The Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed the French cement company Lafarge to mine limestone in the forests of the East Khasi hills in Meghalaya.
The Forest Bench, comprising Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia and Justices Aftab Alam and K.S. Radhakrishnan, accepted the contentions of the Lafarge to mine in the forests of Meghalaya and that it had obtained necessary clearances.
Writing the judgment, the CJI said: “In the present case, we are satisfied that limestone mining has been going on for centuries in the area and that it is an activity which is intertwined with the culture and the unique land holding and tenure system of the Nongtrai Village. On the facts of this case, we are satisfied with due diligence exercise undertaken by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in the matter of forest diversion.”
Laying down guidelines for future, the Bench said: “We declare that the National Forest Policy, 1988 which lays down far-reaching principles must necessarily govern the grant of permissions under Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 as the same provides the road map to ecological protection and improvement under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.”
The Bench asked the Central government to appoint a National Regulator for appraising projects, enforcing environmental conditions for approvals and to impose penalties on polluters. It said: “There is one more reason for having a regulatory mechanism in place. Identification of an area as forest area is solely based on the Declaration to be filed by the User Agency [project proponent]. The project proponent under the existing dispensation is required to undertake EIA by an expert body/ institution.”
The Bench made it clear that till such mechanism was put in place, the MoEF should prepare a panel of accredited institutions from which alone the project proponent should obtain the Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and that too on the Terms of Reference to be formulated by the MoEF.
It said “The MoEF will prepare a comprehensive policy for inspection, verification and monitoring and the overall procedure relating to the grant of forest clearances and identification of forests in consultation with the States [given that forests fall under entry 17A of the Concurrent List]. These guidelines will operate in all future cases of environmental and forest clearances till a regulatory mechanism is put in place. On the implementation of these guidelines, the MoEF will file its compliance report within six months.”
The court on February 5, 2010, restrained the Lafarge from carrying out limestone mining in Meghalaya for its cement plant, saying mining in the environmentally-sensitive zone could not be allowed. Subsequently the MoEF gave revised environmental clearance to the Lafarge in April last after finding the mining project fell in forest land.