‘Assam’s pristine forests are virtually lungs of the earth’
GUWAHATI: A division bench of the Gauhati High Court has directed that the officials concerned of the Central Government, in collaboration with the responsible officers of the Assam Government, to ensure that the mining activities being undertaken by Coal India Ltd (CIL) shall not be allowed unless the conditions mentioned by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change are satisfied. The Court has also asked the government to take immediate steps to ensure that all illegal mining activities in the Saleki Proposed Reserved Forest under Digboi Forest Division are stopped forthwith.
Undisputedly, it is the obligation of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, in collaboration with the State Government, to ensure that illegal mining activities are not carried out within the State of Assam, which is home to the pristine forests that are virtually the lungs of the earth, the Court observed.
The prosecution counsel drew the attention of the Court to the letter dated November 17, 2020, written by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to the Deputy Conservator of Forests, Assam. The contents of the letter read: "…i. The proposal for use of 98.59 ha of Reserve Forest land from Saleki proposed reserve forest of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve for Tikok OCP coal mining was submitted to this Ministry in 2013, and the said proposal was examined by the FAC (Forest Advisory Committee) in its meetings held on June 10–11, 2013 and November 28, 2019.
“ii. The FAC, in its meeting held on November 28, 2019, had thorough deliberation and discussion with the Dy. DG Regional Office, Shillong. The matter was also discussed with the representatives of the user agency. After discussion, it was observed that the site inspection was carried out by the Regional Office, Shillong. It was clearly pointed out that the user agency is continuing with mining activity over the forest area after the proposal was recommended by the FAC in 2013. It also
conveyed that the user agency is continuously working in the area after the expiry of the original lease period in 2003. In this regard, FAC observed that the violations done by user agency from 2003 to 2013 had been appropriately discussed by FAC in 2013, and accordingly, it had recommended appropriate action. As on date, the State Government should not have allowed mining in the area prior to final approval under the FCA 1980. There has been gross neglect on this account on behalf of the State government. After perusing all records and facts related to the project proposal, FAC recommended the proposal for Stage-I approval with standard, general, and some specific conditions."
The prosecution counsel submitted that as the Central Government has observed that the user agency, Coal India Ltd., is continuing the mining operation even after expiry of the original lease period, it should be restrained from carrying out the mining operation in violation of the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, till all penalties and compensatory levies are deposited and Stage II approval for the project is granted by the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change.
The Deputy Solicitor General of India submitted that, as a matter of fact, Coal India Ltd. has stopped its mining activities in the reserved forest areas and the mining activities are actually being carried out by other persons or entities.
The bench listed the PIL for its next hearing on April 27, 2023.
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