High powered panel recommends freeing coal blocks in forests


Eight months ago the Centre constituted a group of ministers (GoM) to look into the increasing perception that delay in acquiring forest clearance was hurting the country’s coal and power production.

The GoM’s terms of reference comprised suggesting measures on “efficacy and legality of forest clearance norms” and for ensuring that better quality forests are regenerated once mining operations cease.

This required the 12-member GoM, headed by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, to look at clearance delays and the concept of “go” and “no-go” areas for coal-bearing regions of the country. The concept demarks dense forests as “no-go” areas where mining is not allowed, and “go” areas where mining companies can apply for forestland diversion to the Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF). It was introduced in 2010 by MoEF. The GoM was also asked to give suggestions on “environmental clearance of projects located in areas with high comprehensive environmental pollution index (CEPI)”.

CEPI was formulated by the Central Pollution Control Board in 2009 to identify critically polluted areas in the country (see ‘Gentle on critical pollution’, Down To Earth, July 1-15, 2011). Most coal mining areas were declared critically polluted. The GoM, in turn, formed a committee in June to give suggestions on the various measures. The committee, chaired by B K Chaturvedi, member (energy) of the Planning Commission, has secretaries of ministries of environment and forests, finance, coal and power as its members. The committee presented its recommendations to the GoM on July 22 which are yet to be made public. Down To Earth got exclusive access to the report.

To go or not to go

The committee says the concept of “go” and “no-go” areas has no legal basis and should not be applied while giving forest clearance to coal mining projects. Instead, the nod should be based on Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980.

imageThe report states that forest clearance should “normally” be given to coal mining, “except where there is a strong case of rejection due to extremely dense forests and other environmental considerations”. “These recommendations seem to come with a clear mind frame—let us not say no to any coal mining project,” says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of Delhi non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

The idea behind categorisation of forest areas as “go” or “no-go” areas was to identify the forest areas where mining will not be allowed to save time of investors applying for those areas. But over time, there has been a push to convert many “no-go” areas to “go” areas, says Bhushan.

Hunger for more

In 2010, the Ministry of Coal and MoEF had identified 602 coal blocks in the country (about 0.65 million hectares or ha) to undertake the “go/no-go” exercise. Of the total blocks, 53 per cent (about 0.35 million ha) were earmarked as “go” area. But currently, according to CSE’s analysis, about 85 per cent (0.55 million ha) of the total blocks are being treated as “go” area (see box: ‘Sanctity lost’).

Sanctity lost
  Due to pressure from the coal ministry and private industries there has been a progressive attempt to convert “no-go” areas into “go” areas. As a pilot project, the “go/no-go” exercise was conducted on 37.5 per cent of the country’s coal-bearing areas in June last year.

Of the total blocks 396 (0.35 million hectares or ha) were designated as “go” areas and the rest 206 (0.30 million ha) as “no-go”. Later, 24 coal blocks in the “no-go” category were appended to the “go” category as the Union environment ministry had already granted forest clearances in those blocks.

On the intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office, 29 more blocks were put in the “go” category because they were isolated patches of dense forests. The ministries identified another 28 blocks in the “no-go” category and transferred them to the “go” category by changing the the blocks’ boundaries.

As of July 2011, there are 467 blocks in the “go” area (see pie chart). Recently, the environment ministry granted clearances in three more “no-go” areas and changed categorisation of eight blocks linked to mega power plants.  
Since 1981, about 0.15 million ha of forestland has been diverted for mining. About 26,000 ha was diverted only for coal mining in the 11th Five Year Plan (see table: ‘Taken for mining’). This diversion, in terms of scale, has been unprecedented, contrary to the perception that the environment ministry is not granting clearances to coal mining projects.

In its report, the committee has disregarded this diversion while asking for more. In essence, it says the forest area to be diverted for coal mining should be equivalent to four times the area diverted in the past 30 years for all mining projects.

Decentralisation, good idea?

At present, the state decides on clearance for forestland diversion of one to five ha; for projects on five to 40 ha, permission is granted by the regional offices of MoEF. All projects above 40 ha are cleared by the Centre. In the past 30 years, only nine per cent of the projects seeking forestland diversion have applied to the Centre.

The committee recognises that most delays in procuring forest clearances occur at the state level. Still it recommends that clearances to projects with diversion up to 50 ha should be given by the state and those between 50 ha to 100 ha by the MoEF’s regional offices. This implies that only projects above 100 ha will need clearance from the Centre.

As per CSE’s analysis, if this recommendation is accepted not even five per cent of the projects proposed will reach the Centre. “Project proponents can easily break up their projects so that they fall under 100 ha,” says Bhushan. This recommendation will destroy the premise of FCA, which was enacted to give powers to the Centre to regulate forest diversion because states were indiscriminately giving away forestland.

Cut, not fight, pollution

Under the CEPI exercise, a list of critically polluted areas (CPAs) was drawn up in 2010. Following this, a moratorium was imposed on environmental clearance to upcoming projects that fell in CPAs. The states were asked to prepare an action plan to reduce the pollution levels and mitigate ecological damages in those areas. Of the seven coalfields falling under CPAs, three have submitted action plans and the moratoriums on them have been lifted.

The committee suggests the moratoriums should be removed even if the states do not submit action plans. It recommends prescribing “mitigation measures” to reduce air and water pollution. MoEF has started processing the clearances of the remaining four despite no action plans being submitted.

As per the CSE analysis, at least one-third of the coal mines in the country violate environmental norms. Their mine closure record is equally poor with 250-odd mines left abandoned after extraction of coal was over. They have a very poor track record in regenerating forests as well.

Bhushan says, “If the recommendations of the B K Chaturvedi committee are implemented, it will be disastrous for the country’s forests.”


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