By Anjali Nambissan:
In a fight between BJP-led policy and UPA-led policy, the environment is the loser. What does that mean for us?
Citing delays in setting up coal mining projects, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) recently declared that mine operators can start to build and mine on non-forest part of their project, as soon as they are given Stage-1 environmental clearance. Basically, the coal mine operator need not wait for the processing of Stage-2 clearance (for diverting forest land) and can start mining the non-forest land as soon as the project proposal is accepted (Stage-1).
The UPA government had introduced the Stage-2 clearance rule for mining companies in April 2014. The objective there was to safeguard forest land by making the forest ministry in-charge of ensuring the protection of forest land and its inhabitants.
All this came out of the BJP government sympathizing with the coal ministry which sought the speeding up of clearances to mining projects involving both non-forest and forest land. For bringing these guidelines into effect, the BJP government issued a notification under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 on November 10, 2015.
Stage-2 clearance is the clincher. Previously, a mining project was awarded Stage-1 clearance after the MoEFCC reviewed the project proposal and set out conditions for the project to acquire Stage-2 clearance. These conditions, such as compensatory afforestation payments and mitigation damages, are to ensure that the project does not encroach upon the forest land and cause ecological damage. To get Stage-2 clearance, the project proponent has to pay the state government money for diverting the forest land and secure no objections from forest communities, if any. And it was only after getting both Stage-1 and Stage-2 clearance that a project could begin work on the ground.
Now that the project doesn’t need Stage-2 clearance, how does the MoEFCC (or the central government) plan on ensuring that the mining operations won’t ‘accidentally spill over’ on to the forest land?
And who will compensate the mine operator for the investment made in the non-forest land part of the mine, in case the forest land clearance is eventually declined? These are legal battles just waiting to happen.
It doesn’t need much imagination to know that mining areas around forest land will have a profound impact on the plants and animals in the forested areas. Not to mention, there are communities of people living in this forest land who may object to a mine being set up in their backyard.
Coal mining is highly polluting and coal mining companies in India are not known for sticking to environmental norms. State and central pollution control boards found that one-third of all coal mines in operation in 2011 were in violation of environmental laws. MoEFCC in 2009 declared majority of the coal mining districts in the country as ‘critically polluted areas’.
Remember the public agitation against the setting up of a massive coal mine in the Mahan forests of Madya Pradesh? According to this new coal mining clearance rule, Essar Ltd could have started mining operations in the area around the Mahan forests. Where would the human and animal inhabitants dependent on the 967 hectares of forest land, set to be destroyed, go? Those that remain would be forced to live in the polluted, toxic shadow of a coal mine. Like the long-suffering people of Singrauli. The coal reserve and thermal power plant hotbed, also in MP, has a decades-long history of toxic levels of mercury in the air, water, food and land.
So what if the project, which has already started mining the non-forest land, is not given Stage-2 clearance by the forest ministry because of these reasons? No one knows the answer.
The central government’s guidelines are silent on what happens in case the operator isn’t given the go-ahead to operate in the forested area.
80% of India’s proven reserves of coal lie in forested areas, chiefly inhabited by tribals. So while the new guideline speeds up the process of extracting minerals from this land, it also puts the human and animal inhabitants of the forest land at serious risk. And with no protection.
With India set to power through to 175GW of installed capacity of renewable energy by 2022, one has to wonder why the BJP government is so big on coal. It is reported that the government wants public coal mining company Coal India Limited to double production by 2020. Why?
Yes, there are 280 million people without access to energy in India today. But wouldn’t they be better served by decentralised solar power plants (like the mini-grid in Deba, Chhattisgarh), than a pollutant-smoking, planet-heating coal power plant in their forests and backyards?