The Burning Issue – Feb & Mar 2010

April 27, 2010 at 7:57 pm (Uncategorized)

SC upholds mining ban on Lafarge
French cement company now wants to follow Vedanta
Ankur Paliwal

ON MARCH 29, the Supreme Court rejected the Centre’s plea to allow French cement company Lafarge to continue mining limestone in Meghalaya’s East Khasi Hills. The court had stayed mining in the area in February after local residents moved court saying Lafarge obtained mining licence through fraud and without the mandatory environmental impact assessment (EIA).

Attorney general G E Vahanvati argued that continuing the stay might sever India’s friendly ties with Bangladesh; the limestone quarried in Meghalaya feeds Lafarge’s cement factory in Sunamganj district of Bangladesh.

The company started mining in the region in 2006 by allegedly obtaining a false certificate that showed the area was wasteland.

“If this court has not allowed anyone to mine without EIA, why should we make an exception for it (Lafarge)?” asked the bench comprising chief justice of India K G Balakrishnan, S H Kapadia and Aftab Alam.

During the hearing Vahanvati submitted a draft proposal saying mining could be allowed by imposing conditions on Lafarge to fund tribal welfare schemes within a 50-km radius of the project. For implementing community development schemes, Vahanvati proposed a special purpose vehicle (SPV) on the lines of the one set up by Vedanta subsidiary, Sterlite Industries, in Orissa for mining Niyamgiri hills.

Vahanvati said the SPV, with equal participation from Lafarge and state government, could be made responsible for administering a community development fund and that Lafarge would pay Rs 10 crore into this fund every year. He said the company could be asked to pay Rs 50 crore for diverting forest land for mining.
The court posted the case for April 9 and asked the attorney general to prepare the modalities for EIA by then and also specify the conditions that could be imposed on Lafarge. Fali S Nariman who appeared for Lafarge said the conditions were acceptable to the company.

The petitioners, Shella Action Committee, said the court order on conducting anEIA amounts to giving an escape route to Lafarge. They said the company should be punished instead and the mining project should be cancelled. “To me this seems like the actual Sterlite model—violate all laws and get them regularized,” said R Shreedhar, geologist with the non-profit, Environics Trust of Delhi.

Bid to save park from coal mining – NGO seeks public support

The Telegraph

Shillong, March 29: Concerned over coal-mining threatening the Balpakram National Park in South Garo Hills, an environment group has sought public support for a legal fight against the activities.

The Delhi-based environment group, Samrakshan Trust, the Meghalaya unit of which is based at Baghmara in South Garo Hills, has also initiated a fund-raising campaign to protect the environment through a legal battle.

Saloni Bhatia, the group’s outreach co-ordinator in a statement issued here said the cancer of illegal mining had now spread to the Balpakram-Baghmara landscape, the last remaining tract of relatively intact habitat that supports elephants, hoolock gibbons, tigers and a variety of other charismatic wildlife.

“In addition, the region is also home to at least 268 species of birds and over 450 butterflies according to the last count,” the statement said, adding that there are reports that the state is also gearing up to explore the possibility of uranium in Balpakram National Park.

The Garo Students’ Union (GSU) had spearheaded the fight against illegal mining in the Balpakram-Baghmara landscape. Prosper Marak, the GSU president (southern zone), Baghmara, was even honoured with the Sanctuary Young Naturalist Award by Sanctuary Asia, a magazine, and the Royal Bank of Scotland in December last year for the campaign.

Apart from the GSU, a group of NGOs from South Garo Hills — Youth Development and Vigilance Committee, Southern Youth and Cultural Organisation, Siju Ecotourism and Conservation Society, Siju Youth Socio Cultural Organisation and the Tura Government College Students’ Union have come together to fight the battle against illegal coal mining.

“In addition to building an anti-mining movement on the ground, the coalition is also engaged in litigation as one of its strategies. This is necessary in order to get a ‘breathing space’ for the larger anti-mining movement to build up pressure,” Bhatia said.

According to Marak, direct action by the GSU southern zone and other NGOs had resulted in intervention by the empowered committee of the Supreme Court to stop illegal coal mining in Gongrot Aking, which is close to the Balpakram National Park.

During the hearing of the petition filed by the NGOs on March 16 in the Supreme Court regarding coal mining in Gongrot Aking, the state government admitted that while no mining leases had been given unauthorised clearing of forest had taken place.

“We are supporting the Garo Students’ Union in four different litigation — two each in the Supreme Court and the remaining two in the Shillong bench of Gauhati High Court,” Bhatia said, adding that legal action is necessary in order to slow down the mining activities.

“Apart from legal action, we are also engaged in building a people’s movement against mining. Undertaking research to support such action and lobbying with the government are the measures being taken,” Bhatia said.

The Samrakshan Trust has sought both financial and moral support from the people of the country to curb mining legally and secure the future of the vulnerable region.

The fear of the NGOs is that indiscriminate mining, particularly in the forest and ecologically sensitive areas will cause severe depletion of forest cover and water sources for people as well as wildlife.

There is also the fear of largescale influx of migrant labourers, including Bangladeshis, coupled with increase in the incidents of crime, particularly extortion in the coal belts.

Supreme court order banning mining in Meghalaya lands India in diplomatic soup

24 March 2010

(New Delhi, India) — Supreme Court’s order last month turning off supply of limestone on environmental grounds from Meghalaya to French cement giant Lafarge’s $255 million cement plant in Bangladesh has put India in a piquant diplomatic situation.

The Sheikh Hasina regime deputed senior officials to New Delhi to seek urgent intervention of the Manmohan Singh government saying stoppage of raw material guaranteed in 2001 by India would mean a 15% fall in cement production in Bangladesh and a severe setback to its housing projects.

The Nicolas Sarkozy government too activated its embassy in New Delhi to take up the issue with India, saying the French company’s cement venture in Bangladesh was an important initiative to generate employment in the natural disaster ravaged country as well as to fight poverty.

In this background, attorney general Goolam E Vahanvati on Tuesday made an urgent mention of the matter before a Bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justices Deepak Verma and B S Chauhan.

Without attempting to veil the magnitude of the diplomatic embarrassment being faced by India, the AG said SC had been misled into passing the order stopping limestone supply to the cement plant in Bangladesh “causing a huge international problem” for India. The Bench agreed to list the matter for hearing on March 26.

The February 5 order stopping mining in East Khasi Hill District till further orders came with a sense of outrage from the Forest Bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justices S H Kapadia and Aftab Alam, which took exception to tribal land being allegedly transferred in violation of rules to the French company’s subsidiary and then mortgaged to a host of foreign banks for raising a loan of $153 million.

Petitioner `Shella Action Committee’ had alleged that not only was the land, falling under Schedule VI of the Constitution banning its transfer to non-tribals, illegally taken over in collusion with local officials, but mining was started without the mandatory clearance from ministry of environment and forest (MoEF) under the Forest Conservation Act (FCA).

Amicus curiae Harish Salve and A D N Rao had said the eco-fragile area was opened up without the mandatory forest clearance and the raw material was being sent to Bangladesh at cost price, depriving India of huge revenue from customs and other duties.

Unaware of the huge diplomatic row the government was walking into, additional solicitor general Harin Raval, who appeared for MoEF, had told the court that the ministry had clearly issued an order in May 2007 staying the mining operations, but the SC had allowed it to go on.

Lafarge Umuiam Mining Pvt Ltd (LUMPL) was mining the limestone quarry area spread over 100 hectares near Indo-Bangladesh border for supply of raw material to Lafarge Surma Cement Project at Chhatak in Sunamganj, Bangladesh.

Lafarge and Spanish cement producer Cementos Mollins had set up the state-of-the-art fully integrated cement plant at Chhatak with a captive power plant of 300 mw. In 2001, the Bangladesh high commissioner and then Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh had signed an agreement for uninterrupted supply of raw material to the plant from the mines in Meghalaya.

After this agreement, Lafarge had claimed to have obtained relevant clearances from MoEF, the state government, the autonomous hill council and the chief conservator of forest for limestone quarrying in East Khasi Hills.

By: Dhananjay Mahapatra

Lafarge denies mining in Meghalaya despite court ban

March 20th, 2010 – 6:19 pm ICT by IANS

Shillong, March 20 (IANS) Lafarge Umiam Mining Private Limited (LUMPL), a subsidiary of French firm Lafarge, Saturday dismissed a civil society group’s allegations that the company was ignoring the Supreme Court’s stay on mining in Meghalaya.
On Thursday, Shella Action Committee (SAC), a Meghalaya-based civil society group, accused Lafarge of carrying on with quarrying activities in Shella, bordering Bangladesh, some 100 km South from here.

LUML termed the allegations “unsubstantiated” and said, “There is nothing new in the allegations made by the SAC…they have been advocating against the continuation of the project on various fictitious grounds for a long time.”

According to an e-mailed statement issued here, Lafarge claimed: “Similar allegations made by the NGO in a case filed in Gauhati High Court were examined by the Meghalaya government and found to be false and baseless. Accordingly, the state government had filed an affidavit in the court.”

The quarries operated by Lafarge subsidiary Lum Umiam Mining Pvt Ltd in Meghalaya supply limestone for its $250 million Lafarge Surma Cement plant at Chhatak in Bangladesh, located just 10 km away from the quarries across the Indo-Bangladesh border. The limestone is sent through a 17-km-long cross-border conveyor belt.

On Feb 5, the apex court ordered the French firm to immediately stop its mining operations following SAC’s allegations that the firm has raised funds from various international banks after mortgaging the state’s land it had fraudulently transferred to itself.

The bench ordered LUMPL to stop its mining operations in Meghalaya on a lawsuit by SAC.

The lawsuit alleged that the French firm transferred the land belonging to tribals to itself in collusion with some local groups.

The lawsuit alleged that the firm later “mortgaged the tribal land to foreign banks like the Asian Development Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the Deutsche Investitutions und Entwicklungsgesellschaft, the European Investment Bank, the Arab Bangladesh Bank and the Standard Chartered Bank”.

SAC legal adviser B.M. Roy Dolloi said Lafarge is ignoring the apex court’s stay by carrying on with the mining operations during the stay period.

Green warriors of the Garo hills

By Teresa Rehman

Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills are under serious threat from illegal coal mining. The Garo Students Union, and its dynamic leader Prosper S Marak, have been battling to preserve the biodiversity of this region. Marak was declared Earth Hero for 2009 and also won the Young Naturalist Award for 2009.

In Meghalaya’s inaccessible South Garo Hills, an ‘eco-mutiny’ went virtually unnoticed. Except for the fact that eco-warrior Prosper S Marak, president of the southern zone of the powerful student body, the Garo Students Union (GSU), was declared one of the Earth Heroes of 2009 by Sanctuary Asia and the Royal Bank of Scotland, and was awarded the prestigious ‘Young Naturalist Award’ in December 2009.   The award statement read: “The Young Naturalist Award is presented to the 24-year-old emerging green warrior Prosper S Marak for his work to protect the biodiversity of the rich Garo hills of Meghalaya, and who continues to inspire young men and women in the state to protect their natural heritage.” Prosper Marak grew up just outside the forests of Balpakram National Park and Siju Wildlife Sanctuary. He learnt to love and respect nature at a very young age.

Marak was instrumental in leading a youth uprising in five hamlets in Gongrot, in South Garo Hills, taking the ‘illegal’ miners completely by surprise. In his acceptance speech, he said: “I accept this award on behalf of my colleagues in GSU who have fought tooth-and-nail to preserve Balpakram National Park and the amazing wildlife of the Garo Hills.”

The story goes back to November 2008 when an attempt was made to open up a new coal mine on the periphery of Balpakram National Park. Like all coal mining in Meghalaya, no environmental clearance or related permissions had been taken for the mine. There are approximately seven laws under which clearance has to be sought by state and central bodies before any mining activity can be initiated. In any case, coal mining cannot be undertaken by private individuals as all coal (including that in Meghalaya) was nationalised in 1967.   In blatant violation of the law of the land, ‘illegal’ coal mines continue to flourish all over Meghalaya. Local people in the Garo hills and other parts of the state operate the mines on their lands without any mining leases by the state government, under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, and the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973, that was amended in 1976.

The disputed mine was being planned in an aking called Gongrot (tracts of community land in the Garo hills are called aking). Since Gongrot is a remote aking, a road has first to be built to connect the mining area to the existing PWD road. This connecting road would have passed partly through Gongrot and partly through another aking called Halwa Atong. In order to build the road, standing forests in both akings would have had to be cut down.

In July last year, contractors came with bulldozers and began clearing the forests. The GSU swung into action. They seized the bulldozer and handed it over to the police. A protracted legal battle ensued; in the intervening period young men and women cleared the debris and began to reforest the area. They took turns patrolling the restored lands to ensure that the miners did not return to destroy what had been resurrected. “This was a symbolic act of taking the land back from the miners and returning it to the forest. All these years, our ancestors have been protecting our forests,” says Marak. The protests startled the illegal mining mafia as well as the government that is reluctant to regulate mining in the state. Indeed, Meghalaya is the only state in the country where private ‘illegal’ mining flourishes without any hindrance. Now, thanks to the pressure, Meghalaya has put together a mining policy that is being closely assessed and will have an impact far beyond Balpakram.

Marak’s associate Ginseng Sangma, also a student, believes the protests were the least they could do for the community and the forests they grew up in. They convinced over 100 school and college students to join in the innovative non-violent protest by replanting the forest stretch that had been destroyed by the bulldozers.

Sangma, now a second-year BA student at Captain Williamson Magor Memorial College in Baghmara reminisces about the early days when many species of wild animals roamed the forests, including elephants and leopards. “Now, even the lush streams have dried up due to the rampant deforestation. Forests have been cut and converted into orchards. If the trend goes on, all our natural treasures will disappear and there will be nothing left for future generations,” he says.  Protests against illegal mining have been ongoing in Meghalaya’s Garo hills where a group of NGOs and citizens have set up the Chitmang Hills Anti-Mining Forum against unplanned and unscientific mining. Chitmang is the name of a peak — the highest in the South Garo Hills — that’s considered sacred among Garo society. In view of its importance and considering the threat to the entire region from mining, the anti-mining forum has chosen its name well.   Spearheaded by the Samrakshan Trust, the forum also comprises the Garo Students Union (GSU), Youth Development and Vigilance Committee, Southern Youth and Cultural Organisation, Atong Cultural Organisation, Siju Youth Socio-Cultural Organisation, Achik Tourism Society, Achik Youth and Cultural Organisation and Siju Ecotourism and Cultural Society.  Arpan Sarma of the Samrakshan Trust says: “What is happening in Balpakram is a subset of a larger malaise. People are disgusted with the rampant illegal mining in the state.”

Apart from Balpakram National Park and Baghmara Reserve Forest, the area comprises nearly 400 sq km of community-owned lands spread over 36 akings. A large proportion of this land is forested and used by local people to earn a livelihood.

Samrakshan helps local communities set up community conservation reserves aimed at preserving forested habitats on community-owned lands. It is also working in Balpakram-Baghmara to ensure that elephant habitats and critical corridors remain accessible for use by the animals.

The forum has appealed to various statutory and traditional tribal authorities. “We have sent a petition to the regional office of the Ministry of Environment and Forests in Shillong regarding violations of the Forest Conservation Act. We have also filed a complaint with the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council regarding prosecution of the headmen of Gongrot and Halwa Atong akings for felling standing forests to pave the way for illegal mining,” says Asith Sangma, president of the forum.  Asith explains that Balpakram National Park, apart from being an ecological hotspot, is also a sacred place in the hills. It is called ‘land of the eternal death’ in Garo mythology, as it is believed that the spirits of the dead reside here.

“We don’t want to create another Jharia (Jharkhand)-like situation here. We will have to protect this area at the cost of our lives,” Asith says. Jharia, a town in Jharkhand, had to be shifted due to coal mine fires that could not be controlled.

(Teresa Rehman is a journalist based in northeast India. She was awarded the Sarojini Naidu Award for Best Reporting on Women and Panchayati Raj in 2007 and the Sanskriti Award for Excellence in Journalism 2009)

UCIL allegedly planning to mine uranium in BNP

Written by the Editor
Tuesday, 16 February 2010 09:46
Garo Hills News Agency

TURA, Feb. 14: The Government of Meghalaya, facing the brunt of various NGOs over the proposed uranium mining in Khasi Hills district, is all set to face similar fate in Garo Hills, as Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL) has sought for No Objection Certificate from the Ministry of Environment & Forest, Government of India to look for a possibility of uranium in Balpakram National Park, one of India’s bio-diversity rich areas home to some of world’s endangered flora and fauna in South Garo Hills.
The park is already under threat from poachers and illegal coal miners. Time and again media and environmentalists have raised the issue of illegal mining in the BNP but the concerned authorities are yet to take notice to save the region situated along the Indo-Bangla border.

The national park known for its varied species of flora and fauna and endangered plant and animal species, is a popular tourist attraction drawing researchers from across the globe. It is also known for its mystical stories and folklore.

Prosper Marak, a young environmentalist and president of Garo Students’ Union (GSU) who bagged the prestigious Young Naturalist Award 2009 under the category Earth Heroes in Mumbai conferred by Sanctuary Asia and the Royal Bank of Scotland last November, in an interview informed that UCIL has sought for clearance from the concerned authorities to look for a possibility on the presence of uranium in Balpakram.

“On November 2, I met the Director of Bombay Natural Historical Society, Arshad Rahman, who informed me that UCIL has sought for clearance from the Ministry to look for uranium in BNP. We strongly criticise it and will never allow anybody to exploit our natural resources. We are discussing the matter with our Khasi counterpart, who is opposing mining in Khasi Hills areas”, said the young environmentalist.

Marak, led by his student body, has strongly criticised the move and is taking measures to ensure that the initiative will not materialise.


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