Forest Dept’s undue favour to cement plant

Is Star Cement calling the shots in Meghalaya?

SHILLONG: The entire government machinery appears to be dancing to the tune of Star Cement, one of the biggest cement companies in Meghalaya.
Star Cement is located around the Narpuh Reserve Forests of Jaintia Hills. The company with its head office in Kolkata was given the mining lease for limestone by the Department of Mining and Geology much before it could get clearance from the Forest and Environment Department.
Under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2015, passed by the NDA Government in January 2015, mining companies cannot be given leases to mine in forest areas without clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the State Forest Department.
The Act makes illegal mining, trespassing and violation of norms cognizable offences punishable by two years of imprisonment and/or fine. The state government is to set up special courts for such trials.
Under the Forest Conservation Act 1980, the implementation of which was delayed in Meghalaya, companies that have mined in and around forest areas have to compensate for that land by paying compensation to the state government.
Land to be acquired should be equivalent to the forest area mined. Such land is to be used for compensatory afforestation. The last date fixed for this transaction was January 11, 2017.
The decision to acquire land for compulsory afforestation was taken in 2013 vis-à-vis Lafarge Cement which is mining in 116 hectares of forest area in East Khasi Hills.
Accordingly, Adhunik Cement deposited nearly Rs 2 crore as compensation for 154 hectares of land while Star Cement had to compensate for 13 hectares.
However, while Adhunik Cement deposited the amount in a straightforward transaction, Star Cement wants to wriggle out of this by taking the route of land transfer. The company says it has taken land on lease somewhere in Jaintia Hills and this land should now be transferred to the government instead of the company paying for land acquisition as stipulated.
To facilitate this process a junior officer of the Forest Department was tasked to take over this land. The whole transaction for land, which should be worth several lakhs of rupees, was executed on stamped paper worth only Rs 20.
The transaction was effected allegedly on a Saturday (which is a holiday) and the office of the Revenue Department, East Jaintia Hills, had to remain open to carry out this task.
Transaction in ‘secrecy’
Legal experts say even if extraneous circumstances necessitated the opening of a government office on a holiday there should have been some speaking orders in the file, which in this case was absent. There were no individual witnesses to the transaction. It was also learnt that the document was backdated to Friday, January 6, 2017.
Sources in the government say top officials in the state have been pushing for this transaction to happen although everything about it is wrongfully executed. In effect, the officials have been facilitating Star Cement to evade the law. The FC Act says land should be mutated in favour of the Forest Department, but this too has not been effected.
Sources claim that Star Cement is holding land in excess of revenue land granted to it and there are no documents to prove the company’s ownership of the land it was offering to transfer to the government for compensatory afforestation. If the Forest Department is allowing mining in a bigger area then where are the relevant documents?
Firstly, how can Star Cement, a non-tribal entity own land in a Sixth Schedule area like Jaintia Hills? Secondly, how can land taken on lease from a tribal be transferred to a third party, in this case the government?
Star Cement has also not received forest clearance from the committee constituted to look after eco-sensitive zones in Meghalaya and the company is located in an ecologically sensitive area of Jaintia Hills.
All these anomalies point to a scam brewing in the Secretariat and aided and abetted by senior officials who are supposed to protect the interests of the people of Meghalaya. Ministers holding charge of the Forest Department in the past and the present cannot be ignorant of these illegal transactions.
When contacted, officials in the Forest Department said the order to take over the land from the company came from the higher-ups and they had to comply with the order.
On the other hand, Devendar Bansal, resident director, Cements Manufacturing Company Limited, Lumshnong, said these are mere allegations.
“We have executed the compulsory afforestation and the company had already transferred the land to the government”, he said.

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