Mining in Meghalaya

The Sentinel | July 05, 2019

Mining is a big issue in Meghalaya, given the illegality involved in it by way of vested interests operating what are infamously known as ‘rat-hole mines’ entailing huge risks to the lives of poor, innocent labourers employed in them. Last year’s tragedy in the Jaintia Hills is etched well in public memory. It was a complete failure of the authorities concerned to retrieve the lost lives even after a huge deployment of technology – which fell short, though – to carry out rescue operations. Now we have a huge verdict – hailed as “landmark and historic” by Chief Minister Conrad Sangma – coming in from the Supreme Court that has lifted the ban imposed on mining in the State by the National Green Tribunal (NGT). On Wednesday, the apex court, while lifting the ban, however, said that all mining activities should be done as per the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act of 1957 and other related rules, such as the Minerals Concessions Rule of 1960, concerning the safety of workers and the environment. Even as the rights of tribals over land and minerals have been acknowledged by the court, the role of the Centre as well as the State government has been emphasized too. This is welcome. After all, the roles and responsibilities of all the parties concerned must be played and discharged with a view to making mining safe as well as economically viable while them also ensuring that environmental costs are minimized to the extent possible.

What is so historic about the apex court verdict? It is the fact that there is an acknowledgement that land and resources belong to the owners – the indigenous people of the State. To quote the State Chief Minister, “The fact that the Supreme Court has come out with a judgement which states that the land and the resources are of the owners is landmark and historic, as it gives back the entire ownership to the people. This is the biggest victory, the biggest aspect of the judgement as a whole.” Nonetheless, he cannot, at the same time, gloss over the manner in which the court has pulled up the State government for undermining the authority of Parliament regarding mining regulations in the State. The court has reminded the State government of a kernel: that the country is being governed by the Constitution of India and all the States of the Union are to implement the parliamentary Acts in the true spirit. “The stand of the State government before this court gives the impression that instead of implementing the parliamentary enactment and regulatory regime, some vested interests want to continue the illegal regime of illegal mining to the benefit of a few persons, which is unacceptable and condemnable,” the court has stated in unequivocal terms.

There lies an important message then – loud and clear – which the Conrad Sangma government would do well to read, comprehend and implement. This pertains to illegal mining and the freedom that vested interests have been enjoying in carrying out the illegality, posing a huge threat to the lives of workers. Plus, the cost inflicted on the ecosystem cannot be ignored too, that too in a State whose biodiversity is immense but which is fragile too and hence must be safeguarded for sustainable development. There is no gainsaying that mining provides a huge economic window to Meghalaya towards revenue generation, but it cannot be illegal. Now that Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong is on record saying that the State government has engaged the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute and the Mineral Exploration Corporation Limited to prepare a detailed mining plan for the State, it remains to be seen how far the plan will go in weeding out illegal mining and the nefarious interests involved in it. Here lies an acid test.