New Delhi: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) recently found Jindal Power Limited (JPL) and Coal India’s South Eastern Coalfields (SECL) guilty of causing environmental damage in Raigarh and ordered the companies to pay a fine of Rs 160 crore. The bulk of the fine – Rs 154 crore – is to be paid by JPL, which operated the coal complex between 2005 and 2016, when the Supreme Court cancelled prior coal block allocations. From then, SECL has been in charge, and has been fined Rs 6.6 crore for not providing effective healthcare to residents.
The NGT set up an oversight committee to decide the fine amounts, and it took into account the damages caused by illegal mining and pollutant-dumping, as well as the costs incurred due to receding groundwater and adverse health impacts. This committee was a government body and included joint secretaries of the ministry of coal and environment.
JPL had challenged the committee’s report before the Supreme Court in 2019. The court in turn allowed JPL to raise its objections to the report before the NGT. Now, the NGT has rejected the objections and said the “report is accepted on the subject of assessment of compensation.” It has also directed the Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board (CECB) to install 12 continuous air quality monitoring stations.
The verdict is significant in several ways.
First, this is a rare success story of the ‘polluter pays’ principle. “Earlier too, mining companies have been fined, but those were decided on an ad hoc basis,” environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta explained. “This is probably the first time that the liability has been fixed based on the damages committed and [whoever] committed them.”
The NGT committee found JPL guilty on several counts, including lack of clearances, excess mining, environmental damage and non-compliance with environmental conditions.
For each of these transgressions, the committee estimated the cost of damage and restoration based on methods that accounted for actual loss caused (in monetary terms). For example, on the count of non-compliance, the committee used a formula that included the number of days of non-compliance, monetary value of environmental compensation, scale of operations and the location of operations.
Similarly, to assess the extent of environmental damage and ecosystem loss, the committee considered the rates per hectare of water purification, groundwater recharge, soil conservation, etc., and multiplied them by the number of hectares over which the damage had been dealt. Finally, the committee multiplied this figure by the number of years the damage was inflicted over.
Of course, no compensation could undo damage wrought over 15 years. “Whatever they have given is okay, but it is more important that these polluting activities stop,” Shivpal Bhagat, the sarpanch of Kosampali, an affected village, and one of the petitioners, said. “That is what is important. We still don’t know how that will happen.”
During an inspection, members of the NGT committee found that ponds and hand-pumps in Kosampali and Sarasmal, which the villagers used to get their water, had dried up due to mining nearby, leaving the villagers entirely dependent on water supply through pumps installed by panchayats. However, these pumps need electricity, and the frequent power-cuts often left the villagers facing a drinking-water crisis.
Apart from issues of ground and surface water depletion and decline in quality, the committee also recognised, as has previously been established, that coal mining in the area has worsened air pollution.
The journalist Aruna Chandrasekhar, who has reported extensively on mining activities and has followed the JPL case closely, said apropos the NGT’s verdict that this is perhaps the first time a company has had to pay for the adverse health effects of mining.
“To my knowledge, there is no other case where a coal company has had to pay for environmental and health impact,” she told The Wire Science. “Coal companies have never taken into account negative externalities. We don’t do health impact assessments. Our environment minister says that there is no Indian study which shows adverse health impacts of air pollution on mortality. Now, here it is.”
The NGT explicitly said in its order that JPL is liable to pay for damages caused to the environment and public health. It also found both JPL and SECL guilty of not providing adequate care to people living in the area.
The committee also observed that the mine fires raging in the mining pits and dumps are a “cause for concern”. According to their report, the area is blanketed by heavy, dark smoke from these, laden with carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulphide, leaving their people and livestock sicker. Indeed, when members of the committee visited the area on a rainy day, they reported being unable to withstand the smoke.
The outcome in this case is also significant because the community both filed the case in 2014 and fought for its cause throughout. Members of the community played key roles in drafting the petitions and supplying the evidence and attendant documents, with help from activists and lawyers including Sudha Bhardwaj in the early days.
The petitioners include Adivasis living in the area and activists working around the affected areas in Raigarh. The petitioners travelled from Raigarh to Bhopal, and at times to Delhi, for the hearings.
“It is difficult to travel all the way for each hearing. Sometimes nothing would happen. But this has to be done. We can’t sit back while these companies destroy our land,” said Bhagat, the sarpanch of Kosampali; he has been campaigning against violations – both in court and outside – by mining companies in the area for several years. Companies and state authorities have filed multiple cases against him.
Rinchin, a Raigarh-based filmmaker, activist and a petitioner in the case, argued on behalf of the petitioners in several hearings. “Sudha Bhardwaj and her team were with us in 2014 for the first few hearings. Then, when they couldn’t come to Bhopal every time, we started arguing on our own. But they were always there for advice when needed,” she said.
The petitioners would familiarise themselves with the law, and the standard of evidence required with help from activists and environmentalists. “It was gruelling,” Rinchin said. “Constantly looking for data that could be [used as] evidence. Taking photographs. And most importantly taking long journeys to Bhopal and Delhi, and also standing up to the hostility of opposing lawyers.”
She wished things hadn’t been this difficult. “If only all the agencies did their jobs, things would be so much simpler. If their approach was people-centric, all this would not be needed.”
Now, the NGT order provides a glimmer of hope. “It is an achievement, no doubt. Hopefully, it will also give strength to people in other regions who are suffering due to mining,” Bhagat said.
According to Dutta, the lawyer, the order is also notable because it goes against the popular belief that mining means development for an area. “That has shown to be incorrect here. This is a judicial finding that due to mining, water bodies were degraded and public health was adversely impacted. And this committee included representatives of the ministries of coal and environment,” he said.