From ‘No-Go’ to ‘Go-Go’

Though there is a lot more coal outside eco-sensitive zones, the government now plans to allot coal blocks inside areas earlier considered out of bounds. Baba Umar reports
Baba Umar

Baba Umar

15-06-2013, Issue 24 Volume 10

Disastrous Coal blocks were allotted in many cases without the MoEF’s prior approval Disastrous Coal blocks were allotted in many cases without the MoEF’s prior approval. Photo: Vijay Pandey

THIS IS like opening a ‘coalgate’ of another kind. This time around, the coal ministry is planning to auction 14 coal blocks, with a majority of them falling inside dense forestland where mining was not allowed under the earlier ‘no-go’ regime imposed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF). Even the revised list of ‘no-go’ or ‘inviolate’ areas put forward by the ministry have been set aside to push for the fresh allotments.

The sanctioned list, for example, includes a block in Kente Extension in Chhattisgarh — an eco-sensitive area that until now was banned for coal mining because of its rich biodiversity. Of the entire 1,902 hectares, 1,722 hectares comprise dense forests with no villages (according to the coal ministry) and is home to elephants, endangered tigers and leopards, according to the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

“The process of deciding what constitutes an ‘inviolate’ area and what does not is at a standstill,” says an MOEF official on the condition of anonymity. “So, technically, there is a status quo. The proposed blocks in the forest areas are being allotted without clearance from the MOEF. This may lead to clashes at a later stage.”

In February, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, who heads the Group of Ministers (GOM), restrained the MOEF from executing its revised system of inviolate areas, saying some parameters in the draft report on these areas “appeared to be too restrictive and may lead to further curtailment of mining activities”.

According to the minutes of this GOM meeting, the MOEF had agreed to consult all the stakeholders on the six parameters for defining the inviolate areas. The GOM had stated that “the existing frame-work will continue” until the new norms are finalised.

“The process by which the coal ministry continues to auction and allocate coal blocks is flawed,” says Nandikesh Sivalingam of Greenpeace India, “because allocations or auctions are being made before an informed decision is taken on whether it is acceptable on forest, environmental and livelihood grounds for a mine to come up in the area concerned.”

Interestingly, the MOEF’s ‘inviolate’ policy was, in fact, framed at the request of Coal India Ltd, a public sector company, to ensure that the coal blocks are allotted only after consultation with the MOEF. But blocks were allotted in many cases without prior approval of the MOEF, leading the environment ministry to invoke the green hurdle at a later stage. Although the government had asked the ministry to revisit the policy first in July 2012, which it is still working on, the allocations have already begun.

Greenpeace, which commissioned Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, a Bengaluru-based research institute, to map and analyse the ecological implications of the newly cleared blocks, found that 11 of the 14 blocks are in heavily forested areas.

According to the report, the allocated coal blocks will destroy 5,200 hectares of forest, including 2,700 hectares of dense forest, and have adverse impact on elephants, tigers and leopards in nine blocks, besides affecting 20 villages.

“Five blocks are on the banks of major or medium rivers even as 260 hectares of water bodies lie inside all these blocks. This will make environment and forest clearance processes lengthy and contentious, with the possibility of outright rejection, legal challenges and community opposition, threatening any investments made,” the report says.

Prior to mining, clearance will be required under the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) and Forest Rights Act (FRA). In some cases, it would need nods from the gram sabhas in the affected areas, besides the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), NTCA and Project Elephant.

“There are risks to lenders, shareholders and taxpayers,” says Sivalingam. “MOEF clearances could be delayed, if not denied due to the presence of good quality forest and mega fauna, denial of consent from affected communities. The projects could face legal challenges if clearances are given without following the due process of FRA, FCA and other mandatory requirements.”

Examples of this could be Kente Extension and Hasdeo-Arand coalfield in Chhattisgarh. Approximately 80 percent of this area is ‘above moderate density’ forest. The Tara, Parsa East and Kante Basan blocks in the same area were given stage- I forest clearance in 2011 by former environment minister Jairam Ramesh on the condition that the state government will not seek any further clearances in Hasdeo- Arand.

Later, the stage-II clearance was given for Parsa East and Kante Basan, which are currently being challenged before the National Green Tribunal. Such a fate is likely to await Kente Extension too, should it be cleared by the MOEF.

In another coalfield in Gowa, Jharkhand, part of the to-be-allotted coal block is located within 10 km of the Palamau Tiger Reserve and any mining would require clearance from the NBWL. Tigers and elephants are known to inhabit nearby forests. Located on the banks of the Auranga river, this block also poses a threat in terms of siltation and discharge of mining effluents into the river.

“The bigger risks involve these blocks possibly falling under inviolate areas, which the MOEF is working on,” says Sivalingam.

ACCORDING TO the coal ministry, on 23 May, the members of the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) headed by the Coal Secretary, along with senior officials of the Ministry of Power, Planning Commission, Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Steel, Law & Justice, Coal Controller, Central Mine Planning and Design Institute (CMPDI) and Coal India Ltd, gave the nod to 126 applications from 25 public sector companies after verifying the required parameters. The 14 coal blocks are from six states — five from Chhattisgarh, four from Odisha, two from Jharkhand and one each from Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal.

The next meeting of IMC is proposed to be held shortly for finalisation of the coal block allocation.

In April, voicing his ministry’s concerns on the possible fallout of the proposed system of inviolate areas, Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal had said, “The coal projects reeling under the impact of the ‘no-go’ system imposed by Jairam Ramesh would have major implications for coal security.” This system had allegedly rendered about 660 million tonne of coal reserves out of bounds for mining.

But a report submitted on 23 April by a Parliamentary Standing Committee revealed that it was not the MOEF’s nonclearances that were impeding coal production leading to reduction in power production, but in fact, the faulty and ‘illegal’ allotments.

The report revealed that out of 195 coal blocks allocated between 1993 and 2008, production had begun in only 30 blocks. It said that while a majority of these blocks (160) were allotted by the UPA government between 2004 and 2008, so far production has begun in only two.

Take the case of Castron Mining Ltd, a private company that was allotted a coal block in Jharkhand to use for its steel plant. The company had no steel plant and almost 13 years after the allocation, it was yet to set up or buy a steel factory.

“This clearly shows that the so-called coal shortage leading to power crisis has been created by faulty allocations and not by lack of forest clearances as the government claims,” says Sivalingam.

Moreover, while the total amount of coal in the ‘no-go’ eco-sensitive areas, according to the MOEF, is only 18,448.36 million tonnes, there is a lot more that can be mined outside these areas: 55,218.83 million tonnes. “Yet we see that this mindless rush for allocation is more in the case of areas with thick forests rather than in other areas that are free of dense forests and wildife,” says Sivalingam. “This could spell environmental disaster.”

[email protected]

(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 10 Issue 24, Dated 15 June 2013)