The Shah panel report on diversion of forest land for mining in Goa is an indictment of both Centre and State administrations.
Scarcely had the dust kicked up by the controversy over alleged illegal allocation of coal blocks settled, when Parliament sprang another egregious surprise on the last day of the monsoon session. This was in the form of the report of the Justice M.B. Shah commission of inquiry on illegal mining of iron ore and manganese in Goa. Both, the CAG report on coal and this one, put the Congress in the dock.
The commission has indicted two former Congress Chief Ministers of the State, Digambar Kamat and Pratapsinh Rane.
The process of allocation of coal blocks through a screening committee as opposed to a public auction system was the crux of the problem in the case of coalgate. The Shah commission bluntly observes that “inaction, delayed action and mild actions had created a fearless atmosphere, abuse of law and regulations in the Goa State”.
The Commission noted that the production from 1950 to 2000 of iron ore is less than the production in one year, that is, 2010-11, in Goa. Such a sudden burst in output has led to “degradation of environment, loss of bio-diversity, adverse effect on agriculture, horticulture, ground water table level, pollution of air and water and eco-system as a whole of the area”. Iron ore is likely to deplete in Goa in 20 years, the report says.
Tracing the genesis of the reckless exploitation, the Commission recalls that the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) had decided way back on January 21, 2000, under the chairmanship of the then Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to notify areas within 10 km from the boundaries of national parks and sanctuaries as eco-sensitive zones.
The decision had been communicated to all the States and Union Territories. But in Goa, the distance of mining leases from the nearest wildlife sanctuary is logged wrongly in almost all cases.
Environmental clearance has been given for 165 mining leases by the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF). The report observes that approvals were granted in many cases under the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 for diversion of forest land for iron ore mining leases in eco-sensitive zones, without placing the project proposals before the Standing Committee of NBWL.
This, the Commission has chastised, “as one of the serious lapses on the part of MoEF”, causing “an irreversible and irreparable damage to bio-diversity, wildlife, environment and ecosystems as a whole in the eco-sensitive zone of the Western Ghats of the State of Goa”. This has led to the sudden spurt in iron ore output in recent years.
Observing that there is no power/authority vested with the Chief Wild Life Warden (CWLW) under the Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972 to accord approval of mining in an eco-sensitive zone, the Commission has observed that, “the CWLW has overstepped and extended undue favour to lessees by approving mining in the eco-sensitive zone wherein he has not been authorised by the MoEF”.
It further observes that “most of the approvals given by CWLW is cut and paste irrespective of distance, ecosystem and other physical and biological factors”. Besides, “approvals of CWLW are only for name sake. They are seemed to be ‘decorative gems’ on paper”, the Commission says with biting sarcasm.
It contends that the MoEF (Environment Wing), while according environmental clearances under relevant provisions of the Environment Impact Assessment notifications of 1994 or 2006, has stipulated a specific condition — taking prior approval of the CWLW in 31 mining projects (49 leases) in Goa.
While stipulating that such a condition is beyond the provisions of the Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972 and it is deemed an “undue favour extended to the lessees by choosing a soft non-competent authority”, the Commission has urged the MoEF to identify such officers, including the Minister concerned, responsible for stipulating such condition and initiate action against them.
It has suggested the immediate cessation of all mining activities, including transport, for all mining leases where there is no approval or clearance of the Standing Committee of NBWL, including those which fall within 10 km of eco-sensitive buffer zone.
Arraigning a range of agencies such as Department of Mines and Geology, Department of Environment, Goa State Pollution Control Board, Forest Department (all State Government departments), Indian Bureau of Mines, Regional Office of MoEF (Bangalore) and Biological Diversity Board (all Central Government departments), it says they have failed “collectively and individually to implement the conditions stipulated” in a plethora of environment-related laws and rules.
It also castigates the MoEF for its “total lack of coordination” among its three wings, that is, Environmental Clearance Section, Forest Conservation Section and Wildlife Section.
The Commission has pulled up the authorities for having sought unwarranted ‘legal opinion’ even on clear provisions of law in the various Acts. It says the Indian Bureau of Mines and the MoEF have increased production “without a proper justification purely on commercial grounds ignoring the impact of mining on protected areas, environment and eco-systems”.
The Shah Commission has expressed shock that in a public hearing arranged by the State Government for making representations regarding illegal mining before the Commission, most petitioners pleaded for continuing illegal mining or regularisation of illegal mining.
The presence of hired persons brought by the mine-owners in the public meeting is a signal that democracy is being misused, the Commission observes, saying: “If illegal mining are to be legalised, then what is the use of law?”
It assails the concerned departments of the State and Indian Bureau of Mines for their failure to control “illegal mining for the reasons best known to them” which, it surmised, “may be due to corruption”.
The Inquiry Commission warns aptly towards the end: “Commercial objectives of a few lease holders to earn more profits at the cost of society and natural resources should not be encouraged.”