Indigenous people in an Indian state must be protected from illegal mining and the pollution it causes, the country’s top court ruled, providing a “historic” victory to tribal groups fighting for better rights over land and natural resources.
Indigenous people, who own much of the land in northeastern Meghalaya state, have full rights over the land and any resources on it, and only they can grant permission for mining after the correct permits are obtained, the Supreme Court ruled.
The state government had “entirely failed to stop illegal mining, which is the cause of degradation and pollution”, and must end illegal mining and rehabilitate the environment, it said on Wednesday.
The heavily forested state of Meghalaya has substantial reserves of minerals such as coal, limestone and uranium. At its peak, the state produced coal worth $4 billion a year, or about a tenth of India’s total production.
But the decades-long rush to mine coal has led to thousands of so-called “rat-hole” mines that use migrant workers and children to descend hundreds of feet on rickety bamboo ladders.
In December, at least 15 miners were killed when they were trapped in a rat-hole coal mine in Meghalaya.
The state’s Chief Minister Conrad Sangma said the Supreme Court judgment is “landmark and historic as it gives back the entire ownership to the people. This is the biggest victory.”