Expressing shock at the magnitude of the alleged illegal export of 35 lakh metric tons of iron ore by private firms in Karnataka, the Supreme Court on Thursday said it wants to explore the possibility if the guilty could be punished within six months.
A three-judge forest bench headed by Justice Aftab Alam asked the Central Empowered Committee to suggest viable alternatives to ensure that those involved in illegal mining are convicted within six months and posted the matter for further hearing on September 7.
"Assuming there is a CBI probe, it will take months or years to complete the probe. They will be examining hundreds of witnesses and placing tons of material. But we want the investigation to be completed within six months.
"Let us have some results. See if these cases can be segregated. So far the charge sheet filed in some cases are under Section 379 (punishment for theft) and 406 (criminal breach of trust) of the IPC. The whole thing seems to be an eye-wash," said the bench, also comprising K S Radhakrishnan and Swatanter Kumar.
The apex court turned furious after senior counsel and amicus curiae Shyam Divan informed it that 8 lakh out of the 35 lakh MTs of iron ore were actually seized by the authorities and kept in custody as per the orders of a judicial magistrate, yet the seized consignments were exported out of the country.
Citing the CEC report, Divan termed the loss to the exchequer as "huge and enormous" and the illegal export of the huge consignment as "the rarest of rare" in the annals of the country.
"If the state machinery were working properly without turning a blind eye, all this would not have happened. See the magnitude," the apex court remarked while dealing with NGO Samaj Parivartana Samudaya's PIL on illegal mining and encroachment in the forest areas of the state.
The CEC report of April 27 had recommended CBI probe into the illegal export of the iron ore from the state's Belekere port with the alleged involvement of various business houses.
As the irregularities were huge, the apex court on Thursday said to senior counsel Shyam Divan, "As an amicus, we want you to tell us how to speed up the probe. Show us the way." The bench then posted the matter for September 7.
At the last hearing, the apex court had said it would not allow resumption of mining activities of iron ore in Karnataka unless there is a statutory compliance and full implementation of reclamation and rehabilitation measures.
The bench had also asked the CEC to file a comprehensive report detailing the steps taken for the statutory compliance and implementation of R&R measures and the permission needed for the resumption of mining.
The Supreme Court on April 13 had accepted the CEC's recommendations, which had suggested that no new mining leases should be granted in Bellary, Tumkur and Chitradurga districts of Karnataka unless rehabilitation plans for the existing leases were executed.
The bench had also asked the CEC to examine if the works in the category 'A' mines, with the least irregularities in them, could be commenced.
In its earlier report, the CEC had distinguished the mines in the area in three categories as A, B and C.
The mines in which there was least or no irregularities were categorised as 'A' and those with maximum illegalities were put in 'C' category.
Karnataka Iron and Steel Manufacturing Association had also sought immediate steps for opening of 16 iron and ore mines in which the apex court appointed expert panel, central empowered committee, had found minimum irregularities.