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SHILLONG: The coal-rich Shallang area of West Khasi Hills has a thriving racket of transporting coal to Assam’s steel plants on the pretext of sending coke, has come to light. At a time when exporting coal has been banned, a string of unauthorised coke plants have been transporting under the garb of sending coke thereby leading to huge revenue leakage and environmental degradation.
The Assembly Committee on Environment visited the coke plants in West Khasi Hills last month to do a fact check on how the plants were operating despite the ban on coal mining.
Although the committee is yet to disclose their findings, an investigation by The Shillong Times has revealed that there are no less than 26 coke plants mostly illegally set up in Shallang, against an official clearance to only 14 plants.
This has created consternation for the people of the area who complain of heavy pollution. The question that arises is how these plants were given licenses to operate considering that raw material needed is coal and coal mining has been banned since 2014.
What is intriguing that how the official machinery at various levels have been in cahoots with the underbelly of Shallang coke plants.
Although it is impossible to gauge the revenue loss to the government due to underhand export of coal, informed sources peg that loss at nothing short of a few hundred crores during the past one decade or so.
According to the government’s response to queries put up by this correspondent, in-principle approval for setting up a new unit is given by the Single Window Agency subject to a) fulfilment of all statutory laws in force b) obtaining all statutory clearances/NOCs including NOC from Forest Department c) obtaining consent to establish and consent to operate from Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board d) obtaining raw material (in this case coal) from legal sources.
The list of coke plants provided by the government are 14 in number but sources say that when the promoters get a license for one plant they set up three or four by bribing their way.
What should bother the people of Meghalaya is how these plants have been able to get environmental clearance and what is the role of the Pollution Control Board in all of this? If there are scams in the GHADC, sources say that the scam in setting up of these coke plants is massive and a probe into how the promoters have got environmental clearance is highly called for.
Sources also say that it is only when the issue of illegal coke factories came to the fore that the Pollution Control Board, ordered an enquiry as an after-thought.
As per the license given, the Coke plants are to procure coal from legal sources within the State or can procure coal from any other States with valid documents. The Mining and Geology Department will ensure that the Coke plants utilise the coal procured from the legal sources by regular monitoring and verification documents such as Transport Challans and e-way bills. The question is whether these challans and e-way bills are subjected to regular checks or whether the coal is actually sourced from illegally operated mines within the state.
It now appears that one arm of the government is passing the buck to the other. The State Pollution Control Board is an autonomous body and has granted consent for establishing these units by citing all the rules in the book and stated that eight units that have applied for permission to establish the plants have been directed to obtain prior environmental clearance from the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA).
According to Chairman Expert Appraisal Committee on Environment Naba Bhattacharjee, as per Environment Impact Assessment laws 2006, coke oven plant falls under the list of projects or activities requiring prior environment clearance. These plants are under Category A where the threshold limit of annual production is equal to or exceed 2.5 lakh tonnes and category B where production is equal or more than 25 thousand tonnes per annum. Environment clearance is waived if the threshold limit is below 25 thousand tonnes per annum.
Hence most of the plants are showing lower production to get away with environmental clearances.
Bhattacharjee, former NGT Commissioner and present Chairman of representing MoEF&CC says each plant has to get a certificate from the State Forest Department stating that it is set up on non-forest land.
Official sources say that of 16 units which include 7 which have applied for consent and 9 which have not applied for consent from the Pollution Board but were already in operation were detected through inspection in the Shallang Area, West Khasi Hills District and were issued closure notices under Section 33(A) of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974 and Section 31(A) of the Air (Prevention & Control of Pollution Act), 1981.
The question to the government is how could the nine illegal units, each with huge infrastructure, be set up without the knowledge of the District Administration and other government departments like Forest, Industry and Pollution Control Board?
Could this have been done without a nexus in the government? As far as the 7 units are concerned they have only applied for consent but have not been granted it. So who has given them the rights to establish the plants and go into production? Is it not mandatory that approval has to be granted before any work can be taken up? Clearly all these plants have a ‘go ahead’ from the highest levels of government.
When government was asked if it was aware that illegally mined coal is transported through the different districts as coke, the response given was that the District Administration of West Khasi has issued closure notice to illegal coke plants in the District. Government also said it has stepped up vigilance on illegal transportation of coal in the State through seizure of vehicles carrying coal illegally.
Government also stated that the Chief Secretary holds Monitoring Committee meetings every month to review the action taken by Police and DMR in filing complaints under Section 21 of the MMDR Act, 1957 against persons involved in illegal coal mining and illegal coal transportation and that a total 112 cases have been booked by Police and 14 FIRs filed by DMR against persons involved in illegal mining and transportation of coal in the State between January – July 2020. A total of 245 cases have been booked under MMDR Act, 1957 since March, 2019.
But those in the know say that the above actions are only against illegal transportation of coal without valid papers where the offenders are mostly “unknown.” These are mere optics. What the government should be doing is to book those 16 coke plants that are actually transporting coal in the guise of coke with “valid” transit documents.
The government will need to explain which department issues transit challans to coke plants and whether that concerned authorities maintain a record of daily production and variation if any between officially installed capacity of production on paper and the actual production. It is suspected that the normal route is to show lower capacity i.e. below 25,000 metric tonnes per annum on paper to avoid environmental clearance when actually the production is much higher.
Informed circles believe that the nexus is deep and without official muscle this illegality cannot be stopped unless the NGT steps in with a heavy hand.