Tuesday, February 27, 2024

HC refuses to exonerate govt of complicity in coal illegalities

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SHILLONG, April 11: The High Court of Meghalaya has once again come down heavily on the state government over the issue of illegal mining and transportation of coal and refused to exonerate the latter of complicity with regard to the illegalities.
The court took note of the state government’s submission that some system has now been put in place by which illegal mining and illegal transportation of coal within the state may have been stopped.
The court, however, said that such matter would be considered in the appropriate proceedings; but even if it be assumed that some measures have now been put in place, that would not exonerate the state or lead to any inference that prior to such system being put in place, the state may not have been complicit in helping the illegally-mined coal in the state being exported to Bangladesh.
Continuing its hearing on a PIL with regard to the export of coal through the Gasuapara land custom station, the court perused an affidavit filed by Youdhistra Bhama that was verified on April 3, 2023, which discloses that the coal obtained by Jaimaa Coal Private Limited, the 14th respondent herein, was obtained from Bittu Coal Traders and Vaishno Devi Traders Private Limited, which, in turn, was exported to Bangladesh, apparently through the Gasuapara LCS.
Such export, according to the documents, was effected between December 2021 and May 2022.
Apart from the fact that the affidavit filed on behalf of the respondent was pursuant to an order dated March 29, 2023 which required, in effect, to indicate the origin of the coal but the affidavit is eerily silent on such aspect, it was submitted on behalf of the petitioner that Jaimaa Coal Private Limited, Bittu Coal Traders and Vaishno Devi Traders Private Limited are owned and controlled by the same person or members of the family of the same person.
“Indeed, the email ID of Vaishno Devi Traders Private Limited is [email protected],” the Court said.
Further, the State of Assam filed an affidavit through its Director-General of Police from which it appears that an FIR has been lodged on February 8, 2022 by an Assistant Commissioner of State Tax against Youdhistra Bhama of Jaimaa Coal Private Limited with the allegation that “after conduct of routine scrutiny and surveillance of the registration, the department could unearth that (Youdhistra) Bhama in the name of doing permissible business activities, had been indulging in creating a fictitious supply chain through generation of fake tax invoices and e-way bills.”
The FIR went on to indicate that the investigation conducted by the relevant Department of the State of Assam had revealed that although the person named in the complaint “has sold coal for an amount of Rs 40.21 crore having tax involvement of Rs 52.80 lakh but there were no records of purchase …”
The Court added that the object of the present petition, filed in public interest (by coal exporters Champer M. Sangma), is to demonstrate the apparent complicity of the state government with the illegal miners of coal in the state and those involved in the illegal transportation of the illegally mined coal.
“From or about the year 2016, there could have been no mining of coal in the state since it is the state government’s consistent stand that no license has yet been issued for undertaking scientific mining of coal and, by 2016, orders of the National Green Tribunal, as affirmed by the Supreme Court, were already in place completely banning the extraction of coal in the State of Meghalaya except in accordance with law,” the order added. Upon the matter of the rampant illegal mining of coal in the state coming to the notice of this Court in 2022, suo motu proceedings were instituted, adding there are several other matters pertaining to the illegal transportation of coal, the failure on the part of the state government to check overloaded vehicles and the like: all of which point to the state government being a party to the illegal mining and transportation of the coal in flagrant disregard of orders passed by the Supreme Court, no less.
“The malaise has not been arrested and it has prompted this Court, in the suo motu proceedings, to ascertain whether some Central Armed Police Forces may be engaged to undertake the checking activities. There may not be any illegal mining if there is no transportation of such coal and illegal transportation can be checked by police on roads and easily arrested if there was the right intent on the part of the State,” the Court said.
According to Court, it appears that several persons have sought to take advantage of the fact that the previously illegally mined coal had been dumped in many places with directions issued by the Supreme Court for its disposal. Till such time that orders were made in the suo motu proceedings instituted in the year 2022, the state had taken no steps to ensure that the previously illegally mined coal till the year 2016 was disposed of. As a result, fresh coal continued to be illegally mined and dumped in open public view with the state claiming that such coal may have been a part of the previously illegally mined coal.
“Mining operations continued in open view and may be still continuing with the state ignoring orders of this Court and orders already in place from the year 2016. Though the previously illegally mined coal has now been directed to be sold through auction and in the presence of Coal India Limited by a retired Judge appointed for such purpose by this Court, the quantum of coal available appears to be much more than available in 2016. A new method appears to have been put in place where a lot of coal is exported through Gasuapara with such coal being apparently obtained from outside the state. The object of the exercise in the present petition is to demonstrate that most of the coal recently exported through the Gasuapara LCS has only been coal that has been illegally mined in the state with forged documents showing that such coal has been brought in from elsewhere,” the Court added.
The petitioner claimed that the respondent had no document to show the origin of the coal that was in its possession in April, 2021 when it sought permission to export the same through the Gasuapara LCS.
Directions issued by the Court for the respondent to file its affidavit in such regard has resulted in the documents of Bittu Coal Traders and Vaishno Devi Traders Private Limited being relied upon, despite it being obvious that Bittu Coal Traders, Vaishno Devi Traders Private Limited and Jaimaa Coal Private Limited are, in effect, one and the same entity as they are controlled by the same human agency, the court observed.
The petitioner complained that queries raised with the state departments under the said Act of 2005 have fallen on deaf ears despite appeals being carried.
The court also observed that the circumstances are such that an adverse reference may rightly be drawn by the court that the state is averse to the truth coming out and has sought to filibuster the attempt by the petitioner to demonstrate that most of the coal exported through the Gasuapara LCS has been the illegally-mined coal in the state and not coal emanating from outside the state.
“In the light of repeated orders of this court to the effect that Supreme Court orders were being violated by the state not arresting the illegal mining of coal, the state ought to have been more alive to the fact that internally mined coal may be attempted to be exported by seeking to claim that such coal had been obtained from elsewhere. However, if the state itself is involved in the process, which appears to be the more likely scenario, then the state would hide behind the specious excuse now proffered that it allows transaction by looking at the documents produced without seeking to ascertain the veracity thereof,” the court said.
On the other hand, the State of Assam has expressed its doubts as to the genuineness of the business conducted by the respondent and, whatever steps may or may not have been taken pursuant thereto, at least a nominal FIR has been lodged. Not even so much appears to have been done by the State of Meghalaya in the matter of arresting the illegal mining of coal in the state, the court added.
It will be open to the respondent to file a further affidavit, if necessary, to indicate the source of the vast quantities of coal as noticed in the order dated March 29, 2023, the court said, while adding that it would not do for the respondent to merely cite another trader from which the coal was obtained since the large amount of coal in the possession of the respondent in 2021 would have come from some specific mines and it is such mines or the source of coal which ought to be indicated.

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