have been complied with by the state of Meghalaya, the state and central pollution control boards, the North Eastern Space Application Centre and the Integrated Regional Office of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change”, the HC observed.0

Expressing surprise that the state “has not resorted to drone photography to monitor the activities in the less accessible areas”, the HC said: “It is alarming that district magistrates, sub-divisional officers and even block level officers are in place along with their counterparts from the police right up to the superintendent of police, but all of them turn Nelson’s eye to such illegal activities.”

Stressing that the illegal mining continues with the “possible connivance of the local administration”, the HC observed: “It can safely be said that the scene in and around Khliehriat speaks of the vast stretches there being beyond the purview of the administration and it is impossible that the illegal mining activities and the deposit of freshly mined coal would be conducted with such impunity without the possible the connivance of the local administration or even worse”.

The court, noting that the chief secretary’s report is “singularly lacking in indicating what measures may have been taken against the local officials, who not only looked the other way while the illegal mining thrived, but may have actively aided therein”, observed: “There has to be accountability and this aspect of the matter has to be immediately focussed so that a message is sent loud and clear that the watchdogs would be proceeded against if anything remiss is found under their watch.”

The court also directed that Justice Katakey will continue to monitor the implementation of the recommendations, including the SC’s and NGT’s outstanding orders and directions, and will periodically visit Shillong. The Bench also directed the Meghalaya government to attach a secretary-level member in the state’s civil service to Justice Katakey to facilitate the monitoring.

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