‘No Doubt Local Officials Are Involved’: Meghalaya HC Full Bench Orders Deployment Of Central Armed Forces To Prevent Illegal Coal Mining
The Meghalaya High Court has taken a tough stand against the rampant illegal coal extraction and transportation within the State. While sounding the bell of caution for the probable outcomes of such unscientific mining, a Full Bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee, Justice H.S. Thangkhiew and Justice W. Diengdoh observed,
“Without intending to sound apocalyptic or seeking to toll the knell of an imminent doomsday, it takes no rocket science to realise that the recipe is ripe for disaster. The pot is on the boil and it is brewing a calamitous broth. Yet the lure of a quick buck prompts the sentinel to look the other way.”
The Court, at the outset, noted that despite its stringent order dated 07.12.2022, no serious step has been taken by the State. It sorrily observed that a further 13 lakh MT coal has been discovered from the deposit which is in excess of the previously mined coal.
The Court referred to the report submitted by Justice (Retd.) B.P. Katakey, who has been appointed to oversee the disposal of previously mined coal and transportation thereof. The report dealt steps taken by Justice Katakey pursuant a newspaper report on or about January 10, 2023 that three mine workers had reportedly died inside a coal mine in Rymbai in the East Jaintia Hills district.
The interim report revealed that an FIR was lodged and a case was registered under Sections 188/304A/34 of the IPC read with Section 21(5) of the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 following the publication of such report.
The Court noted that three dead bodies which were buried on January 10, 2023 were recovered in compliance of the order passed by the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Khliehriat and sent for autopsy. The State was ordered to furnish such autopsy reports by the next date of hearing.
The Court also noted that several cases were registered pertaining to illegal extraction of coal in the recent months. As to illegal transportation of coal, 31 cases were registered in December, 2022 and January, 2023. However, to the utter surprise of the Court, even the rough estimates of the quantity of seized coal were not indicated in any case.
“For a start, if 31 cases of illegal transportation have come to light, there must have been several multiples more of illegal transportation that may either have been actively overlooked or may not have come to the notice of the appropriate personnel. Secondly, the failure to even indicate the approximate quantity of the seized coal leaves room for manipulation and there is no doubt that the local officials are involved in such manipulation,” the Court added.
The Court came down heavily on the State government which has been lacking in taking any ‘proactive step’, whether to arrest the continuation of illegal extraction of coal or check the rampant illegal transportation thereof.
“Despite high officials of the State, including the Chief Secretary, being summoned to Court and a contempt notice being issued against the Superintendent of Police, East Jaintia Hills district by the previous order in this matter, the illegal mining and illegal transportation of coal continue unabated and may even have increased in vigour in this election season”, the Court observed with consternation.
The Full Bench also referred to the Court’s recent order in a case pertaining to operation of illegal coke plants in the State and said,
“As observed in a recent order in a matter where the State admitted that it had discovered 57 illegal coke plants operating in a particular area in a district, there could have been no mushrooming or even functioning of any coke plant unless it had access to illegally extracted coal which was illegally transported to such coke plant.”
The Bench also warned the possible disasters that await due to such illegal and unscientific extraction as the local people extract coal mainly through rat-hole mining where one or more persons dig a hole with barely enough space to crawl in and chip away the coal from the rockface to physically carry it out.
“Apart from the immediate risk of the roof of the hole caving in, such activity leaves gaping holes underground, ready to buckle in if there were to be an earthquake. Coupled with this is the presence of limestone underground or on rocksides. Again, unregulated extraction of limestone leaves gaps and holes close to the surface.”
Further, while expressing dismay over the continued inaction of State the Court said,
“It is only upon each discovery of illegal activity being made by this Court that the State responds by assuring the Court that steps would be taken to dismantle the illegal machinery; but the illegal activity mushrooms somewhere else and the State awaits the Court’s further direction before undertaking the work that the State itself is obliged to take up. It is a really sorry state of affairs and an affront to the rule of law.”
The Court was of the opinion that though the State was afforded enough opportunities over the period of last one year, the measures adopted by it has fallen ‘woefully short’. Therefore, it deemed necessary to order deployment of Central Armed Police Forces for checking illegal coal extraction and transportation.
“…when the matter appears a week hence as to the formalities for the immediate deployment of sufficient units of either the Central Industrial Security Force or the Central Reserve Police Force to completely take over the policing of illegal coal mining activities including the transportation thereof from the State machinery; obviously, at a cost that the State will have to bear for its abject inefficiency”, the Court ordered.
Also, the Court ordered the State to indicate the exact quantities of coal seized in respect of each of the 31 cases registered pertaining to illegal transportation that find mention in Justice Katakey’s latest report. It also took due cognizance of the failure on the part of the SP, East Jaintia Hills to prevent illegal mining despite the Court’s order.
“As far as the Superintendent of Police, East Jaintia Hills, is concerned, he shall show cause why punishment for contempt, including detention in jail, should not be suffered by him for the flagrant violation of orders of this Court to check the illegal menace of unscientific coal mining rampant all over the East Jaintia Hills and the illegal transportation thereof”, the Court sternly directed.
The matter will be taken up for further hearing on 14th February, 2023.
Case Title: In Re: (Suo motu): Illegal mining of coal in the State of Meghalaya v. State of Meghalaya
Case No.: PIL No. 2 of 2022
Citation: 2023 LiveLaw (Meg) 8
Coram: Sanjib Banerjee, CJ, H.S. Thangkhiew & W. Diengdoh, JJ.
Order Dated: 7th February 2023