E-auction of mines in 50km radius of eco-sensitive zone may not be allowed, says SC

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New Delhi, Nov 4 (PTI) The Supreme Court on Wednesday said it intend to pass an order that any proposed mining block within the 50 kilometer radius of an eco-sensitive zone will not be e-auctioned in Jharkhand and a similar direction may be passed if such things are brought to its notice from other states.

Maintaining that it only wanted to ensure that the 'forests are not destroyed,' the top court also said it was mulling over the setting up of an expert committee to examine whether an area near the proposed mining sites in Jharkhand qualifies to be an eco-sensitive zone.

“We intend to pass orders that any proposed mining block near the 50 kilometer radius of the eco-sensitive zone in Jharkhand will not be allowed to be e-auctioned,” a bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde said.

Attorney General K K Veugopal, appearing for the Centre, opposed the remarks of the top court saying the mining sites were at a distance of 20 to 70 kms from such eco-sensitive zones and in states like Goa, the mining would become impossible, if this distance parameter is applied.

“The whole issue of looking at forests is wrong. The problem is that you put economic value on timber but you don't put any economic value on forest. We are not against the growth of the country but don't you think that the distance of 22 km of a mine from the eco-sensitive zone is dangerously close,” said the bench, also comprising Justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian.

In a hearing through video-conferencing, the bench said it will post the lawsuit filed by Jharkhand against the Centre for framing of issues if parties agree that they will examine witnesses and in the meantime, e-auction be stayed and a report from an expert panel on the issue of eco-sensitivity of areas may be be called for.

Maintaining that setting up of a panel and seeking its report is a “long drawn process”, the top law officer said that he be granted one day time to bring certain facts on the issue before the court.

'But after this, the bidding will be impacted across the country. Some other states will say that their land is closer to forests,' Venugopal said.

'If such facts are brought to our notice, then we will stop that too. Don't jump the gun,' the bench said.

On being told that Jharkhand, in its first plea, did not raise the plea of eco-sensitivity of the areas close to mining sites, the bench said it was not at all sure about the intention of the state government but it only wanted “to ensure that the forests are not destroyed”.

The remarks were made by the top court which was hearing Jharkhand government's pleas challenging the Centre's decision to auction coal blocks for commercial mining.

The bench said Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren seems to be very enthusiastic about the issue but it should be clear that even he will not be able to take advantage of the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act.

Senior advocate F S Nariman, appearing for Jharkhand said that Centre has said that the lawsuit filed by the state is not maintainable and needs to be dismissed. It sought to know from Nariman about the nature of the land meant for mining whether it is an eco-sensitive zone or not.

“The issue of eco-sensitive zone is extremely important and we want a report to be submitted by an expert committee on this issue in the meantime”, the bench suggested and added that advocate ADN Rao, who is an amicus curiae in forest related matter in the top court, might suggest some experts in the field.

Venugopal said that Jharkhand has also filed the writ petition 15 days before filing of the civil suit and in that petition they have not talked anything on the environment.

He said that now they themselves have admitted that the proposed mining is over 20 km away from the eco sensitive zone. Senior advocate A M Singhvi, also appearing for Jharkhand, said that the distance from the eco-sensitive zone in the animal corridor was held to be 19 kilometer by the top court and area outside the protected area is as important as the protected area.

He said in the present case all the seven areas in question are the eco-sensitive areas and suggested that the expert panel will not take much time.

Venugopal opposing the suggestion of the court said that the Jharkhand was asking for more revenue share in the writ petition and the eco-sensitive issue and the elephant corridor was never argued.

“Please grant me one day time to show that the stopping of mining will cause irreparable damage,” Venugopal said. The bench said it would keep the matter pending and grant time to Attorney General to bring more facts related to the Jharkhand's plea and other aspects.

It posted the matter for further hearing on November 6.

On September 30, the top court had observed that if an area falls under eco sensitive zone then neither the Centre nor the state government will have the right to mine it.

It had said prima facie the Centre is entitled to auction the coal blocks in the state but to find out if the areas in question are eco-sensitive or not, it may send some experts.

Jharkhand had sought postponing of e-auction of coal block for commercial mining in the state till its suit under Article 131 is decided by the top court.

Referring to the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution, dealing with administration and control of Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes, state's plea had said that six of the nine coal blocks in Jharkhand - Chakla, Chitarpur, North Dhadu, Rajhara North, Seregarha and Urma Paharitola -- which have been put up for auction fall within it. PTI SJK MNL ABA RKS RKS