On August 4, 2006, the Supreme Court laid down guidelines for issuing temporary working permits (twps) to mining companies. Granted by the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef), these permits afforded mining agencies leeway to continue operations in the interregnum between the expiry of a mining lease and its renewal. They facilitated much abuse, which the apex court's order will put a brake on. The court has directed that permits will no longer be granted if the mine is located inside a national park or a sanctuary; it has also barred mining within a kilometre of these protected areas.
The Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited is a good example of mining companies using twps to their advantage. The company's 30-year lease expired in July 1999, but repeated twp grants enabled it to continue operations till December 31, 2005.Several other mining companies adopted this method. "The point of a twp was to not let production stop while the lease renewal was under consideration. It was never meant to keep mines working year after year, after their lease expired," says Ritwick Dutta, environmental lawyer.
moef had issued guidelines for granting twps in 1994. The permits were only applicable to areas where actual extraction was underway; they weren't meant for exploration operations, they didn't allow extension of the extraction area, either. twps were to be valid for a year at the most. However, in October 2002, the ministry issued new guidelines, which did away with this time limitation. Before the recent verdict, twps could be allowed for a maximum of three years. But in practice, the moef could virtually allow ad hoc extension of mining for unlimited periods.
Violations galore The guidelines were revised again in December 2002 the moef now decided to issue permits only after state governments recommended them. But the role of states got diluted over the years with more amendments by the moef. According to the report of the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee -- that advises the court on forests -- field verification of mines was not required anymore, and twp s were granted on the basis of information given by mining agencies. So, a number of mines which violated the Forest Conservation Act (fca), 1980, or were inside protected areas, continued to operate with impunity. These also contravened moef's guidelines of 1994.
The Supreme Court's new guidelines will put a brake on such rampant violations. Apart from the non-negotiable exclusion of protected areas for mining purposes, the order also makes environmental clearances compulsory for companies seeking twps. Meeting the conditions required of companies diverting forestland for non-forest purposes -- including those pertaining to compensatory afforestation -- is a must. Mining agencies should also not have violated the fca; a company is, however, allowed permits if the moef has condoned its past violations . The clause dealing with fca violation is an important one because most mining leases were handed out much before the act came into place. But the renewal of the leases will be contingent on the mining companies' compliance with the fca. No wonder, the companies see this as a headache.
The one-year timeframe for twps is also back. If the application for forest clearance is not disposed off during this period, then an extension to operate the mine can be granted on sc orders for a maximum of three months. Additionally, to obtain a twp, the proposal seeking clearance under the fca needs to be filed two years before the expiry of the lease. There will be a leash on miners at last.
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