NEW DELHI, July 6 � In a major relief to the embattled Dr Manmohan Singh government, the Supreme Court on Wednesday granted permission to French cement giant Lafarge to mine limestone in the forests of Meghalaya�s East Khasi Hills.
The Supreme Court also issued detailed guidelines along with a direction to the Central government to appoint a national regulator to evaluate different projects and ensure the protection of the environment.
A three-member Forest Bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice SH Kapadia and comprising Justice Aftab Alam and Justice KSPanniker Radhakrishnan vacated its last February 5 order, which had restrained Lafarge from carrying out limestone mining in Meghalaya for its Bangladesh-based plant.
The verdict is likely to bring some respite to the beleaguered Manmohan Singh government, which has been trying to placate Sheikh Hasina government following the goofup over posting of the Prime Minister�s offtherecord comments about activities of jehadi elements in the neighbouring country.
The case in the Supreme Court had threatened to snowball into a major diplomatic row involving India and Bangladesh. Dhaka had rushed senior officials to Delhi to talk to Government of India after the Apex Court stayed the mining last February.
The $ 255 million Lafarge Surma Cement Project at Chhatak in Bangladesh is entirely dependent on limestone from the East Khasi Hills. The petitioner �Shella Action Committee�, said the area is part of an environmentally sensitive zone. Limestone is transported from Meghalaya to Bangladesh via a 17 km-long conveyor belt.
On Wednesday, Chief Justice Kapadia said there has to be a balance between environment protection and sustainable development. The court examined whether the decisions of the State was strictly in accordance with legislative policies and in line with sustainable development, he added.
The special bench further observed that there were no reasons to go into the two environmental clearances given by the MOEF.
The Supreme Court had on May 10 reserved its judgement after hearing all the parties over the revised environmental clearance given to Lafarge for mining in the forest.
The Bangladesh government pointed out that stoppage of raw material guaranteed by India in 2001would result in a 15 per cent decline in cement production in Bangladesh dealing a severe blow to its housing projects.
The Nicolas Sarkozy government of France also stepped in and urged New Delhi to intervene, pointing out that the French company�s cement venture in Bangladesh was an important initiative to generate employment in the natural disaster ravaged country as well as to fight poverty.
The February 5, order stopping mining in East Khasi Hill district was passed by the Forest Bench comprising the then Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justices S H Kapadia and Aftab Alam. It took exception to tribal land being allegedly transferred in violation of rules.
Lafarge Umiam Mining Private Limited (LUMPL) was mining the limestone quarry area spread over 100 hectares near Indo-Bangladesh border for supply of raw material to Lafarge Surma Cement Project at Chhatak in Sunamganj, Bangladesh.