BLACK BUSINESS
Down To Earth|August 16, 2020
On June 18, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking at an event to auction 41 coal blocks for commercial mining, said that India needs to use its domestic coal for energy needs.
ISHAN KUKRETI, KUNDAN PANDEY, SOUNDARAM RAMANATHAN & SUGANDHA ARORA 

The event marked the move to open up the sector to private players—100 per cent Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and no restrictions on the end-use of coal. Till now, miners were not allowed to trade coal in the market. Coal was mined either by the public sector Coal India Limited or by other companies given mining rights for their captive use through allotment or by auction.

Energy security tops the government agenda in post-COVID-19 times. The prime minister stressed that this auction “would bring the coal sector out of many years of lockdown”. India, he said, “has the fourth largest coal reserves in the world, and is the second largest producer. So why can we not become the largest producer in the world?”

To make coal “green”, the government has announced to invest ₹20,000 crore in four projects to convert 100 million tonnes of coal into gas by 2030. The problem is coal reserves are found ensconced in the deepest and densest of forests, where very poor people, mostly tribals, live. This means when the country begins mining new areas for more coal, the casualty will be the pristine forests and the dwellers within.

The question is why does India need to dig more for coal? Are the country’s current coal mines insufficient? Or, does it need to replace domestic coal with imported coal? What is that internal logic that drives this policy?

IT IS not difficult to fathom what prompted the dilution. In 2010, the Ministry of Coal (MoC) and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), now renamed Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), conducted a landmark study and classified India’s coal reserves as “Go” and “No-Go” areas. The study said that mining must be restricted in No-Go areas to save the forests. These were biodiversity-rich dense forest areas and therefore, must remain untouched by mining. The ministries demarcated 47 per cent—or 222—of the coal areas under study as No-Go areas. But between 2010 and 2014, in the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, this was scaled down to 16 per cent of the original, or just 35 blocks.

The chop-chop continued even after the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power. Since 2015, more of what was considered inviolate has been opened up. In June this year, 41 coal blocks were put up for auction (see ‘Coal is where forests are’, p35). Of these, 12 were identified as No-Go areas in the 2010 study.

But why raze No-Go areas if Go areas are enough for the country’s needs? After all, in the past decade the government has auctioned or allotted 91 coal mines to private players and public sector undertakings (PSUs); 30 of them are in areas demarcated as Go. Have all these mines become operational?

ARE AUCTIONED MINES OPERATING?

A large chunk of the 41 mines announced for auctioning in June this year were first allotted by the then UPA government to different PSUs and private players, and then cancelled by the Supreme Court. On August 25 and September 24, 2014, the apex court declared 204 captive coal mines “illegal” (more on this later). The NDA government, then, introduced the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act, 2015 and took on the task of auctioning and allotting these mines.

How the number of coal blocks marked No-Go were reduced

GO, GOING, GONE

2010

The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) and Ministry of Coal (MoC) study and categorises 222 coal blocks as No-Go areas

2011

The number of No-Go blocks reduced to 153

2012

MoEF forms a committee to formulate parameters to identify pristine forest areas where any nonforestry activity would lead to irreversible damage. The six parameters are: hydrological value, landscape integrity, wildlife value, biological richness, forest type and forest cover

2014

Government asks Forest Survey of India to undertake a study to analyse 793 coal blocks and classify them as “inviolate” and “not-inviolate”. FSI creates a GIS-based Decision Support System which uses parameters laid down by the MoEF committee. FSI submits its report in August, reducing the number of “inviolate” coal blocks to just 35

2015

In an MoEFCC and MoC meeting, the parameters for identifying areas “inviolate” are further diluted and blocks like Paturia, Pindrakshi, Kente Extension and Parsa East in Hasdeo-Arand coalfield; Talaipalli in Mand-Raigarh coalfield; and Amelia North in Singrauli coalfield are taken out of the “inviolate” category

41 BLOCKS PUT UP FOR AUCTION IN JUNE 2020

Chhattisgarh

1. Fatehpur East

2. Gare Palma–IV/1

3. Gare Palma–IV/7

4. Madanpur (North)

5. Morga-II

6. Morga South

7. Sayang Block

8. Shankarpur Bhatgaon-II Extn

9. Sondhia

Jharkhand

10. Brahmadiha

11. Chakla

12. CHITARPUR

13. Choritand Tiliaya

14. Gondulpara

15. North Dhadu

16. Rajhara North

17. Seregarha

18. Urma Paharitola

Madhya Pradesh

19. Bandha

20. Dhirauli

21. Gotitoria east

22. Gotitoria west

23. Marki Barka

24. Marwatola Sector VI & VII combined block

25. Sahapur East

26. Sahapur West

27. Thesgora-b/Rudrapuri

28. Urtan

29. Urtan Borth

Maharashtra

30. Bander (removed from auction list on June 30, 2020)

31. Marki-Mangli-II

32. Takli-Jena-Bellora (North) & Takli-Jena-Bellora (South)

Odisha

33. Brahmanbil-Kardabahal combined

34. Chhendipada

35. Chhendipada-II

36. Kuraloi A North

37. Machhakata

38. Mahanadi

39. Phuljhari (East & West)

40. Radhikapur (East)

41. Radhikapur (West)

As many as 33 mines were auctioned to private players and 49 were allotted to PSUs, reveals MoC in its reply to a Right To Information (RTI) application filed by Down To Earth (DTE). However, the ministry says, only 13 private and 14 public sector mines are operating currently (see ‘Unused deposits’). This means 55, or around 67 per cent, of the mines auctioned are not operational due to reasons as varied as the absence of statutory forest clearance to high cost and management issues.

Since 2015, the government has auctioned another nine mines whose status of operations is not in public domain. The only information available is from the minutes of a meeting held in 2015 by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC)—the rather “faceless” body that assesses and recommends forest clearances. Though it gives no detail on mining lease, mining plans and if the mines are operational, it shows that since 2015, a total of 49 coal mining projects have been given either Stage I (24 mines) or Stage II (25 mines) clearance for diversion of forests (see ‘Blocks cleared for mining’, p40 and 41). Of these 49 projects, nine are in the original No-Go areas. Under Stage I, clearance is granted but the user agency or the private company has to pay the Net Present Value and meet conditions under the settlement of rights of local communities. Under Stage II, the final permission for diversion of forestland is granted and the user agency or company has to do compensatory afforestation within a year.

The 49 coal projects cleared will cause diversion—the innocuous sounding word for forest destruction—of 19,614 hectares (ha) forestland, felling of 1.02 million trees and eviction of 10,151 families as per government’s own records.

FORESTS ALWAYS THE COLLATERAL FOR COAL

It is tragic that coal and other minerals are found where the richest and densest forests exist (see ‘Who is the coal meant for?’ p50). Modern cartography shows forests are where India’s major rivers originate and wild animals roam. These are also the lands where tribal communities live (Schedule V areas, as defined in the Constitution). The resource curse is that these lands are devastated because of mining and the people who live there are among the poorest.

Over the past 40 years, since the enforcement of the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA), 1980, which requires clearance by the Centre on all forests diverted for non-forest purposes, India has dug up 0.53 million ha forestland for mining. A bulk of this is for coal. This data, from the government’s egreenwatch portal, shows over a third of the forests diverted were for coal and other minerals.

Between 2007 and 2011—the 11th FiveYear Plan period with UPA government at the Centre—some 0.2 million ha forestland was diverted. Of this, coal took 26,000 ha.

UNUSED DEPOSITS

Since 2015, government has allotted/auctioned mines under three Schedules of Coal Mines Act, most are not operating

As many as 33 mines were auctioned to private players and 49 were allotted to PSUs, reveals MoC in its reply to a Right To Information (RTI) application filed by Down To Earth (DTE). However, the ministry says, only 13 private and 14 public sector mines are operating currently (see ‘Unused deposits’). This means 55, or around 67 per cent, of the mines auctioned are not operational due to reasons as varied as the absence of statutory forest clearance to high cost and management issues.

Since 2015, the government has auctioned another nine mines whose status of operations is not in public domain. The only information available is from the minutes of a meeting held in 2015 by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC)—the rather “faceless” body that assesses and recommends forest clearances. Though it gives no detail on mining lease, mining plans and if the mines are operational, it shows that since 2015, a total of 49 coal mining projects have been given either Stage I (24 mines) or Stage II (25 mines) clearance for diversion of forests (see ‘Blocks cleared for mining’, p40 and 41). Of these 49 projects, nine are in the original No-Go areas. Under Stage I, clearance is granted but the user agency or the private company has to pay the Net Present Value and meet conditions under the settlement of rights of local communities. Under Stage II, the final permission for diversion of forestland is granted and the user agency or company has to do compensatory afforestation within a year.

The 49 coal projects cleared will cause diversion—the innocuous sounding word for forest destruction—of 19,614 hectares (ha) forestland, felling of 1.02 million trees and eviction of 10,151 families as per government’s own records.

FORESTS ALWAYS THE COLLATERAL FOR COAL

It is tragic that coal and other minerals are found where the richest and densest forests exist (see ‘Who is the coal meant for?’ p50). Modern cartography shows forests are where India’s major rivers originate and wild animals roam. These are also the lands where tribal communities live (Schedule V areas, as defined in the Constitution). The resource curse is that these lands are devastated because of mining and the people who live there are among the poorest.

Over the past 40 years, since the enforcement of the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA), 1980, which requires clearance by the Centre on all forests diverted for non-forest purposes, India has dug up 0.53 million ha forestland for mining. A bulk of this is for coal. This data, from the government’s egreenwatch portal, shows over a third of the forests diverted were for coal and other minerals.

Between 2007 and 2011—the 11th FiveYear Plan period with UPA government at the Centre—some 0.2 million ha forestland was diverted. Of this, coal took 26,000 ha.

Much of this diversion was for the mines that were first allotted by the UPA government, then cancelled by the Supreme Court in 2014, and now auctioned by the NDA government. The country has already paid a huge price for its minerals in terms of forest wealth. The question now is: why should more forests go under the hammer and chisel?

The problem is partly because the government cannot do much about its own Coal India Limited, which holds most of the coal reserves. According to estimates by Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), this PSU produces more than 80 per cent of India’s domestic coal and controls over 200,000 ha mine lease areas—mainly erstwhile forests. Coal India’s estimated reserves are 64 billion tonnes. It produced 700 million tonnes last year. Experts say this is below capacity. So a full-fledged open invitation to private miners comes as the only option!

This is nothing but salami tactics. The land already diverted and destroyed is not optimised first and more forestland is added to the hit-kitty. Much of these forests is of the prized and denser variety, with rich biodiversity. That’s why it was protected. Now even this will go.

CUT TO PRESENT: 12 MINES IN NO-GO UP FOR AUCTION

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