Environmentalists question Lafarge mining clearance

From CK Nayak

New Delhi: Cement giant Lafarge Holcim’s resumption of limestone mining operations in East Khasi Hills district for feeding its plant across the international border in Bangladesh, has been questioned by noted environmentalists.
In a letter to the Union Minister for Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javedkar, they have urged him to withhold clearance to limestone mining without adhering to guidelines.
The Meghalaya government had allowed industries, including mining, to norms and hand hygiene for all employees as preventive measures against COVID-19 infections.
The company has been given the nod to resume mining operations at its limestone mine at Nongtrai.
A group of 291 conservation scientists and allied professionals has asked Javadekar to withhold forest and environment clearances including that of Lafarge during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The group includes many former members of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), the highest advisory body on wildlife chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“The MoEF&CC is under orders of the Supreme Court to strictly comply with the Lafarge judgment (2011 related to limestone quarrying in Meghalaya) guidelines to tighten the clearance process. Shockingly, key guidelines are being ignored, including the failure to appoint a national regulator for appraising projects.” they said.
Lafarge has also resumed mining and exporting limestone to the company’s cement plant at Chattak in Bangladesh. The cement major can export five million tonnes of limestone annually through its 17 km-long conveyor belt across the border that requires minimum human intervention.
The letter by the conservationists is in reference to the decisions and clearances given by the 57th meeting of the Standing Committee on April 7 for 31 proposals affecting 15 tiger reserves, sanctuaries, notified eco-sensitive zones, deemed eco-sensitive zones and designated wildlife corridors.
These include the private sector Etalin hydro-power project in Arunachal Pradesh and a coal mining project in an Assam elephant reserve and the lime stone mining in Meghalaya.
Lafarge had stopped its mining activities at its mine at Nongtrai village on March 19 following a shutdown announced by the state, ahead of the national lockdown announcement. But it resumed its activities after getting necessary clearance.
The company has developed standard operating procedures to be followed by one and all. It was confident that by following the SoPs, it shall be able to undertake operations in a safe manner during the coronavirus pandemic, company sources had said.
The signatories presented several concerns with regard to project evaluations not being done rigorously to the method of functioning by statutory bodies. They said video calls were not an efficient mode of communication to assess the environmental, livelihood and biodiversity impacts of projects and give fast track clearance.
The signatories include former Bombay Natural History Society director Asad Rahmani, conservationists MK Ranjitsinh, AJT Johnsingh, Belinda Wright and Bittu Sahgal, Goa-based lawyer Norma Alvares and film-maker Mike Pandey. Indian academics from the universities of Columbia, Yale, Michigan and Cambridge also signed the letter.
The Supreme Court had allowed the unit of a French-Spanish joint venture, Lafarge Umiam Mining Pvt. Ltd, to resume limestone mining after 17 months’ closure in 2011.
Crucially, the court also issued several guidelines to be implemented by the government, including the creation of a national regulator to grant clearances for similar projects and impose penalties on polluters.
The court’s judgment is a push for more streamlined procedures and greater transparency in environmental regulation in India. The court had said one of the reasons it proposed the creation of a regulator was to avoid “fait accompli” scenarios like the Lafarge case.
The matter reached the Supreme Court when a group of 21 tribal activists under the banner of the Shella Action Committee filed a petition alleging that Lafarge was mining on forest land, and did not have the required clearances.

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