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Hills & Hillocks Cannot Be Given For Mining Unless There Is Supervening Public Interest : Madras High Court

Akshita Saxena
30 May 2021 5:44 AM GMT
Hills & Hillocks Cannot Be Given For Mining Unless There Is Supervening Public Interest : Madras High Court
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Man has continued his predatory activities without any break and Nature is losing her patience

The Madras High Court recently criticized the practice of mechanically issuing licenses for mining of hillocks, without assessing the impact it may have on the public and on the environment in the longer run. It held that it is not open to the Government to arbitrarily give away hills and hillocks for exploitation and it is imperative that the executive demonstrates that there is a need...

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The Madras High Court recently criticized the practice of mechanically issuing licenses for mining of hillocks, without assessing the impact it may have on the public and on the environment in the longer run.

It held that it is not open to the Government to arbitrarily give away hills and hillocks for exploitation and it is imperative that the executive demonstrates that there is a need to subordinate the right to environment to the right to development.

"Merely because the process of issuance of mining lease was conducted in consonance with the statutory procedure, that would not confer any immunity against judicial scrutiny. Unless there are supervening public interest considerations, hills and hillocks cannot be given away for mining," a Single Bench of Justice GR Swaminathan observed.

The Judge admitted that there is no statutory prohibition against mining/quarrying of mounds rich in minerals. However, he asserted that both the Government as well as the citizens have a constitutional obligation to protect the environment and ecology under Article 48-A and Article 51-A(g).

He emphasized that if a man-made demarcation in the laws relating to town planning and development is given so much importance, certainly greater sanctity must be accorded to what was earmarked by Nature.

"Man has continued his predatory activities without any break and Nature is losing her patience. The rubicon is about to be crossed and retribution is in the offing. The time for course correction is now or never," the Judge remarked.

He asserted that it is time to implant the basic structure doctrine— the most valuable contribution to Constitutional jurisprudence— into the principle of sustainable development evolved in environmental law.

"While the administration can tap the hills and hillocks for mineral resources, the exploitation cannot lead to their complete destruction…A hill can be allowed to be exploited under certain circumstances but post-exploitation, the hill must still remain," Justice Swaminathan explained.

He stated that mountains, forests, hills, hillocks and rivers are Nature's gifts and it is the duty of the Government and the administration to ensure that they are preserved for future generations. "This is the principle of inter-generational equity," he said.

He added, that the Government should also not lose sight of the harm that is caused to the present generation due to invariable permissions granted for mining of natural resources. "It is not as if the benefits of exploitation are equitably distributed among all. Invariably a miniscule minority corners the benefits, while the burden falls on the rest," Justice Swaminathan expressed.

He added,

"State as a trustee of all natural resources is under a duty to protect them. Resources meant for public use cannot be converted into private ownership. The health of the environment is key to preserving the right to life as a constitutionally recognized value under Article 21 of the constitution of India."

Background

The remarks were made while dealing with two petitions seeking stoppage of the quarrying operations in Mottamalai Village, Ayan Kollankondan Village, Rajapalayam Taluk, Virudhunagar District.

The Petitioners alleged that the leaseholder— a women self-help group, had breached the permit conditions.

Powerful explosives are being used. The blasting operations seriously endanger the lives of the farm-hands who are working in the nearby agricultural fields. There is considerable generation of dust causing air pollution. The leaseholder has also encroached a water body. He has blocked the customary pathway of the villagers. The local panchayat has also passed a resolution favouring the closure of the quarry, the Petitioners submitted.

The State on the other hand argued that the lease was granted in lieu of an approved mining plan. The District Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority had granted clearance and consent orders had been obtained from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. It was further submitted that the location of the stone quarry does not breach any distance rule or safety norms and lease area has been clearly demarcated.

It was also contended that the leaseholder had not violated any of the lease conditions and there is no statutory breach whatsoever.

Findings

The Court noted that the photos furnished by the Petitioners clearly show that a substantial part of the hillock had already been blasted away and permitting quarry operations to continue any further would lead to its total destruction.

It also rejected the State's submission that the land in question is a poramboke and that the mining activity will not have any adverse impact on the surroundings.

"It is facile to assume that destroying the hillock in question is of no consequence," the Bench remarked.

It observed that the ways of Nature are inscrutable and man may not often realize the importance of a natural mound unless faced by a catastrophe.

"Only after tsunami struck us, we were told that mangrove forests act as natural barriers against such oceanic onslaughts. Villages in a particular District never faced storms because a hill range acted as protection wall. The recent catastrophic events at Uttarakhand are a direct fall-out of construction of huge dams. We do not know the purpose served by such rock formations," it observed.

Thus, the Court held that the State must demonstrate that all the other avenues have been exhausted and that in the interest of the general public, it is necessary to carry out limited mining in the hillock in question.

In the instant case, the Court said, no such cause has been shown and the Respondent in this case is a third leaseholder, therefore, it is imperative to stop further quarry operations.

It was conscious that the Petitioner is being restrained from enjoying the fruits of the lease well before the expiry of the lease period and it therefore permitted her to make representation to the authorities for refund of the proportionate lease amount for the unexpired period. Such representation has to be decided within a period of eight weeks.

Case Title: K. Santhanam v. District Collector, Virudhunagar & Ors.

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