COAL MINISTER Sriprakash Jaiswal is a worried man. He was worried the day former environment minister Jairam Ramesh floated his ‘go, no-go’ formula to keep the best forests out of bounds for miners. This weekend, Jaiswal warned that large tracts of coal-bearing forests would become inaccessible if the government accepted the norms proposed by Ramesh’s successor Jayanthi Natarajan to identify “inviolate forests”.
Jaiswal’s frustration found an echo down south where Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, in a letter to the PM last week, described the proposed Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA) as an assault on the country’s federal structure in the name of conservation. It is, after all, the state government’s prerogative to decide policies on land use, industry and development projects.
Constituted by the Centre in 2010, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) in its report proposed setting up of the WGEA as a statutory authority to “function in a networked fashion” with six constituent states to protect the Western Ghats for its immense ecological services. Jayalalithaa, in fact, drew strength from the WGEEP report by pointing out that there was nothing to indicate any shortcoming in the efforts of her government in managing the Western Ghats.
However, it is an open secret that huge tracts of forested land adjoining national parks and sanctuaries have been acquired by Tamil Nadu’s politicians, their families and associates. This investment is now threatened by the WGEEP norms, which include a ban on SEZs and big industry, even the setting up of new tourist centres or fresh agricultural land use in the highest conservation priority areas.
Jaiswal and Jayalalithaa are no exceptions. Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram proudly claimed in his Budget speech last month that the newly formed Cabinet Committee on Investment (CCI) had already cleared a number of projects. The same evening, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh emphasised that the CCI would tackle the problems of wildlife, forest and land (tribal rights) clearances to clear roadblocks facing growth.
Nothing strengthens the CCI’s agenda more than the absurdity of having to buy coal while sitting on a 100 billion tonne reserve and its fiscal impact. Of course, we cannot bear the burden of importing coal. In fact, we don’t have to. The present annual production deficit of coal is around 20 percent. Jaiswal himself conceded that but for corruption and inefficiency, the productivity could increase by 25-30 percent. Now factor in a 25-35 percent transmission loss of power that is generated by burning coal. A long overdue investment in grid reform can lower the demand for coal by at least 20 percent.
The ancient open-cast mining technology used in India cannot extract beyond 150 m depth. This means mines are abandoned without extracting 20-30 percent of the tapped reserve. There are still not enough rakes to transport coal from the mines. Even this limited infrastructure is stretched because we do not segregate the shale at the mining sites and ferry up to 45 percent fly ash in coal. Yet, we demand vast tracts of virgin forests to be opened for mining when most private miners are interested in hoarding rather than mining the allotted reserve. The same profit motive is at work when power utilities try to pressure the Coal India (CIL) for subsidised coal by opting for import rather than procuring at nonsubsidised prices through e-auction from the CIL.
Does a 100 billion tonne reserve justify wasteful and unscrupulous use? It apparently does, in the national interest. Last month, the CCI had to clarify that rules are equally applicable after CIL executives demanded impunity against prosecution for violating green norms because they were only trying to strengthen India’s energy security. But then, we also export massive quantities of iron ore dirt cheap by ripping our forests apart while countries with larger reserves hold on to their stock.
Of late, a surge of environmental awareness is making the dangers of such deliberate short-sightedness increasingly apparent. However inconvenient for business-as- usual, this is no more just a Luddite’s cause. It is about the water, food and livelihood security of millions, and even the poorest have elbowed in on the debate. They, like every Indian, have the right to good life and need growth to meet their aspirations. But natural resources that fuel growth are finite. If we do not ensure optimal use of what we have already ripped open before rushing to mine the next forest, our economic crisis will outlive our last wilderness.