Court gets tough on temporary mining permits

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