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Indian Environment Minister's 'no-go' areas for mining under attack

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In India systems that are installed are seldom worked. There are numerous examples but, in the immediate context, the example of the Ministry of environment & Forests (MoEF) should suffice. According to Wikipedia, “the Ministry is responsible for planning, promoting, coordinating and overseeing the environmental and forestry programmes” of the country. Its main activities being conservation and survey of flora and fauna of India, forests and other wilderness areas, prevention and control of pollution, afforestation and land degradation mitigation.

It is a comprehensive charter and if the minister in-charge takes up his duties sincerely India would be a “green” country in most respects. However, that has not been so, at least, until now. Before the current Minister, Jairam Ramesh, took charge, the Ministry under the now-discredited Andimuthu Raja of the DMK party, an ally of the Congress in the United Progressive Alliance government, was known as a “rubber stamp”. The “system” was hardly ever worked for the larger good. Environmental clearances for industrial, power and other projects submitted by other ministries were freely given without any questions being asked regardless of what impact they were to have on the country’s environment. The “greens” kept shouting but there was none to hear them.

Ramesh, on the other hand, has taken his job far more seriously. He has given the ministry a direction and, some say, even teeth, it had lacked before. Barring a few gaffes, his performance has been so good that the country’s environmentalists thought that the ministry and the country’s natural assets were in safe and competent hands, perhaps, for the first time. Unlike Raja, he subjects all the proposals for setting up projects, particularly in the midst of the country’s dwindling forests, a very close look. No wonder, the environmental clearances take more time than what they used to take earlier, inviting the wrath of several ministries.

Working in accordance with his ministry’s mandate, Ramesh adopted a suggestion of Coal India Ltd, a Public Sector Undertaking, made at a meeting with the Minister for Coal. The suggestion was to conserve India’s fast-diminishing rich forests and segregate them into mineable and non-mineable areas. Accordingly, his Ministry released a series of maps of coalfields superimposed over forests on its website, identifying ‘go' and ‘no-go' zones for mining. It showed 35 per cent of the area of nine coalfields in six States, including Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa – the mining hotspots – as “no-go”, including them in Category A. These areas are mostly dense forests where mining is unviable because of the environmental damage it would cause. The remaining 65 per cent of the coalfields are in forests, falling in Category B, that can be mined – the “go” areas – but only if environmental and forest clearances are obtained. This has led to the cancellation of many proposed mining areas by the Coal Ministry.

Most of the coal resources in India are beneath the generally good forests, which according to the Forest Survey of India are just 40% of the country’s total forest cover, which is only 21% of the country’s geographical area. There are 206 coal blocks spread across 4,039 sq km in nine coalfields, involving a production potential of 660 million tonnes, which have been designated as no-go areas. Currently, around 70% of the energy used in India is sourced from coal.

Feeling deeply uncomfortable with adoption of a suggestion that emanated from his own minions, the Minister of Coal reacted sharply. He used the vital linkage between coal and economic growth with great aplomb. His chant that already there was a gap of 83 million tonnes between demand and supply of coal and that it was projected to rise to 200 million tonnes in 2013-14 became shriller. He not only took the matter to the Prime Minister but also mustered support from, inter alia, other core sector ministries of power and steel and argued that the non-availability of coal from no-go areas would seriously hit the projections of growth at 9% per-annum. While Dy. Chairman, Planning Commission, agreeing that growth would be seriously hit, desired a “sensible” definition of the no-go areas, Finance Minister asked Ramesh to be more “lenient”. The Law Minister said that such categorisation of forests would be illegal. Even the Prime Mister’s Office was upset and warned that these no-go areas could deprive the Central and state exchequers of several billion rupees and, worse, could turn into Maoists’ strongholds.

Several ministries had been banking heavily on the coal from the proposed no-go areas for ultra mega power projects (UMPPs) of 4,000 MW to meet the perennial power crisis. The Eleventh Five Year Plan had recommended power generation target of 78,577 MW by 2012 through these UMPPs. All those plans were seemingly being stymied by Ramesh. A chorus went up for unlocking of the coal in the no-go areas so that the growth projection could be met. With a high-decibel fracas developing, the Prime Minster, as is his wont, appointed a Group of Ministers to sort the matter out.

None, it seemed, realised the implication of what they were screaming for. India has already a very small area under forests – a measly 21% of its geographical area against the Government’s own goal of attaining 33%. Of this total, only around 7% is of the dense variety. If these, too, are exploited nothing short of an environmental disaster will ensue. Not only the country would suffer water shortages and face progressive desertification, it would also witness decimation of forests, land degradation, soil erosion, air pollution etc., and more so because of coal industry’s proclivity for opencast mining.

A prime example of such an eventuality is Singrauli in east Madhya Pradesh, adjoining the states of Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which has emerged as the “energy capital” of India. Its rich coal deposits made it what it is today. Once covered with dense natural forests that were seemingly impenetrable, the generous deposits of coal and limestone proved to be its nemesis. Its cement factories and coal-fired power plants necessitated large-scale deforestation, converting forest ecosystems into savannahs and marginal croplands. The rainfall has become erratic and meagre, the soils are highly weathered and impoverished with widespread signs of desertification. A rapid depletion in the biodiversity, too, has occurred. It has become a critically polluted area. Its five super thermal power plants, which supply 10% of India’s power, are responsible for 16% or 10 tons per annum of total mercury pollution through power generation. Singrauli, reportedly, accounts for 10% of total Indian and 0.3% of global carbon dioxide emission.

Likewise, in the district of Raigarh in Chhattisgarh state its coal deposits are playing havoc. Half of the state’s coal is estimated to be in Raigarh. Only forty-odd years ago the district, then in Madhya Pradesh, was known for its pristine forests and tussar silk produced by its tribal community. With a current coal-based thermal power capacity of 1420 MW the district is planning to increase it to 16155 MW. Forty-odd power projects are in the pipeline which will push up the district’s capacity to 20000 MW – 23 % of the country’s coal-based power capacity. Ubiquity of fly-ash has prompted the Regional Director of Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board to say that Raigarh’s future will be covered in toxic fly-ash spewed by the chimneys of its coal-fired power plants.  “Everyone makes power and takes away our coal to leave behind waste and pollution”, he says – a price the state is going to pay for its break-neck pace of development.

With the world seriously contemplating decarbonisation, the insistence of the ministries of the Government of India to unlock the “no-go” forest areas seems a trifle out of sync. One can appreciate the dilemma that Ramesh is in. Neither can he be a “growth-maniac” nor can he be an out-and-out environmentalist. For some time to come, as Ramesh says, the centrality of coal-based power will remain unquestioned, yet it’s time the country begins to strike a middle path. After all, the Earth’s commons are involved. One tends to feel that it’s time the ministry for coal is considered for disbandment as it, naturally, will work only for its own perpetuation even if that happens to be at the cost of the country’s forests. As, there is already a separate department for atomic power, a ministry of energy, that includes renewable and non-renewable sources, would seem to be more in line with today’s needs, which, progressively, could plan for a judicious mix of power from the two sources, progressively reducing the dependence on the latter.

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