In ordering that lease-holders should pay compensation to the extent of 100% of the price of the quantum of minerals they had illegally extracted, the Supreme Court has gone beyond a mere affirmation of the ‘polluter pays’ principle.
It has also set a significant benchmark for stringent action against those who indulge in mining without environmental or forest clearance. Even the Central Empowered Committee had recommended compensation to the extent of 30% of the value of the iron ore and manganese ore illegally mined in Odisha, but the court has been firm about not compromising on the quantum of compensation.
It is impossible to dispute the court’s reasoning that the defaulter or violator should bear the consequences of the illegality, and therefore cannot be allowed the benefit of “pocketing 70% of the illegally mined ore”.
The mining companies tried every possible means of avoiding the tag that they had illegally mined iron or manganese ore. Some of them argued that they did not require environmental clearance as they had started operations prior to 1994, when the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification was first issued, and that unless there was an expansion, they did not require environmental clearance.
Some said “illegal mining” was limited to mining activity outside the leased area, but the court has firmly ruled that any excess extraction within the leased area would also amount to unlawful mining. It has clarified that every renewal of a mining lease would require such clearance, even if there is no expansion, modernisation or increase in the pollution load.
The apex court has been passing a series of orders on illegal mining activity, notably in Goa and Karnataka. It has often voiced concern over the extent to which mining laws are being flouted and how illegal mining is depleting the country’s natural resources. In this verdict as well, the court identified rapacious mining in Odisha as a cause for great concern.
There appears to be no effective policy or effective check on mining operations, it has noted. In strong words, it has asked the Centre to revisit its National Mineral Policy, 2008, which “seems to be only on paper and is not being enforced, perhaps due to the involvement of very powerful vested interests or a failure of nerve.”
It is clear that the country is already paying a heavy price for its failure to regulate mining operations in an effective manner in several parts of the country. It has become a source for corruption, excessive exploitation of natural resources and a scourge in the lives of forest dwellers and tribals.
The petitioners before the court had stressed on the principles of inter-generational equity, the responsibility of every generation to conserve resources with subsequent generations in mind while exploiting nature. The court, understandably, has not set a limit for mining activities, but it has certainly flagged some issues for those in power to bear in mind.