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Ek Tha Tiger: The other side of the coal scam

 

I’ve spent the past few days reading a couple of page-turners that I recommend strongly to every Indian who cares about her country: the ’s audit report on coal block allocations, and a new report released by Greenpeace, titled ‘How Coal-Mining is Trashing Tigerland’. Both are freely available online, at the and the Greenpeace websites respectively. 
 
Till now, the media has focused primarily on the CAG report. But you have to read both together to get the full picture about the implications of coalgate.  
 
The CAG’s audit report makes three things amply clear: one, in the last seven years, the government of India has given a major push to coal-based power; two, a lot of private players have made a lot of money out of coal, and more through speculation than by actually producing coal; three, the office of our beloved incorruptible prime minister was right in the thick of coalgate, having chosen to avoid a transparent process of competitive bidding — opting instead to award coal blocks through a ‘screening committee’ — despite being advised by its own legal experts that a competitive bidding process would not contravene the existing mining laws. 
 
Yes, the corruption in the coal block allocation is mind-boggling. I mean, can someone even explain what Rs1,800,000,000,000 means – on a human, as opposed to a cosmic, scale?
 
But corruption is only half the coalgate story – the half that’s easier to tell, because it doesn’t challenge any of our assumptions.  
 
Coal mining is the biggest threat to the tiger
The more significant story, in my opinion, is the one which will affect every one of us far more directly than the notional loss of Rs1.8 lakh crore ($33 billion). It’s the story of what’s in store for you (I’m referring here specifically to those Indians who are not NRIs, don’t have a second home or loving relatives abroad where they can run away to, don’t have a Swiss account nobody knows about, and are not planning to emigrate to New Zealand or Canada in the foreseeable future) when all the 150-odd coal blocks allotted by the Union coal ministry between 2004 and 2009 are mined.  
 
The basis of the Greenpeace study is something you can try yourself: Take an India map. Referring to the CAG report, plot the locations of all the coal reserves and allocated coal blocks on this map. Then take another India map and plot on it the locations of all the tiger habitats and reserve forests in central India. Then superimpose one map on top of the other. You will discover a) that the bulk of India’s coal reserves fall in central India – covering the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and parts of Odisha and eastern Maharashtra; and b) that the coal fields in central India are contiguous with dense forests and intrude into the territory of India’s national animal, besides several other endangered species. 
 
What will ensue if we allow coal mining in these forests is the worst kind of environmental and human disaster we’ll ever know (short of a nuclear calamity; but Manmohan Singh, the architect of the Indo-US nuclear deal, has that covered, too, viz Jaitapur, Kudankulam et al). To summarise in brief, developing our coal reserves in central India will involve the following: extinction of the Royal Bengal Tiger from this region; the decimation of at least a million hectares of native forests in central India (the biodiversity and forest ecosystems that took millions of years to evolve, we will gobble up, termite-like, in 40 years flat, turning lush forests into gaping, polluted, barren wasteland); destruction of the livelihood source of half of India’s Scheduled Tribe population; destruction of watersheds of major rivers, including the Mahanadi, Narmada, Tapti, Godavari, Indravati, and Damodar; incalculable loss of India’s bio-diversity and natural beauty that i s a part of our national heritage (something which no agent of private capital masquerading as a public servant, least of all a Manmohan or a Montek, can understand the value of); and the shame and blow to national pride that the next generation of Indians will have to live with when they wake up to the monumental idiocy of their fathers in destroying so much for the greed of so few in so short a time, and that too for a dirty, climate-hostile, limited, non-renewable fuel that anyway cannot solve India’s energy problems.  
 
What if we tried to attach an economic value to a loss on a scale like this? The Dutch research institute CE Delft did exactly such a study of the externalised global costs of the impact on human/ environmental health and climate change caused by coal-mining and combustion, and arrived at a figure of $452 billion for 2007 alone. That’s more than a dozen times the magnitude of the estimated loss due to coalgate ($33 billion). And the figure is especially scary when you consider that India is not only the world’s third largest coal-producing nation, but also the fourth largest importer of coal.  
 
Why India can and should wean itself off coal
What’s really alarming is that, despite coal being in the news, nobody seems to be debating a simple question (where are you Arnab Goswami? The nation needs an answer to this one): Can’t India grow without increasing its reliance (pun unintended, believe me) on the dirtiest fossil fuel around?  
 
Today, more than 50% of India’s energy needs are met by coal. But it has been established that coal is one of the worst contributors to climate change – it contributes not only through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also through destruction of the forests when it is mined. [Forests trap atmospheric carbon in their biomass and are major carbon sinks. This is the basis of the UN’s REDD+ (Reduced Emissions of Deforestation and Degradation) programme which offers incentives to developing countries to preserve their forests – an incentive India is well-placed to tap, IF we keep away from coal and leave the forests alone.] 
 
Of course, the reality is that many of our policy wonks are climate sceptics who believe it’s OK to use up all our coal reserves before we look at alternatives to coal. As writer Peter Dolack asks in his blog, Systemic Disorder, “There is delusion, and then there is willful fantasy. At what point does the first pass into the second?” Well, if you too are a climate change sceptic, here are some hard facts: 
  • The 20 hottest years on a global basis have all occurred since 1987
  • 9 of the 10 hottest years in recorded history have occurred since 2001
  • June 2012 marked the 328th consecutive month that the global temperatures exceeded the 20th century average
  • For 2010 and 2011 combined, 27 countries recorded an all-time national high temperature while one recorded a national low
 
There is complete consensus among climatologists that anthropogenic climate change (global warming caused by human activity) is REAL. The debate is only about how much time we have before the rising temperatures go into a destructive feedback loop. The seeds of doubt are being peddled only by a bunch of think tanks funded by the oil and natural gas industry. Exxon Mobil reportedly spent $16 million just between 1998 and 2005 funding denier groups, according to a Monthly Review article in May 2012. And in India, we have our own bunch of industry-sponsored ‘experts’ who want to limit the debate on India’s energy future to two equally moronic, dangerous and completely irrational choices: nuclear energy (dirty but clean) and coal (dirty but cheap). 
 
The alternative to coal is renewable and doable
Renewable forms of energy accounted for half of
all new electric capacity added globally in 2010, and delivered 20% of global power supply. They are cleaner, their costs of production are rapidly coming down, and India, specifically, is superbly placed to tap all three major renewables – solar, wind and biomass. 
 
Yet it is only rarely that we hear of the most rational option around which to secure our future energy needs: a diversified basket of renewable energy produced in a decentralised manner. Why? Because decentralised renewable energy (DRE) models based on solar, wind and bio-mass don’t give a tiny elite with a monopoly over power and money, an opportunity to make “windfall profits” (that’s the CAG’s term, by the way) in as short a time with as much ease and secrecy and as little transparency as centralised mega-power projects such as nuclear power (sorry, national security, so we won’t tell you anything) or coal (just get a ‘recommendation’ from the state government and you get a coal block absolutely FREE! What a scheme! If I were a businessman with political connections, I’d love it too!).  
 
Renewables, on the other hand, are decentralised by design. They can be community-owned and controlled instead of being state or corporate owned. They could be home solar panels, biogas plants fed from farmyard manure, or wind turbines in farmers’ fields. Damian Carrington has written in theGuardian about a small German hamlet called Feldheim whose inhabitants produce all the power they need locally, from some 43 turbines scattered across their fields – they don’t need the major utilities anymore (read: they are fine without coal or nuclear power). 
 
Incidentally, another rigorously researched Greenpeace report asserts that India can have 92% of its energy needs met from renewable sources by 2050. Germany increased the share of its electricity produced from renewable sources to 25% in 2012 from 6.3% in 2000, and has already made investments to make this 35% by 2020. We have far more MW (megawatt) of renewables at our disposal than Germany. So why can’t we? Who stands to benefit if India doesn’t pursue this option and goes for expensive nuclear energy and dirty coal power instead? 
 
The shenanigans of the coal lobby
But the frightening reality is that we are going all out for coal, even when it’s clear that it’s a fuel we neither need nor want but are merely addicted to for the present. And this addiction is partly by design. Why were so many coal blocks given away for free to private players, many of whom had no background in power generation or even manufacturing? Why were more coal blocks allotted than were needed to meet our production targets as per the 11th Plan? Why were private players allowed to set up so many coal-powered thermal power plants (71 in water-scarce Vidarbha alone, but that’s another story for another day) without any prior infrastructure or arrangement for coal supply?  
 
One answer: it’s an old ploy employed by India Inc. Once you’ve already set up a hundred coal-powered power plants, then you can always talk about ‘demand’ and ‘shortfall’ and pressure the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) into clearing more coal blocks. This was how the No Go zones – areas of dense forest cover, tiger corridors and bio-diversity hotspots – which the MoEF and the coal ministry had provisionally agreed on in 2010, were scuttled by the latter under pressure from the industry lobby.  
 
The establishment of No Go zones was a brilliant idea. In one stroke, it would have resolved the uncertainty over environmental clearance for every individual mining project, while at the same time securing India’s basic environmental objectives such as keeping tiger territories inviolate and protecting reserve forests. 
 
Does anyone remember the hue and cry that was raised when it was reported in 2005 that tigers had been wiped out of the Sariska reserve? Everybody, including, presumably, the tiger-loving, patriotic managements of corporate groups like the Adanis, the Tatas, Jindals, Bhushan, Reliance, Hindalco, Vedanta, and Arcelor Mittal must surely have been saddened by the dwindling numbers of India’s national animal. There are barely 1,700 of them left according to a 2010 estimate from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).  
 
Yet these corporates are at the forefront of coal mining projects that spell doom for not one, not two, but at least ten tiger reserves in central India. All the coal fields in this region are in close proximity to the tiger reserves. Not just the mining activity, but also the infrastructure that goes with mining – a road and rail network, at the minimum – will destroy tiger corridors (between two reserves) and fragment their forest habitat in such a way that the reserves will no longer be able to sustain a tiger population. 
 
But those who spend all their time thinking about how to make money tend to have a narrow kind of personality that simply has no mind-space for realities that cannot be processed through profit-loss filters. Some of these businessmen even cynically used the long blackouts on July 30-31 caused by multiple grid failure (which had nothing to do with a shortfall in coal supply) to lobby for environmental clearances for more coal blocks and coal mining projects. But the fact remains that the MoEF has given enough clearances to exceed our coal production targets right up to 2017.  
 
In any case, our coal reserves (the ones that are economically viable for mining) will run out in 40 years. As of today, India has already lost 70% of its forest cover. If we went ahead and extracted all the coal we can mine, we would have finished off much of the remaining forest cover too [please note: in carbon terms, there is no comparison between afforestation initiatives (‘forests’ planted by man) and the native forests with their richness in carbon-trapping bio-mass. Afforestation can never match the carbon density and biodiversity of a destroyed native forest]. 
 
De-allocate the ‘coalgate’ mining blocks
There are three solid reasons for de-allocating the 150-odd coal blocks sanctioned under coalgate and putting a permanent moratorium on any fresh allocations.  
 
First, the private players have already made their money. In fact, the CAG reports says that only one of the 57 blocks allotted to the private sector has been developed, which means that most of them have not spent money on developing the mines allotted to them, as they should have, as per Plan projections. In an insightful article on First Post titled, ‘Who wins, who loses from Coalgate? The markets know’, Arjun Parthasarathy, the editor of the appropriately named investorsareidiots.com, explains how the beneficiaries of the coal allocations have raked it in – they cashed in on rising market valuations on the back of their acquisition of coal blocks and land. When their stock prices crashed post the CAG report, it was the shareholders who lost the most.  
 
Two, many of these mines are in No Go zones or zones which should be No Go if you consider the environmental implications rationally. If we decide to leave the forest alone, we can look at alternative renewable sources plus encash the forest cover under REDD+. 
 
Three, because the process of allocation was flawed, it’s only fair (to those who didn’t get any) that they are all cancelled. And once you cancel them, it’s a good opportunity to have a national debate on whether we shouldn’t put a lid on coal-mining in forest areas once and for all.  
 
From ownership to trusteeship
There seems to be a belief prevalent among our ruling classes
that the state owns all of the country’s forests and natural resources. Hello – it does not. Not only do the forests not ‘belong’ to the state, it does not even ‘belong’ exclusively to all human beings taken together. Other living species, passport-bearing citizens of what a Greenpeace campaign describes as ‘’, also have a claim on it. We humans are at best trustees, and as a representative only of humans, the state, too, is a trustee of the forests and rivers that fall within the man-imagined borders of the man-made entity that has no basis in the natural world – the nation state, and the parasite whose host it is, the corporation.  
 
We need to look at our forests and national resources through the prism of trusteeship and not ownership. The problem is: try telling that to the mandarins who run the show in the PMO and the commerce ministry.  
 
The twin ideas of capitalist and endless economic growth were born at a time in history when human beings had no conception of ‘limits’ to natural resources. It was assumed that raw materials can be extracted wherever found, ad infinitum.  
 
Now the ability of technology to extract has far outstripped the ability of the planet to supply. And the large-scale destruction of the natural environment and phenomena like global warming are symptoms of this mismatch between the scale of technology and the scale of the planet. One sobering example of this mismatch is that humans have enough nuclear bombs to destroy the planet many times over, but no power to create another planet when this one is gone, eaten out from the inside by a particularly virulent strain of the human species that reports only to Capital and answers only to profit. 
 
The deadly coalition
So, if we look at the big picture, and not just at short-term fixes, the writing is pretty much on the wall: we have to choose between coal and our tigers/forests. If we choose coal, we can enjoy our dirty electricity in the short term but we and our children (and those of you in your twenties now) will most definitely get screwed by environmental disasters in the long-term, and screwed in ways that many of us don’t yet have the imagination to fully comprehend. 
 
So let the CAG and the Greenpeace report be a wake-up call. Read them both if you haven’t already. If there’s one message that leaps out from this exercise, it is this: India needs to decouple economic growth from fossil fuel, and most definitely from coal. And not only is this not difficult, it is also good business, and profitable in the long run. The only thing stopping us from taking this path is the all-powerful coalition of corporate giants and political dwarves. Corruption is just one name for this coalition and what it does. But it does not even begin to encapsulate the scale of damage that this coalition can unleash if left unchecked. 
 

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