Dissenting arguments on the auction of 41 coal mines by state governments, coal unions, youth groups and environmentalists are worth contemplating upon.
On June 18, 2020, the government announced the auctioning of 41 coal blocks to private companies for first-ever commercial mining. Big players like metal, power and cement producers are expected to participate in the bidding process for large mines. These 41 coal mines are in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha. This includes 16 aspirational districts and eco-sensitive areas with dense forests, pristine coal reserves, and tribal and forest dwellers.
The mining decision is facing denunciation by the governments of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. Out of the three auctioned coal mines of Maharashtra, Bander coal block has the highest ecological sensitivity. Bander coal mine is only 7-9 km away from Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR). Forest clearances for coal mining around TATR, over 20 years, have fragmented the forest corridors of tigers, heavily interrupting the movement of animals.
Chhattisgarh government has pleaded the center to exempt auctioning of coal blocks around two prime rivers, Hasdeo and Mand. The 1995-sq-km area adjacent to Hasdeo River is a proposed Lemru Elephant Reserve. Mining activities around the Reserve will accentuate the ongoing man-elephant conflicts in the region. Out of 41 coal mines, 9 in each state—Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, are opened for the auction. Around 8,000-10,000 tribal families fear displacement in each of the three states.
From 2007 to August 2011, the government granted environment clearance (EC) to 181 coal mines and forest clearance (FC) to 113 coal mining projects. This diverted 26,000 ha of forest area to coal mining alone. Crucially, to counter-act diversion of forests land into coal mining, in 2010, MoEF and Ministry of Coal (MoC) jointly classified coal blocks into “NO-GO” and “GO” categories. The “GO” category demarcated the fragmented forest landscapes. While, the “NO-GO” category included rich forest covers comprising 30% of the rich coal blocks, barring mining operations. Industrial lobbies—steel, power, and coal sectors, resisted this.
July 2012, MoEF report suggested identifying inviolate forest areas to protect. Inviolate forests are unique and ecologically valuable where damage from mining is irreversible. The report did not find favor of ministries like coal. In November 2014, a high-level committee of MoEFCC also recommended identification of “NO-GO” areas in normal and inviolate forests areas. Currently in 2020, out of 41 auctioning coal blocks, five blocks of Chhattisgarh come under “NO-GO” areas and are inviolate forests.
Despite time to time recommendations, till now no policy exists on the protection of inviolate forests.
Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020 is set to replace existing EIA, 2006, changing 12 out of its 14 clauses.
1. Strategic reduction in Public hearing
The draft faced criticism for expediting the process of granting environment clearance to industries by reducing the public hearing period.
Projects under category ‘A’ or ‘B1’ pass through environment clearance process.
Coal mining projects with area up to 100 hectare falls in ‘B1’ category, while mining area greater than 100 hectares falls in ‘A’ category. Since coal mining projects fall under both ‘A’ and ‘B1’ categories, hence coal mining projects require environment clearance.
The EIA process involves a scientific assessment of the project. Consequently, the prepared EIA report is opened for a public hearing to suggest or object the proposed draft. Outcomes from the public hearing and detailed scrutiny decide whether to grant or reject environmental clearance to a project. Tightening the slot, 2020 notification reduces public hearing period from 30 days to 20 days.
Expanding areas of coal mining projects without a public hearing has been a strategic process ever since 2012. In December 2012, coal mining projects expanding their capacity by 25% were exempted from public hearings on the pretext of already given environment clearance. In January 2014, the projects with production capacity up to 8 MTPA tending to expand up to 50% were exempted from public hearings.
2. Moving development closer to ecologically fragile areas
Coke is prepared by destructive distillation of coal in coke ovens, emitting hazardous substances. In 2006 EIA notification, coke oven plants with annual production greater than 2.5 lakh tones were included in Category ‘A’. The 2020 EIA notification draft raised the qualifying production limit of plants to 8 lakh tonnes per annum to fall in Category ‘A’. From 2006 to 2020, 3.2 times increase in the qualifying parameter is a clear indication of profuse upcoming increment in coke productions.
In 2016, coke-making industries were listed in the Red category and not permitted in protected or ecologically sensitive areas. According to the 2006 EIA Draft, any ‘B’ category project will shift to ‘A’ category if it is located within 10 km from the boundary of protected or eco-sensitive areas. But 2020 EIA notification draft reduced this 10 km to 5 km. This implies projects like coke oven plants can open within 5 km from the boundary of protected areas, with a central appraisal.
India has the fifth-largest coal reserves in the world. It emerged as the world’s second-largest producer and consumer of thermal coal. India generates 70% of its electricity from coal-fired power plants. Coal power plants have hazardous consequences, like large emissions, acid rain, water and air quality degradation, biodiversity loss and health implications.
Coal in India has been mined since 1774 at the second-fastest pace in the world. The energy demand grew and domestic coal ran short, leaving India either to import coal or expand mining.
Today, India is world’s second largest importer of coal. This is primarily because Indian coal has a lower gross calorific value and higher ash content compared to the international coal; this reduces heat liberation during coal combustion and releases higher pollutants. Costlier imported coal is India’s worry. The other alternative is to expand mining activities.
Evacuation and rehabilitation of inhabitants from mining areas have socio-political implications and expenditures. In the past few decades, India has heavily invested on new coal-fired plants and continues to do so despite current economic crunches. In 2020, India has decided to invest ₹1 Lakh crore in the next 3-4 years to facilitate coal production. But the extractable Indian coal reserves will finish within 17 years [report 2013]. Rich coal repositories will be targeted further to invest in growing energy demand, till coal reserves exhaust. Auctioning 41 coal mines to private companies is expected to generate 20,000 crores revenue per annum. However, cold response of bidders is feared, owing to poor market conditions during COVID-19. This makes revenue generation further uncertain.
Granting absolute freedom to private sectors to scale numberless coal production and export is like handing over exploitation rights. The local inhabitants who equally exercise rights over natural resources will bear ecological consequences. Working as labor in coal mines is neither a quality job nor encourages self-dependency.
1. Must stick to Renewable Energy targets
India’s targets to achieve 175 GW renewable energy by 2022 can be met by solar-100 GW and wind-60 GW alone.
Coal power economy is on a drastic downside, says Forbes magazine, 2018. India’s 65% coal-generated power is costlier than renewable energy. Wind and solar bid 20% cheaper wholesale power price than coal. This is because renewable energy set-ups are easier to build than running aged coal-power plants violating the emission norms. Also water consumption by thermal plants is 3.8 cubic meters per Megawatt (MW), way higher to 0.1 cubic meter/MW of water for solar and negligible for wind.
Turning ecologically and economically viable, India’s renewable energy sector was attracting global investors till early 2020. European Investment Bank in 2017 invested $400m in India as a potential renewable energy sector.
India’s energy demand fell by nearly 30% during COVID-19 lockdown, offering a historic chance to shift from coal to renewable. By 2030, India can meet 40% of its power need by increasing renewable energy capacity to 500 GW.
2. Decentralize energy to boost the local economy
Coal from the 41 auctioned mines will be gasified to produce synthetic natural gas (SNG). SNG will be used for cooking and transportation. SNG emits seven times more greenhouse gases than natural gas. Coal-to-gas conversion is a water-demanding process. Fifty such plants in China are facing water scarcity due to it.
Alternatively, ‘Biomass gasification’ emits lower greenhouse gases than coal gasification. This gas can be used to produce electricity, fuel a vehicle, or in other industrial applications. Gosaba Island, Sundarbans, uses biomass gasifier of 500 kW capacity to supply electricity to 10,000 people. Some Indian sugar industries are using sugarcane residue called Bagasse as raw material to produce steam used for electricity generation. The surplus electricity is sold-off, creating additional income for the industry out of sugarcane waste. Brazil sugar factories utilize sugarcane to produce ethanol. Ethanol is used as an alternative fuel to run vehicles there. India, which imports over 80 per cent of its oil needs can adopt Brazil sugar factories model.
India’s small-hydro projects have 7 GW power production capacity, that can meet the power needs of close by communities without transmission and distribution (T&D) losses. India faced Rs 27,000 crores loss in 2018-19 due to electricity T&D losses. A Micro hydro-plant can provide 100 kW of electricity to isolated communities. Similarly, a 600 kW-1000 kW capacity wind turbine can supply electricity to 600-1000 homes.
India is ready to invest ₹20,000 crore in coal gasification and ₹50,000 crore on coal infrastructure, while under-estimating safe, cheap and efficient renewable energy sources. Great Britain is using COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to rapidly phase out coal and switching to renewable like biomass and wind energy. Considering investment, social and environmental cost, quick economic returns will be nullified by long term repercussions.