SC questions lack of regulatory measure to curb illegal mining

Taking note of Goa`s plea of "zero tolerance" against illegal mining, the Supreme Court asked the state government as to why there was no regulatory mechanism in place to check illegal iron ore extraction there.

New Delhi: Taking note of Goa`s plea of "zero tolerance" against illegal mining, the Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the state government as to why there was no regulatory mechanism in place to check illegal iron ore extraction there.

"They knew what was happening. If you (state government) have bonafide intentions then don`t you think that some regulatory mechanism should have been in place. It was not there," the forest bench headed by Justice AK Patnaik said.

Senior advocate Arvind Datar, appearing for the BJP-ruled state government, said, "We came in power in March, 2012 and besides existing laws such as the MMDR (Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act) and the Wild Life Act, we have prepared a comprehensive mining policy draft to regulate mining."

The bench, also comprising justices SS Nijjar and FM Ibrahim Kalifulla, said the private firms would "go for the money as they are not there for charity", but there should be some regulatory mechanism in place.

The counsel, appearing for Goa and its pollution control board, started his arguments with the submission that the PIL be dismissed on various grounds including that "factual positions" about the actions taken by the state to curb illegal mining has been concealed by NGO Goa Foundation, which has filed the PIL, from the court.

"These technical plea will not work as the constitutional issue of Article 21 (right to life) and the public interest are involved," the bench said.

"Goa has zero tolerance policy towards illegal mining and it suspended the mining operations on September 10, 2012, three days after the report of Justice MB Shah Commission was tabled in Parliament," the lawyer said and referred to the state government`s affidavit that accused the previous regime of illegal iron ore extraction in the state.

The bench is hearing the PIL filed by the Goa Foundation, an environmental action group, on the illegal mining in Goa.

During the hearing, the counsel for Goa, said as many as 461 traders` licenses, involved with iron ore trading, were cancelled pursuant to the report of Justice Shah panel and later only 47 persons were issued it afresh among 200 applicants.

"We have taken drastic steps well before this writ petition was filed before this court," he said and referred to various measures taken by the state government to regulate activities related to transportation and export of iron ore.

Responding to a query, the state government said 20 percent of its revenue came from mining.

At the fag end of the hearing today, the bench said, "The courts usually do not venture into policy matters as there is separation of power."

The hearing in the case will continue tomorrow.

Earlier, the apex court-appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) had said that nearly 70 iron ore mines in Goa fall within the prohibited 10 km radius of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries and environment clearance certificates of miners must be reviewed.

The CEC, earlier on December 7 last year, had recommended revocation of environmental clearances granted to 42 iron ore mining leases located near national parks and sanctuaries in the state.

Prashant Bhushan, the counsel for the NGO, had earlier concluded his final arguments seeking various reliefs including that mining leases, which have expired in 2007, not be renewed and they be auctioned after putting in place the stringent regulatory mechanism to curb illegal mining.

The forest bench, on October 5 last year, had halted the mining operations in all the 90 mines in Goa considering the the Justice Shah Commission report that had indicted almost all the miners saying illegal extraction of iron ore during last 12 years had caused a loss of Rs 35,000 crore to the state exchequer.

The court has recently started hearing the PIL after Sesa Goa, a Vedanta group firm and country`s largest producer and exporter of iron ore in the private sector, sought early decision on the issue.