New Delhi: Even as mining mafia of laterite stone has gone scot free, the Odisha government has, in a bizarre turn of events, been imposing environmental compensation upon truckers transporting the illegally mined mineral. One such incident has been reported from Khordha district, where the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) state government, by its own admission, has been penalising truck drivers to compensate for the environmental damage caused by large-scale illegal laterite stone mining.
In an action-taken report submitted to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in the last week of September, the state government said environmental damage of over Rs 1.80 crore, computed on account of illegal laterite mining in Khordha, is being collected from truckers transporting the material. It has been further claimed in the report, prepared by a team of nine state government officials, that thereby all steps have been taken to prevent illegal mining in Khordha.
“… 128 number of vehicles have been seized illegally transporting the materials from such areas in the year 2017-18 to 2019-20. Hence, the committee observed that all preventive steps have been taken by the Administration to prevent illegal lifting and unauthorized extraction of Minor Minerals of such areas. The committee further observed that cases have been instituted and royalty along with penalty have been collected from the vehicles carrying such materials as per provisions of Odisha Minor Mineral Concession Rules – 2016,” the report states.
The report was compiled after directions from the Kolkata-based Eastern Bench of NGT while hearing a case pertaining to illegal laterite mining in Khordha. The petition has been filed by local residents of three villages of Khordha -- Nijigarh Tapang, Anda, Jhinkijhari -- which have been bearing the brunt of the adverse impacts of illegal laterite stone mining.
The tribunal has taken strong exception to the fact that the Odisha government has been recovering environmental compensation from truck drivers without taking any action whatsoever against the mining mafia. On October 1, a division bench of the tribunal, comprising judicial member, Justice SP Wangdi, and expert member, Nagin Nanda, pulled up the state government for its attempt to “protect” illegal miners.
“In our considered opinion, the exercise undertaken by the Government is an attempt to hoodwink the Tribunal in order to protect the perpetrators of the illegality. Although, the learned State Counsel had earlier submitted that the STF [Special Task Force] had been investigating the matter, no material particulars have been furnished in support of such submission. It also surprises us to note that in the entire episode, the State PCB [Pollution Control Board] has remained mute spectator,” the NGT bench stated in its order.
The tribunal has issued directions to the state government to take steps to identify and penalise those involved in illegal mining of laterite stones.
Laterite stone mining has been going on in the Khordha area for several decades allegedly by flouting all environment- and mining-related laws. The committee, during its field inspection, found illegal mining being done at 32 locations over an area approximately measuring 22 acres in Nijigarh Tapang and Jhinkijhari villages. As per the committee’s report, nearly 2,94,045.70 cubic meters of laterite stone have been illegally extracted from these quarries.
It has been alleged by the petitioners that environment clearance has not been procured for operating any of these quarries. The Odisha Minor Minerals Rules, 2004, make it mandatory for obtaining environmental clearance and implementing an Environment Management Plan for operating quarries.
As per estimates made by local people, illegal mining of laterite stones is spread over 500 acres in these three villages alone. The stones are cut into various shapes using power tillers and sold in the open market for use in the construction of buildings.
“Laterite stones lie buried beneath land that has cashewnut forests, forests belonging to gram sabhas and pastoral land meant for grazing by cows, buffalos, goats and other animals. Quarrying takes place only after felling trees and digging these lands. Several trees have been felled, resulting in depletion of green cover. Local livestock have been severely affected due to depletion of grazing grounds. Water bodies have got polluted and acquired a red colour from the dust of laterite stones. Government lands have been encroached upon and there remains no space for a public utility like a school or dispensary, should the need arise to construct one,” said Nityananda Srichandan, a resident of Nijigarh Tapang.
As per the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006, and its subsequent amendments, laterite stone quarries fall under Category “B2” in the list of project or activities requiring environmental clearance from the respective State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority.
“Quarrying of laterite stone, therefore, requires environment clearance, consent of the State Pollution Control Board and approved mining plans. The quarries are operating in Khordha without any of these permissions, in gross violation of the Environment Protection Act 1986. These quarries would not be operating but for the collusion between the mining mafia and district administration officials. Abandoned pits are also endangering the lives of local residents and their livestock,” alleged environment lawyer Shankar Pani.
As per sources in the Odisha government, large tracts of land over which illegal mining has been taking place belongs to the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration of Puri district in Odisha. The Shree Jagannath Temple Administration is the custodian of landed properties belonging to Lord Jagannath of Puri.
“We are aware of the order issued by the National Green Tribunal. Each direction issued by the hon’ble court in relation to illegal laterite mining in Khordha district will be complied with. We are going to act upon it very soon,” Khordha District Magistrate Sanat Kumar Mohanty told the NewsClick.
The committee has also observed in its report that in one of the villages in Khordha, the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration has been allowed to auction a plot of land for mining purposes. The tribunal has directed the Odisha government to ascertain if Environment Impact Assessment was conducted before allowing the Jagannath Temple Administration to auction its land for mining.
When contacted by Newsclick, the Member-Secretary of Odisha State Pollution Control Board, K Murugesan, said the facts will be looked into and appropriate action will be taken in the matter.
The writer is an independent journalist.