Who is the mines ministry trying to save?

Down tools Investigations by the commission had led to the closure of hundreds of mines
Down tools Investigations by the commission had led to the closure of hundreds of mines                         Photo: Shailendra Pandey

The probe against illegal mining has died a quiet death. The Justice MB Shah Commission, set up in November 2010 to inquire into illegal mining of iron and manganese ore, has been forced by the Union mines ministry to wind up its investigation without even visiting Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, three of the seven states listed in its terms of reference.

With the commission’s tenure ending on 16 October, it has so far held on-site investigations in Odisha, Jharkhand, Goa and Karnataka only. The investigations have led to the closure of hundreds of illegal mines.

Concerned over the lapse of its tenure, a delegation of civil society groups from Chhattisgarh came to New Delhi on 11 October to meet ministry officials and press for the extension of the commission’s duration. The groups included Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Mahasabha, Adivasi Jan Van Adhikar Manch, Chhattisgarh Vistappan Virodhi Manch and the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha.

On 2 October, members of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (CBA) wrote to the mines ministry with the demand that the commission’s duration be extended and demanded an answer as to why the commission was being terminated prior to visiting the mineral-rich state.

“As per the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, a commission can be terminated only if the ministry provides a written reasoning as to why the commission is no longer required. By not giving any reason but just allowing the time period of the commission to lapse, the ministry thinks it can evade public scrutiny,” the letter said.

The letter has outlined some of the large-scale violations of forest and environmental law in Chhattisgarh by prominent iron ore mining companies such as Tata, Essar, Sarda Energy, Godawari Power and Ispat Ltd, Jayaswal Neco, SAIL, NMDC and Bhilai Steel Plant.

“The ministry has not only been silent, our attempts to meet the officials were stonewalled. After much effort, we met Joint Secretary Naresh Kumar and handed over our memorandum,” says CBA leader Samantha Agarwal. “Having anticipated the lack of time, we made many enquiries from the commission’s primary investigator, Dr UV Singh, who assured that the commission would definitely complete the investigation. However, he informed us on 1 October that although the commission has requested an extension to complete the investigation, the ministry has categorically denied its request.”

CBA convener Alok Shukla says that the mines ministry’s decision to quietly pull the plug from the commission of inquiry is a political manoeuvre. “It is being done to cover up the massive theft of public resources,” he says.

Meanwhile, senior Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan told the media that he is prepared to approach the apex court to pursue the matter. “The MB Shah Commission has showed genuine concern in the matters of environment and Adivasi livelihood. By not extending its tenure, it’s being prevented from operating,” he says.

In Chhattisgarh, 21 licences for iron ore prospecting in 16,130 hectares have been sanctioned to 17 companies.

Meanwhile, a delegation of civil society groups from Gujarat, including the Centre for Social Justice, visited the commission office in Ahmedabad on 11 October, where they reportedly learnt that the ministry has asked the commission to file its final report by 14 October.

So far, the commission has submitted two interim reports, recommending a blanket ban on the export of iron and manganese ore.

The commission was appointed to probe the illegal mining of iron and manganese ore in contravention of provisions of the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

The tenure of the Shah Commission has been extended twice in the past. In July 2012, it was given a one-year extension, and later this July, it was extended for another three months.

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