The return of the coal rush

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Photo: E Jayan
Photo: E Jayan

The coal ministry has decided to allocate 17 blocks for mining last week. Five years after the Coalgate allocations that have earned an SC rap for the UPA government, the ministry resumed the allotment process in December 2012 by inviting bids from PSUs. The 17 blocks have an estimated reserve of 8.45 billion tonnes of coal. While three blocks will go to mining companies, 14 will help captive power plants generate 31,800 MW for an investment of Rs 1,60,000 crore.

However, 11 of these blocks are densely forested water catchment areas that support both endangered wildlife and vulnerable tribal populations. For example, half of Kudanali-Luburi of Talcher coalfield in Odisha is a forest area close to a wildlife corridor connecting the Satkosia and Simlipal Tiger Reserves. In Chhattisgarh, the Jilga-Barpali block of the Mand-Raigarh coalfield is on an elephant corridor, and nearly 80 percent of the Kente block (Hasdeo-Arand coalfield) and 70 percent of the Kerwa block (Korba coalfield) are covered by forests of moderate density.

According to data compiled by Greenpeace India, the 14 coal blocks meant for power companies will affect 17 villages and destroy 4,200 hectares of tiger and elephant forests, including 2,200 hectares of dense forest. Its analyses of the data sourced from the green ministry shows that coal reserve under India’s forests is only 18,448.36 million tonnes, while 955,218.83 million tonnes are available in non-forest areas.

Obviously, miners prefer forest areas because these are sparsely populated and don’t require huge investment in compensating and rehabilitating families. But statutory environment, forest and wildlife clearances are hard to come by for mines in forest areas. The result is either delay in projects or, more frequently, exceptions made in the name of saving public investment. For instance, Essar Power is yet to get the final forest clearance for its Mahan coal block in Madhya Pradesh, which was allotted in 2006. On the other hand, Tara, Parsa East and Kante Basan blocks were given Stage 1 forest clearance in 2011 on the condition that the Chhattisgarh government would seek no further clearances in Hasdeo-Arand.

For nearly six months now, the government is sitting on the report of an expert panel, headed by the former environment secretary T Chatterjee, which was set up in March 2012 after the previous demarcation of “go, no go” forest areas proposed by former green minister Jairam Ramesh was rejected by a GoM that asked for more objective yardsticks to identify high-value forest areas.

The Chatterjee panel proposed an automatic inviolate tag for a range of forest areas: protected areas (PA) and a one-kilometre-ring around PAs; compact patches of very dense forests; last remnants of forest types found in less than 50 sq km area across the country; areas located in direct draining catchment of important perennial streams that serve as water sources or feed hydropower projects; areas within 250 m of perennial rivers and important wetlands.

It said that other forested areas will be scored on a scale of 100 against six “measurable” parameters — forest type, biological richness, wildlife value, forest cover, landscape integrity and hydrological value — and an area with a score of 70 or above will be considered inviolate. The government was supposed to finalise the parameters, rate forest areas on a national grid of 1km x 1km units, and bar mining if inviolate units cover more than half of a proposed mining block.

Not too long ago, a Parliamentary Standing Committee noted that out of the 195 coal blocks allocated between 1993 and 2008, production had begun in only 30 blocks. Of the 160 blocks allotted by the upa government between 2004 and 2008, so far production has begun only in two. This rush to auction new mines without developing the ones already allotted appears to be a bid to pre-empt a delayed inviolate regime.

By all means, the majority of these 17 blocks in question would be out of bounds for miners if the Chatterjee panel’s yardsticks came into effect.

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