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Gauhati High Court sets aside order of chief conservator of Forest permitting the crushing of low grade limestone

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The Gauhati High Court set aside the order of the Chief Conservator of Forest permitting the crushing of “low grade” limestone, having less than 40% of Calcium Oxide (CaO), by the stone crushing units coming under the Divisional Forest Officer, Karimganj Division.

The Division Bench of Chief Justice Sandeep Mehta and Justice Suman Shyam allowed a Public Interest Litigations (PILs) filed sspousing the cause of the persons residing in the Katigorah area of Cachar district, who are earning their livelihoods by extracting sandstones from the quarries of the riverine area of the locality the petitioner had approached the High Court by filing PIL inter-alia contending that due to illegal use of “limestone” in the stone crusher units operated in that area, the livelihood of several persons have been adversely affected.

According to the petitioner, limestone is included in the Schedule-‘X’ items of minor minerals under the Assam Minor Mineral Concession Rules, 2013 and therefore, could not have been used in the crusher units for production of gravels. It has also been alleged that several stone crusher units have been illegally procuring and crushing limestone in their stone crusher units for being used in the adjoining State of Meghalaya for manufacturing cement. Such illegal activities are being permitted by the Forest departmental authorities although the matter does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Forest Department.

Taking note of the grievance expressed in the PIL the Court had issued notice upon the departmental authorities as well as the 30 private respondents who are running the various stone crusher units.

The Divisional Forest Officer, Karimganj (T), Assam, has filed an affidavit practically admitting the case of the petitioner. The statements made in the affidavit is :-

“10. That the statement made in the paragraph 10 of the petition, the deponent begs to state that Forest officials/Department do not deal with limestone including its seizure procedure as it is listed in ‘X’ Schedule of MMC Rules, 2013 is not the competent authority to comment in the matter of procurement of limestone from any source including Meghalaya. However, in this regard, necessary instruction were issued to the Chief Conservator of Forests, Southern Assam Circle vide O/o the PCCF & HoFF, Assam’s letter dated 16.10.2019 refrain from collection of levy on limestone (if any) as per existing Rules/Laws and further correspondence were made by letter dated 24.10.2019 issued by the CCF, SAC, Silchar and letter dated 24.10.2019 issued by the DFO, Karimganj Division.”

During the pendency of the PIL , the Chief Conservator of Forests and Nodal Officer, F. C. Act, had issued notification dated 04.10.2021 permitting the crushing of “low grade” limestone, having less than 40% of Calcium Oxide (CaO), by the stone crushing units coming under the Divisional Forest Officer, Karimganj Division. As such, the second PIL being PIL was filed assailing the order dated 04.10.2021.

During the course of arguments, counsel for the petitioner has submitted that the Chief Conservator of Forest did not have any jurisdiction or authority under the law either to permit use of limestone in the crusher units or to issue the order dated 04.10.2021 since limestone is included under Schedule-‘X’ of the Assam Minor Mineral Concession Rules, 2013. According to the petitioner, it is the Director of Geology and Mining which would be competent to pass such an order if at all deemed necessary.

P. N. Goswami, Additional Advocate General, Assam appearing for the official respondents has submitted, in his usual fairness, that the impugned order dated 04.10.2021 is without jurisdiction. The learned Additional Advocate General has further submitted that crushing of limestone by the crusher units for use outside the State was impermissible under the law.

Having heard the submission of the Counsel for both the parties and after going through the provisions of the Rules of 2013, the Bench is of the unhesitant opinion that as per Rule 3(a) of the Rules of 2013 it is the Director of Geology and Mining, Assam who alone is competent to deal with minor minerals for industrial and specific uses as specified in Schedule-‘X’ which includes limestone. Therefore, the impugned order dated 04.10.2021 issued by the Chief Conservator of Forest is evidently without jurisdiction. Further, in view of the stand taken by the departmental counsel to the effect that limestone is being illegally used by the stone crusher units in Assam, the Bench does not find any justifiable ground to decline relief to the petitioner in these PILs.

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