Gauhati High Court: A Division Bench of Ajai Lamba and Manish Choudhury, JJ. withheld any further order on the suo moto PIL and directed the Enquiry Commission appointed to furnish the finished and well investigated report before further adjudication.
In the present appeal, the Court discussed the suo moto PIL filed and ordered before according to which an approval allegedly was given for a coal mining project in Saleki Reserve Forest, which is a part of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve. It was been pleaded that Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve of which Saleki is a part, is the largest rainforest in India and stretches for 575 square kilometers across districts of Upper Assam. The virgin forestland also referred to as the ‘Amazon of the East’. Biodiversity of the forestland is rich and unique. Dehing Patkai region continues to be threatened by high polluting industries such as coal mine, oil refineries, and gas drilling which adversely affects the biodiversity of the region. There are varieties of animals and birds living in the area. Large numbers of reptiles that are rare have their abode in the area. It was alleged in the PIL that environmental disaster would be caused if approval was given by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to allow coal mining project in this area without proper scientific study, discussions, and taking into consideration various aspects of protecting the environment.
It was further asserted by the petitioners that environmental impact was to be assessed before any such activity could be allowed in the said area. However, the Environment Impact Assessment Report was not prepared to ensure safeguarding natural habitat and protection of animals, birds and reptile species existing in the region.
T.J. Mahanta, counsel for the State pointed out that the Governor of Assam ordered an enquiry. The fact that an enquiry was ordered from the highest level in the State was reflected in the Assam Gazette published on 20-07-2020.
In exercise of powers conferred under Section 3 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, the Governor of Assam constituted a ‘One-Man Enquiry Commission’ headed by Justice B.P. Katakey, retired Judge of the Gauhati High Court to causing an enquiry with the following Terms of Reference for the Commission:
- Enquire if from 2003 any illegal activities were undertaken by any organization or individual in and around Saleki Proposed Reserved Forest including the Tikok Open Cast Project of Coal India Limited.
- Identify organization(s) and individual(s) responsible for undertaking such illegal mining activities, in and around the aforesaid forest area.
- Enquire the manner of processing of any application, by any organization or individual for grant of mining lease in the forest area 2003 onwards, and enquire if grant of any mining lease during the said period was in compliance and in conformity with the provisions of applicable laws.
- Assess the extent of illegal mining activities, in and around the forest areas and assess the impact of such activities on the flora and fauna found in and around area.
- Enquire and fix responsibility upon government officials of any department found involved in commission of any illegal mining or any other illegal activity in commission or abetment of the aforesaid forest area.
- Enquire and suggest measures for recovery of loss, if any, caused due to unlawful coal mining activity under the jurisdiction of Digboi Forest Division, either in the form of rent, royalty, penalty, land arrears or tax in terms of Section 21(5) of the Mines and Minerals (Development & Regulation) Act, 1957 or under any other law in force during commission of offence of illegal mining or commission of any other illegal activity.
- Suggest measures for restoration, rehabilitation and reclamation of areas damaged due to illegal coal mining and ancillary activities and approximate amount of costs to be incurred for such purpose.
- Find out if any other prohibited regulated activities inside all forests and wildlife sanctuary under Digboi Forest Division and suggest remedial measures to check such activities.
[State of Assam v. Union of India, PIL (Suo Moto) No. 3 of 2020, dated 01-09-2020]