Former environment minister gives reasons for overruling forest advisory committee recommendations on forestland diversion for mining in the Hasdeo-Arand region
Former minister of state for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, has reacted strongly to the National Green Tribunal's remarks about the clearance he gave for diverting forestland for Adani's coal mine in Hasdeo-Arand coal-fields in Chhattisgarh. The tribunal had passed the remarks on Monday while ordering the Chattisgarh government to stop all the work in an open cast coal mining project in the two blocks owned by Adani group and Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RVUNL) in Parsa East and Kante Basan (PEKB).
Ramesh defended his action in a strongly-worded statement. “After having been pilloried for not allowing projects, now I am attacked for having cleared projects,” he said. Ramesh said while the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) was functioning with due diligence, he as the minister was making his own assessments over the grant of approval. In his statement, the minister also attached his comments on the FAC recommendations, which led to the approval of the mining project on June 23, 2011.
According to the order of the five-member bench, headed by Justice (retd) Swatanter Kumar, Ramesh ignored the recommendations of the ministry's FAC and MoEF's own classification of “no-go” and “go” areas while approving the mining projects. The minister gave six reasons for approving coal mining projects in three coal blocks of Hasdeo-Arand coal-fields while disagreeing with FAC.
Reasons for approval to mine coal blocks
First, he said the coal blocks were located in the “fringe” of the area rich in biodiversity. The former environment minister reasoned that since coal blocks were separated by a hill with distinct watershed area, it did not impact the main Hasdeo-Arand area. Secondly, the mine operator had made substantial changes to the mining plan to conserve the relatively denser forests found within the said coal block. The tribunal, however, had observed that the company revised its mining proposal by envisaging a two-phased sequential mining in PEKB blocks, firstly on 762 hectares (ha) and subsequently on 1,136 ha of the total 1,898 ha. The tribunal stated that, as a matter of precaution the minister ought to have looked for the opinion of a specialist in the field. “The record reveals that neither FAC commented on this aspect nor was there any material on which the minister could have based his second reason for overriding the advice of FAC,” said the tribunal.
The tribunal order was in response to a 2012 complaint by a Bilaspur-based advocate, Sudiep Srivastava, who challenged the approval two of three coal blocks of PEKB.
Giving his third reason for approving the mines, Ramesh said that concerns relating to wildlife in the region should be taken care of through a well-prepared wildlife management plan involving experts from Wildlife Institute of India, Nature Conservation Foundation and others. The tribunal, while countering the minister's reason, observed that FAC and then Ramesh did not pay any attention to the increasing human-elephant conflict in the area. According to the petitioner, in South Surguja Division, 1,200 houses were damaged by elephants, while 5,103 cases of crop damages were recorded last year.
The fourth reason was that these coal blocks are linked to the supercritical thermal power generating station. Ramesh said that power generation was the explicit pre-condition for the approval of these mining projects to back his other three reasons. NGT observed that despite the benefits of emission reduction projected in the supercritical plants, these approvals concur with “anthropocentric reason”. Ramesh reacted by saying, “these are anthropocentric reasons, the merit of which needs to be evaluated in context with eco-centric reasons in order to understand whether the development proposed is sustainable.”
The tribunal noted no such evaluations had taken place. Srivastava in his petition submitted that the supercritical plants linked to these blocks never came up in the region.
The fifth point raised by Ramesh is that both Rajasthan and Chattisgarh government have been persistently following up with the Central government as these coal blocks are closely linked to their power generation plans.
The sixth reason given by Ramesh is that although FAC functions with a single focus, he as a minister had to keep the broader development picture in mind. Further, to stop from opening the Hasdeo-Arand area for mining, Ramesh says he proposed that Chattisgarh should be given a green bonus or additional power from the Central pool for not allowing mining in the Hasdeo-Arand region.
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