NEW DELHI: Cloud of uncertainty in judicial adjudication enveloped the Centre's decision to auction coal mines for commercial exploitation as the Supreme Court on Tuesday sought Union government's response to Jharkhand's suit questioning the auction on many grounds.
A bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justices R S Reddy and A S Bopanna asked the Centre to file its response within four weeks to Jharkhand government's suit, which gave the state's grievance against the auction the cloak of a centre-state dispute. Jharkhand has asserted its ownership right over the coal mines while warning that indiscriminate commercial exploitation of mines on forest land will be an environmental hazard and destroy tribals' customs and heritage.
The suit under Article 131 of the Constitution challenging the decision to put on auction 41 coal mines, nine of which are in Jharkhand, was to ensure that the SC becomes the sole arbiter of the issues raised by it, which ranged from environment, tribal welfare, non-consultation with states and the depressed economic scenario due to Covid that dimmed the prospect of fetching fair price for the valuable mineral resource.
Appearing for the state, senior advocate Fali S Nariman sought a hearing before August 18, the date on which the Centre would finalise the bids for coal mines. SC allayed his fears of an fait accompli by saying if the hearing could not take place, then the finalisation process could be deferred.
Nariman was quick to ensure that the SC's remark registered with attorney general K K Venugopal and solicitor general Tushar Mehta. But SC finally posted the matter for hearing on August 17.
CJI Bobde said, "It is nice to see senior Nariman appearing in virtual hearing before us. We thought he shunned the virtual hearing." Nariman said he was a little uncomfortable with the virtual court process. The CJI said, "may we have the audacity to correct you? This is a real court, not virtual. The hearing though is through virtual mode."
Prior to filing a suit under Article 131, the Hemant Soren government had filed a writ petition in the SC last month on the same issue. It sought quashing of the entire decision on coal auction and consequent process of tender and bidding terming the exercise "unilateral, high-handed and illegal" action on the part of the Centre.
The state alleged that the coal mine auction decision on one hand hit the roots of constitutionally embedded principle of collaborative and cooperative federalism and on the other breached the duty of the state to protect the interest of its tribal population that would be jeopardised by plunder of important mineral resource like coal through commercial exploitation.
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