Meghalaya has been ordered to deposit Rs 100 crore in fines, imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), for failing to curb illegal coal mining in the state. In one of 15 directions passed today the Supreme Court also lifted a 2014 ban on coal mining, which was challenged by both miners and the state, and said it would be permitted subject to permission from concerned authorities.
The bench of Justice Ashok Bhushan and Justice KM Joseph also directed the state to hand over illegally extracted coal to Coal India Limited (CIL). The coal will be auctioned and funds raised will be deposited with the state government.
The NGT had fined Meghalaya in January after a three-member committee, headed by retired Justice BP Kakoti of the Gauhati High Court, found that a majority of the 24,000 mines in the state were illegal. The report also highlighted the lack of proper environment clearances.
The coal mining ban had become a sensitive political issue.
In 2013 assembly polls, the Congress performed poorly in the Jaintia Hills region. The poor performance was attributed by many to the fact the party couldn't challenge the NGT's ban.
The opposition used this to turn the tables on the Congress. During campaigning in Jaintia Hills, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma and his party were vocal about the coal mining ban and how it affected livelihoods.
The BJP also promised it would solve the problem of illegal mining within 180 days. The party is part of the coalition government led by Mr Sangma.
In its petition the state had also argued for the protection of the rights of the indigenous and the tribal population of Meghalaya.
"It was specifically contended that tribals have the right over the land, and also possess proprietary rights over the extracted mineral. The said contention of the State Govt. has been categorically and emphatically upheld by the Hon'ble Supreme Court," a statement released by the Meghalaya government said.
Concern has been repeatedly expressed over the "rat hole" method that had been employed by mines in Meghalaya.
"Rat hole" mining is a dangerous method that involves digging narrow tunnels that lead to deep pits from which the coal is mined. It also harms the environment because the acidic water and heavy metals discharged from the mines harms water sources used for agriculture and human consumption, and is toxic.
In December, 15 miners were trapped in an illegal coal mine in East Jaintia Hills district after water from a nearby river rushed into the mine. Only two bodies were recovered.