In K. Santhanam and Anr v. The District Collector, Virudhunagar and OrsThe Madras High Court has declared that natural resources such as hills and hillocks cannot be leased away for mining without public interest considerations.
By: Sargam Vohra, IIMT
The mining licences are obtained in accordance with statutory regulations, mining activity carried out under those licences will be subject to court review, according to Justice GR Swaminathan.
“We are a democratic republic. It is not open to the Government of the day to arbitrarily give away hills and hillocks for exploitation. Merely because the process of issuance of mining lease was conducted in consonance with the statutory procedure, that would not confer any immunity against judicial scrutiny. Unless there are supervening public interest considerations, hills and hillocks cannot be given away for mining,” stated the order passed on April 26.
The Court made the remark while ordering a halt to mining and quarrying operations on a 30-meter hillock in Rajapalayam, Virudhunagar district’s Thiruppani hilltop. Blue metal was abundant in the dome-structured rock at the centre of the issue, which is employed as a construction material and a source for M-sand.
While dismissing arguments offered in defence of the hillock’s exploitation, the Court also cautioned that the environmental effects of such exploitation is sometimes not realised until it is too late.
Poramboke land cannot be arbitrarily given away for private exploitation by the Government. The ways of Nature are inscrutable. Only after tsunami struck us, we were told that mangrove forests act as natural barriers against such oceanic onslaughts. Villages in a particular District never faced storms because a hill range acted as protection wall. The recent catastrophic events at Uttarakhand are a direct fall-out of construction of huge dams. We do not know the purpose served by such rock formations … It is facile to assume that destroying the hillock in question is of no consequence,” the Court said.
The Court went on to say that in all such circumstances, it must be proven that all other options have been exhausted and that limited mining in the hilltop is necessary in the public interest.
The Court said that it was not demonstrated why the hilltop in question should be demolished to “enrich the exchequer of the day by a few million rupees.”
It’s not like such minerals aren’t available or can’t be obtained elsewhere, and no compelling public interest has been demonstrated, according to the Court.
The blasting operations put the lives of farmhands in neighbouring fields in jeopardy and polluted the air. It was also claimed that the leaseholder had encroached on a water body and hindered a traditional villagers’ path. But the leaseholder and the local government both rejected the petitioners’ allegations.
“Of course the Government will be getting royalty and seigniorage fee from out of the quarry operations. But the result will be the destruction of yet another geological formation. It takes probably a million years for such rocks to be formed while it takes a few minutes to destroy them,” the Court noted”
The Judge went on to record that he is conscious that “every judicial verdict must be anchored only in law and logic.”
In this instance, the Court was not convinced by the respondents’ claim that the mining operation will have no negative consequences.
The hillock had previously been leased to a women’s self-help group, and the current leaseholder was the third organisation to exploit the rock, according to the Court. The Court decided that additional quarry operations should be halted because the current case entailed exploitation that went beyond this limit. As a result, the leaseholder was barred from continuing quarrying activities on the aforementioned rock. The Court did, however, enable the leaseholder to file a request with the authorities for a refund of the lease sum paid for the remaining lease period.