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Illegal limestone mining near Gir forest: NGT orders state govt to submit report on environmental damage

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has ordered the Gujarat government to submit a report of environmental damage due to illegal limestone mining in Gir Somnath and Junagadh districts of the state after an NGO filed an application that these mines were operating without the required permissions.

The NGT had set a precedent in the Meghalaya “rat-hole” mining cases of the polluter pays principle. Its order had led to the creation of the ‘Meghalaya Environment Protection and Restoration Fund’ to which those violating the law had to contribute, and has Rs 410 crore credited to it so far, for the restoration of the environment. The Tribunal had directed the State of Meghalaya to deposit a sum of Rs 100 crore as an interim measure which would be recovered from the violators of the law, including the colluding officers of the government. It had also appointed a committee to address issues of restoration of the damage to the environment and rehabilitation.

 Illegal limestone mining near Gir forest: NGT orders state govt to submit report on environmental damage

Representational image. Reuters

In the present case in Gujarat, Ms Sreeja Chakraborty, the lawyer for the applicant, said the leased areas varied from two to 15 hectares and the closest mine is within 5 km of the protected area, the Gir Forest National Park. However, a stay in 2017 by the Gujarat high court on the draft eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) around protected areas has compounded the matter. While none of the leased mines appear to be within the zone as demarcated, there are mines which are not officially leased in existence, as the NGO has found out by surveying the mines and comparing royalty figures. There is already an issue of limestone mining near the Gir sanctuary as the National Board for Wildlife has cleared limestone mining in the eco-sensitive zone around Gir in March 2018 despite the stay. A public interest litigation challenged the reduction of the area of the eco-sensitive zone from 3.33 lakh hectares to 1.14 lakh hectares to possibly include the mining villages. The final notification reduced the buffer zone range from the proposed minimum of 8 km and a maximum of 17 km from the boundary of the sanctuary, to a mere 500 m to 4 km, and some of the villages where the mining was proposed were 4 km from the sanctuary. As a result, with no finality on the eco-sensitive zone and the overpopulation of lions in Gir, and some living outside the protected area, there is no saying where these animals can stray.

The NGO - Protection of Environment and Public Service Committee, contended that these limestone mines were operating since many years without environment clearance from the state authority or consent to operate from the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) and repeated complaints have been ignored. As a last resort, it approached the Western Zonal Bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in Pune.

The NGT, in an order of 1 May 2019, was of the view that further action is required to be taken by the concerned authorities on the same principle as passed in a batch of cases, one of them being the threat to life from the coal mining case in South Garo Hills in Meghalaya that involved similar factual positions as in this case.

Accordingly, the NGT has asked the Gujarat authorities to assess and submit a report on damages on account of (i) Net Present Value (NPV)* of the ecological services forgone forever, (ii) cost of damage to environment and pristine ecology, (iii) cost of mitigation and restitution of the environment and (iv) deterrent environmental compensation distinct from the earlier three heads. The report is to be submitted by email before the next date of hearing on 24 July.

During the hearing, Dhruv Pal, counsel for Gujarat government, submitted that the government would not permit the mining and that appropriate action has been taken against erring parties. He also said that all illegal mining of limestone in the area in question have since remained un-operational, some of which date back to about two years. Earlier, in the first hearing in February 2019, despite notices by the NGT, no reply was filed by the Gujarat State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA), the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) and concerned collectors of the Mines Department of the State of Gujarat.

The members of this NGO through information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2018 found that the mining was taking place without environmental clearance from SEIAA or even consent to operate under the Air (prevention and control of pollution) act, 1981 and the Water (prevention and control of pollution) act, 1974, from the GPCB. The application was filed in August 2018 against some 14 miners and the NGT first heard the case in February 2019. In that hearing, the NGT ordered for a joint inspection report from the Gujarat SEIAA, the GPCB and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) particularly with reference to the grant of environmental clearance and consent under the Air Act and Water Act.

On 1 May, the NGT after considering the joint inspection report filed by Gujarat SEIAA, GPCB and the MoEF, directed an assessment of damage due to mining as mentioned above. However, the mining has not been stopped and in fact, the major issue is that the miners have, in some cases, not mined from the areas where they claim to be extracting the limestone. Instead, they are operating in other areas, according to Ms Chakraborty. The application to the NGT raised substantial questions of the environment and impact from large-scale, illegal and unauthorised mining by 14 lease-holders in about 90 hectares.

While the applicant during his investigation found little mining activity in the leased areas, royalty was being paid to the government as the RTI showed and it is suspected that the mining is happening in other areas which are not leased. This was verified from the royalty that is paid to the government which totals over Rs 1.6 crore from 2001 to 2015. In a case by case analysis, the application has shown that mining is not taking place in the leased area as there is no activity visible after photographs were taken of the area. For example, in Jasadhar village in Somnath Gir district, in one of the leased areas of 2 hectares, 2,96,918.556 tonnes of limestone was excavated till 2015-16. Yet the area shows no evidence of this and the royalty amount paid was quite high.

Illegal mining is in violation of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification of 2006, under the Environment Protection Rules 1986. To operate such mines, the owners should have got environmental clearance and consent to operate from the GPCB.

The limestone extracted is being sold to the cement factories in the two districts. It is classified as a major mineral and mining is in the red category of industries which are hazardous.

The illegality was detected in 2014 by the NGO which is facing threats for this exposure. In July 2018, after it obtained information under RTI from the mining and geology section of the Industries and Mines department in Gujarat on these illegal mines, the NGO had submitted them to the relevant authorities demanding action but nothing was done. The NGO raised the issue of the royalty being paid to the government when the actual leased areas where not being mined, pointing to the possibility of mining outside of those leased areas. In any case, no permission seems to have been sought or granted for any of this mining activity.

The GPCB did launch prosecution against the offenders but there is little action on the ground. Limestone mining has many reported environmental impacts including habitat destruction, contamination of groundwater, dust pollution, and mines need to comply with certain environmental measures. However, when mines are illegal it becomes difficult to assess and quantify them or enforce anti-pollution measures.

*Traditionally, the benefit-cost analysis uses the net present value (NPV) formula, which adds up revenue and expenditures over a period of time and discounts those cash flows by the cost of money (an interest rate). The NPV calculation effectively states the lifetime value of an investment in present terms.

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Updated Date: May 13, 2019 08:41:15 IST