Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Violation of FC Act and elusive penalty

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By Naba Bhattacharjee

The present environment of grandstanding between two contentious viewpoints in the State has consciously or otherwise led to relegation of numerous important issues into the background or to a state of deadlock. Notable among them being the violation of Forest Act, 1980 by the cement plants in Jaintia Hills which has been established and duly accepted by MoEF as being true and directing the defaulters to seek clearance under FC Act, 1980 as highlighted by this writer in this column “Violation established…..” dated 19.5.2012. A number of articles, memorandum and PILs by NGOs and individuals resulted in the positive results. Although the concerned authorities, including State Forest & Environment Minister declared a few months back that penalty shall be imposed by the MoEF on all defaulting plants, nothing concrete has materialized till date. This dragging of feet may be “beneficial” to a select few but at what cost?

Pollution of the Lukha River which has turned blue with poison discharge, is just one among the slew of environmentally degrading factors. Experience of the Lafarge Umiam Mining Pvt. Ltd case is a grim reminder that the inevitable can best be delayed but will catch up with baggage of retrospective liability. LUMPL in spite of being granted site, forest and environment clearance by the MoEF in 2001, had to seek fresh approval after it was established that mining of limestone was undertaken in forest areas by misrepresentation of facts, declaring mining in high forest areas as non-forest/barren land. All activities were stopped from 2007 till Supreme Court finally allowed functioning with prescribed penalties which the company promptly complied with in 2010. An attempt to circumvent the proven cases of violation in other cases and clear future hurdles, led to redefining of forest by hurriedly passing Meghalaya Forest Regulation (Amendment) Bill, 2012, by amending Meghalaya Forest Regulation (Application and Amendment) Act, 1973 in December last year. The sudden urgency to redefine forest without taking public opinion and maintaining optimal transparency is obviously not intended at enhancing conservation as it shall now take hundreds of hectares outside the purview of forest. Another important issue is (or was?) diversion of an additional area of around 1100 hectares of forest for mining of limestone without inviting forest clearance provision under FC Act, 1980. The purported snag in diversion is that even the redefined version cannot take care of the high percentage of forest cover in the proposed areas! Important resolutions adopted in the ICARE environment conclave continue to remain latent.

According to informed sources, the apparent reason for the “delay” in imposing the penalty is attributed to formulation of the appropriate norms for finalizing the quantum to be fixed for each of the defaulting industries. If that argument is true than the MoEF has only to adhere in principle to its own guidelines issued, based on Supreme Court ruling in fixing of penalty in case of LUMPL which justifiably be adopted as bench mark for all pending cases. In addition to bearing the cost of raising compensatory afforestation over double the area violated and penal compensatory afforestation over five times the area violated, the defaulting industry shall have to shell out five times the normal NPV with interest. The total area under jurisdiction of the industries collectively stands at around 2112 hectares. On a lenient approximation even if 60% of the area is categorized as forest, a staggering 1276 hectares of forest area has been diverted compared to 100 hectares for which LUMPL has been penalized. Moreover, a sum of rupees ninety per tonne of limestone from the date of commencement of mining by violation of FC, Act was to be borne by the user agency. The entire amount as above had to be deposited with an SPV to be set up under the chairmanship of a Chief Secretary level official with provision for public representation, specifically for undertaking projects aimed at holistic and sustained development of the mining area and its vicinity extending up to a fixed radius. In relation to East Jaintia Hills, the total penalty amount accrued from all defaulting plants shall be to the tune of over a thousand crore rupees. The funds if utilized judiciously can cover the entire district which shall witness a giant leap in all round development encompassing all sectors with potential to emerge as one of the most developed districts of the country. And rehabilitation of worked over coal and limestone mines, which is on top of our environment friendly Chief Minister’s agenda can also be achieved.

There will be no compulsion to depend on alms in the form of CSR intervention or on government funds. While the actual mining areas will have to be demarcated and fenced to stop “spill over” syndrome the State Government will have to examine the circumstances under which all such forest land was declared as non-forest land besides setting up of an independent Environment Department as in other states to deal with all issues other than those under purview of forest management.

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