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Editorial of the Day (2nd Apr): SCs bar on Unregulated Soil Extraction


  • The Supreme Court revoked a 2020 Environment Ministry notification that allowed extraction of ordinary earth for linear projects like roads and railways without Environmental Clearance (EC).
  • The exemption was initially challenged in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which directed the Ministry to review it in October 2020.

SCs bar on Unregulated Soil Extraction: The 2020 Exemption

  • The exemption aimed to facilitate linear projects by permitting the extraction of ordinary earth without prior EC, arguing it served the public interest and certain professions.
  • It intended to align with the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, amendments, allowing new lessees to continue mining operations with previous clearances.

Challenges to the Exemption

  • The exemption was challenged for violating Article 14 of the Constitution due to its arbitrary nature.
  • It bypassed the legal requirement of prior EC for leases established by a Supreme Court ruling in 2012.
  • Critics argued the Ministry issued the exemption during the COVID-19 lockdown to avoid public scrutiny and benefit private miners.

National Green Tribunal (NGT) Order

  • The NGT ruled against the blanket exemption in October 2020, calling for safeguards like specifying the amount and process of extraction.
  • The Tribunal directed the Ministry to revise the notification within three months.

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Government Response and Supreme Court Decision

  • The Ministry only issued an enforcement mechanism for the exemption after the Supreme Court concluded hearings in August 2023.
  • The Supreme Court ultimately struck down the exemption in March 2024 for the following reasons:
    • The 2020 notification lacked definitions for “linear projects,” extraction area, and the permitted amount of earth.
    • It failed to justify bypassing the requirement for public notice before issuing the exemption.
    • The Ministry’s August 2023 clarification lacked details on safeguards, responsible authorities, and limitations on extraction.
    • The Court questioned the urgency of the exemption considering the lockdown had halted linear projects.

History of Scrutiny on Environmental Exemptions

  • This is not the first time the EPAct’s exemptions have faced legal challenges.
    • In 2018, the NGT revoked an exemption for building projects exceeding 20,000 sqm.
    • The NGT previously struck down attempts to grant retroactive EC approvals in 2015 and July 2021.
    • The Kerala High Court in 2024 cancelled an exemption for educational institutions and industrial sheds exceeding 20,000 sqm.

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