dodgy queries

Why did an Odisha MP bring up a Meghalaya coal mining ban in Parliament?

Puri's Lok Sabha MP, Pinaki Misra, is one of the lawyers for the state of Meghalaya in its application against the ban on rat-hole coal mining.

On April 17, the National Green Tribunal banned a practice prevalent in Meghalaya of extracting coal through a process called rat-hole mining. Ever since then, miners and the state government have been fighting against the ban.

But on July 22, their efforts got unexpected assistance from Odisha, when Pinaki Misra, a Biju Janata Dal member of parliament from Puri raised the topic in a budget discussion in the Lok Sabha.

Misra wanted Minister of Environment and Forests, Prakash Javadekar, to clarify the ministry’s stand on the Meghalaya stay before a tribunal hearing to be held on August 1.

“It concerns the livelihood of thousands of tribals in Meghalaya who have been engaged in rat-hole mining which is the mining in their backyard for coal for the past 200 years,” said Misra, adding that the state had been asking for a clarification from the environment ministry on the tribunal injunction for some time.

Misra has a personal interest in the ban. He is one of several advocates representing the Meghalaya government at the tribunal hearings. He admitted his interest freely, before he was interrupted by SS Ahluwalia, a Bharatiya Janata Party from Darjeeling, who also pointed this out using an unparliamentary word. This led to a minor disruption in the house.

There is no rule in parliament that forbids Misra from raising issues in which he has vested interests, said Subhash Kashyap, a parliamentary expert. But there might be a question of propriety. Should Misra have used his parliamentary privilege to seek a ministerial response in a case that he is involved with?

“I cannot comment on this as the exchange was expunged from the record,” Misra told on the phone.

Chairperson P Thambidurai, however, only expunged one word from the interaction.

Either way, the controversy has focused attention on a contentious form of mining that is highly hazardous both to people and the environment.

Rat-hole mining is a highly lucrative traditional practice that involves digging a shaft above a deposit and then branching out sideways to extract coal by hand. The mines are small and often no higher than five feet, which means that children are often sent down to gather coal in cane baskets, at grave risk to their lives and health. In July 2012, 15 miners drowned after a downpour trapped them in such holes.

The National Green Tribunal, a body set up in 2010 to address environmental disputes swiftly, took cognizance of this practice in April, when the All Dimasa Students’ Union filed an application asking that it be banned in the Jaintia Hills district. The tribunal decided to ban it across the state. Mine owners attempted to challenge the ban in the Supreme Court in May, but the court directed them back to the tribunal for further hearings.

“The stakes are normally high in environmental cases,” said Sudiep Shrivastava, an environmental lawyer.“Small offenders and companies don’t go to the Supreme Court first, but to the NGT. But for most large companies, they challenge even the initial stay and proceedings of the NGT in the Supreme Court.”

This, he said, delays the process, defeating the purpose of the NGT Act. In some cases, the company succeeds and the Supreme Court grants a stay on the tribunal hearings. Others, such as the current one, are sent back to the tribunal to contest on merit. In the worst case, appeals remain pending, allowing the status quo to persist.

In Meghalaya, there is no clarity on the legality or licencing required for rat hole mining. This is complicated by Meghalaya’s convoluted land use laws. Meghalaya is one of four other states in the sixth schedule that has autonomous district councils that decide how to allot land for agricultural and non-agricultural purposes.

Supporters of the mines say that this applies to all land above and below the surface and that they can mine without clearances or licences from the state or central government. However, the state government and the Ministry of Coal have both clarified that national mining laws apply to the state.

“The problem arises when mining is done without any kind of permissions,” said Shilpa Chohan a lawyer who worked with the environmental non-governmental organisation Samrakshan Trust in a similar case in the South Garo Hills in 2007 that led to this clarification.“What actually happens is that the mining department gets royalties on the illegally mined coal the moment it is moved out.”

Anyone in the state can dig a mine on their own property at will as there is no overseeing authority, leading to a boggling density of mines. Rajkamal Goswami, a PhD student at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, who has worked in Meghalaya for five years, once counted 95 mines in one square kilometre of land he surveyed in the East Jaintia Hills district.

“The real question now is whether it will ever come under government supervision,” said Goswami. “There is a lot of resistance today among mining people.”

The last time the state tried to impose controls on mining, Meghalaya was still a part of Assam. Agitations about that, he said, led to separation of the state in 1972.

For now, despite Misra’s entreaties, the environment ministry has not yet taken a stand on the case. In the latest hearing on August 1, the green tribunal firmly reiterated its stand against rat hole mining. It is likely that the hearings will keep going on.

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