The National Green Tribunal (NGT) on Monday ordered a nationwide stay on sand mining on river beds without Environment Ministry clearance.
The interim order came on a petition filed by the NGT Bar Association as a reaction to the suspension of IAS officer Durga Shakti Nagpal, who had been overseeing a drive against illegal sand mining in Gautam Budh Nagar district in Uttar Pradesh.
At the same time, the Ministry has decided to approach the Supreme Court to seek clarification on the process for according environmental clearances for minor mineral mining projects occupying less than five hectares, as well as send an inspection team to U.P. to look into illegal sand mining there.
The court had in February 2013 ordered mandatory green clearances from violation of the court orders, and that many junior government officers and activists fighting against the environmental menace were being targeted and victimised. The petition cited the cases of Ms. Nagpal and another person, who, it claimed, was recently killed by the sand mafia.
Appearing for the petitioner, senior advocate Raj Panjwani said in-stream mining of sand and gravel had a large impact on the floodplain as well as water table which was not being assessed at the moment.
On February 27, 2013, the court ordered mandatory environmental clearance from the Environment and Forests Ministry for excavation of all minor minerals. It said: “Sand mining on either side of the rivers, upstream and in-stream, is one of the causes for environmental degradation and also a threat to biodiversity. Over the years, India’s rivers and riparian ecology have been badly affected by the alarming rate of unrestricted sand mining … .”
The NGT decision on Monday does not go beyond the pronouncement of the Supreme Court orders but only pushes implementation of the orders.
The court order was opposed by many State governments with the construction industry lobbying hard against it.
This led to the Prime Minister’s Office intervening for brick kiln owners and the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure also debating the issue. States including Maharashtra wrote to the Centre asking for relief from the court order.
Ministry like to plead before court
The Environment Ministry, sources said, is likely to plead before the court to let State authorities give environmental clearance for less than 5-hectare plots.
The Ministry believes that instead of it itself dealing with thousands of clearances for small projects, it would be wiser to let the States handle them under strict guidelines laid down by the Centre.
The Ministry will also ask for a stipulation that miners should not seek clearances for a cluster of less than 5-hectare plots as that will add up to a large area.
With the construction sector booming in the country, the demand for sand has grown consistently over the past decade. According to the Indian Bureau of Mines Year Book for 2011, the States gave a figure of 49.97 lakh tonnes for sand mining, which, Environment Ministry officials said off the record, was gross under-reporting.