The performance audit is a severe indictment of the state mining department's operations
“There was serious air, water and environmental pollution caused by illegal, unregulated and indiscriminate mining being carried on in various parts of the state of Meghalaya”. These are not the words from a press release of an environmental non-profit or an anti-mining group formed by mining-affected community.
This is the conclusion reached in a 44-page performance audit on the operations of Meghalaya's mining department by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). The Meghalaya government had received the audit report on August 23 this year. But it decided to table it on the last day of state assembly's autumn session — September 13, 2019.
The audit reads as a severe indictment on the Department of Mining and Geology and Directorate of Mineral Resources. Among several critical observations, it also tells readers how the directions of the National Green Tribunal were not complied with.
In another shocking observation, the CAG audit points out that “Department irregularly allowed lessees to carry out mining activities without obtaining mandatory environmental clearance, forest clearance, wildlife clearance and non-renewal of No Objection Certificates from the Meghlaya Pollution Control Board”.
A third shocking revelation of this performance audit report is that the message from this public finance and governance accountability watchdog has not been honoured by successive governments in Meghalaya since 2013.
In a previous performance review for the year 2008-09 to 2012-13, the CAG had focused on ‘Internal Controls and Monitoring Systems for Mining’ in Meghalaya. That performance audit had brought out several issues, including non-compliance with the acts and rules, resulting in loss of revenue to the state exchequer.
In an attempt to find out whether the recommendations were complied with during the last five years and what was the state of action taken by the department, auditors checked some of the major audit observations covered in the previous performance audit.
The previous performance review had revealed that “15 out of 16 limestone mining leases granted were operating without obtaining forest clearance from MoEF, GoI”. CAG auditors once again found that “All the 15 lessees had still not obtained forest clearances but continued the extraction of limestone” and still, “no action was taken against the lease holders by the department (July 2019)”.
The previous performance audit had pointed out how the department had failed to recover “an arrear revenue amounting to Rs 25.50 crore from seven limestone lessees” as of July 2013. CAG auditors found the “the department did not realise the arrear revenue from the seven lessees” even as “the arrear revenue increased to Rs 125.29 crore in 2017-18”.
The audit found that demand notices, for payment of outstanding dues upto December 2017, were issued by the Directorate of Mineral Resources against the defaulting companies only in June 2018, viz. after the performance audit was initiated by the CAG in May 2018. The audit also noticed that one year after the issuance of the demand notices, “the status of recovery was awaited” as on June 2019, when the performance report got finalised.
What must also trouble all those who care for Meghalaya’s environment and the state of environment governance in our country is the way the mining department and state government systematically avoided taking cognizance of the audit observations and filing the replies. The audit report states:
“An entry conference was held with the Secretary, Mining Department to discuss the audit objective, criteria and scope May 29, 2018. The draft performance audit report was issued to the government on October 8, 2018, with a request to forward their comments to the audit observations within six weeks. The exit conference to discuss performance audit report was held on December 13, 2018, wherein the Commissioner and Secretary, Mining and Geology Department, stated that the comments to the draft report would be furnished to the Audit by January 15, 2019 …
“It is pertinent to mention that the Commissioner and Secretary were again reminded on January 18, 2019, to submit comments on the audit report by January 25, 2019, failing which it would be presumed that the Government had no comments to offer. Since, the Government had not communicated any comments to the draft audit report (as on June 2019), the audit report was finalised after including the comments made by the representatives of Government / Department during the Exit Conference (dated December 13, 2018”.
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