Mining an ecological disaster

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On the margins of the Korba ‘no-go’ forest, a company has been extracting coal way above its sanctioned limit. Prakhar Jain reports

Black peril: Vast stretches of land have been gouged out to satisfy greed
Black peril Vast stretches of land have been gouged out to satisfy greed, Photos: E Jayan

AN ECOLOGICAL disaster has been unfolding in Chhattisgarh, with a private company indulging in excessive mining without environmental clearance for the past four years. Prakash Industries has been mining more than 10 lakh tonnes of coal every year when it has been cleared for only 3 lakh tonnes.

Degraded lives: Gambhir Singh’s land is marked for takeover
Degraded lives: Gambhir Singh’s land is marked for takeover

On a visit to Chotia village near the coal mining area in Korba, Chhattisgarh, TEHELKA found that the company has got forest diversion for 726 more hectares this year, which will result in 18,000 trees being cut at Kendai in Katghora forest region. Compliance with environment rules is of extreme importance here as the mine is close to two reserved forests in Hasdeo Arand no-go area, which are home to endangered bears (Melursus ursinus).

The villagers are unhappy with the mining project. Gambhir Singh, 65, a resident of Chotia village belonging to Binjwar tribe, alleges that the company has forcibly put markings on his farmland for acquisition. “What will happen to future generations if we give away all our land,” he asks, recalling how he earlier gave up eight acres for a measly Rs 10 lakh. The villagers also complained of the ground water getting polluted saying that it has become undrinkable and turns red if stored.

Baldev Prasad, a farmer in the nearby Baniya village, doesn’t know what compensation he will be paid for his two acres, to be acquired shortly. He says, “The gram sabha has given permission for acquisition, but no one knows what price will be paid.”

Prakash Industries rubbishes all these claims, saying it would have definitely looked into the matter of water had someone brought it to their notice. It denied forcibly putting any markings but accepted that more land would be acquired at government- approved rates.

Degraded lives: Baldev Prasad has no idea about his compensation
Degraded lives: Baldev Prasad has no idea about his compensation

The company was allotted Chotia block in 2003 by the Ministry of Coal (MOC) to mine coal for the expansion of its sponge iron plant in neighbouring Janjgir- Champa district. Mining was to be done only by going underground and production was to keep pace with the expansion.

After some exploration, two potential coal-bearing blocks, Chotia I and II , were identified and the company submitted a mining plan to the MOC listing year-wise plan for coal extraction. The plan, however, altered the initial condition of underground- only mining, making it both underground and opencast for Chotia I while retaining the underground-only method for Chotia II. Opencast method is a lot cheaper and yields more coal than underground, but causes immense ecological damage.

On the basis of the mining plan for both sub-blocks approved by MOC and the state government recommending a single land lease for them, the company wanted to prepare only one Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report for the region. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) didn’t agree, citing the huge surface and air distance between the blocks. Thus, individual EIA reports and Environment Management Plans (EMP)were sought for Chotia I and II and later approved. Forest clearance was requested for around 960 hectares but given for only 188 hectares.

After taking further clearances from the Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board (CECB), the company began mining from 2006. It was to produce 50,000 tonnes of coal in the first year, according to the mining plan, through opencast mining from Chotia I and slowly increase the production through underground mining.

However, the company got the mining programme revised by the MOC in 2007 and further again in 2010 as it was simultaneously exploring for more coal in the sub-blocks. The exploration led to increase in total coal reserves by more than 40 lakh tonnes.

The second revision plan brought some drastic changes and allowed the company to mine 10 lakh tonnes from Chotia I through opencast method retrospectively from 2008 itself. In the initial mining plan, this capacity was not to be achieved before 2025 . It also delayed the underground mining till 2014.

Opencast mining, never sanctioned by MoEF, has destroyed the ecology of what was once a lush forest

The company, however, even before getting the approval of the MOC, had already mined the proposed increased quantity in previous years. Further, the coal was used in its existing plants instead of expansion plants with the consent of the MOC. All this, including the plan revision, was done without getting mandatory prior clearances from the MOEF and the CECB.

IN ITS defence, the company says that the MOC, with the approval of the second mining plan, also regularised the coal mined from initial years with retrospective effect. It also claims that it didn’t get the clearance from the MOEF and CECB revised as the EIA reports and EMPwere prepared keeping in mind the pollution load of 10 lakh tonnes of coal mining per year and the company hasn’t exceeded that production limit in any of the years.

The company also claims that subblocks I and II are part of the Chotia block as the land lease, clearance for forests, coal and that taken from CECB were for the Chotia block and not for the sub-blocks.. Thus, it says, it is permitted to mine 10 lakh tonnes from any of them as long as they are approved by the MoC.

“If the coal was mined first and then regularised, then the trend is worrying as then everyone in the country will start doing that. The process then will leave ample scope for corruption,” says R Sreedhar, chairperson of the NGO ‘mines, minerals & PEOPLE’. In his view, the revision of environment clearance is almost like a new process and in most cases it is not even applied for. “There are no proactive measures taken by environment agencies for its implementation and the harm to the environment goes unmeasured unless someone approaches an appellate authority with a complaint,” he says.

Despite being asked by the CECB to restrict production, Prakash Industries Ltd has refused to comply

The company’s defence, however, sidesteps the fact that the permission given by all authorities clearly distinguish between the two sub-blocks. Their letters even outline the coal to be mined year-wise from each sub-block. Therefore, the argument that the company can mine any quantity of coal from any sub-block as long as it is below 10 lakh tonnes by getting the mining plan revised without getting necessary environmental clearances revised, is patently false.

The environment clearance letter given by MoEF clearly says, “No change in the calendar plan, including excavation, quantum of mineral coal and waste should be made.” The consent letter of the CECB also reiterates that prior permission should be taken if there is any change in “production capacity, process, raw materials used, project profile, etc”.

The company, in a letter written to the regional office of the CECB in Korba, agrees that the production capacity and process were changed with the approval of MoC. This clearly implies that it did not get approval from the other two clearing bodies, the MoEF and the CECB.

The acceptance letter came because, in an earlier communication, the Korba regional office of the CECB observed that the company was violating environment norms as there was no separate EIA done in accordance with the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006, after getting the mining plan revised.

The company has, for now, refused to restrict production, saying it is not violating any laws. The CECB, which has been going soft on the issue, has asked the company to get the environment clearance revised from the MoEF.

THIS IS not the first time that Prakash Industries has faced flak. A rival company filed a complaint with the MOC last year, alleging that the coal is being diverted to the open market, resulting in huge but illegal profits. An Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) was formed by the Ministry of Steel along with the MoC to assess the production capacity of Prakash Industries’ sponge iron units.

The committee submitted its findings in September this year and, contrary to the company’s claim that three kilns had a capacity of 2 LTPA, found they did not have a capacity of more than 1.5 LTPA. This finding has been challenged by the company in the Chhattisgarh High Court on the grounds that capacity of its kilns can be increased by 10 percent with certain technical modifications and hence 2 LTPA is possible.

A Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry was also initiated to look into the allegations of black marketing of coal. The fate of the Chotia block, Union Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal announced last year, would be decided on the basis of the findings of the CBI. However, the CBI still has not reverted to the MOC on this.

The company’s plant in Champa has been given closure notices twice by the Central Pollution Control Board; the most recent one in March this year. The company went to court on this and has received a stay order to save the plant from being shut down. It alleges that the notice was issued to it on frivolous grounds and it is trying to comply with all the directions given to it by the central and the state boards.

The company is moreover trying to procure more coal mines. It has already got Madanpur (North) and Fatehpur blocks allocated to it in joint ventures but hasn’t been able to develop them. The Madanpur (N) is in a no-go area and the company is involved in litigation with its partner over the Fatehpur block. The MoC has also blocked the company’s application for Vijay Central and Urtan (North) blocks in the wake of the report by the IMC.

And it is not just Prakash Industries. Shreedhar warns that there are larger players like Monnet Ispat, Jindal and Jayaswal Neco to watch out for. He also points to the impending disaster, claiming that there are more than 219 coal mines running in the country without proper clearances.

Laxmi Chauhan, of NGO Sarthak, who has uncovered the violations by obtaining information through RTI Act, says, “Everyone from the District Collector to the Cabinet ministers is involved. Without their complicity, the mine could not have run for so long in spite of the irregularities being exposed long ago.”

If this is so, it’s time that a strong monitoring mechanism was put in place to check irregularities before the harm is too great to be undone.

Prakhar Jain is a Trainee Correspondent with Tehelka. 
prakhar@tehelka.com

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