More forest diversions likely in Singrauli

Greenpeace report says pollution from coal-fired thermal plants not considered while allowing mining in coal belt

By Anupam Chakravartty
Published: Tuesday 20 September 2011

The Madhya Pradesh government envisions Singrauli district, a part of the coal belt it shares with Uttar Pradesh, as the Singapore of Central India. But protection of the environment in the region has taken a back seat because of the race between power companies to set up coal-based thermal power projects in the region. Despite recommendations of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to control pollution from coal-fired power plants, more and more forest areas are being opened up for open cast coal mines in Singrauli, says a report by a fact finding team of Greenpeace, an international non-profit.


By the end of 11th five year plan (ending 2012), the total installed power generation capacity of Singrauli will be more than 22,000 MW
The addition in electricity generation will also lead increase in coal production in NCL (National Coal Limited) mining area covering both states
Increase in power generation and coal production will further deteriorate environment of the area
3,229 ha area proposed for forest diversion this year

The Union Ministry of Environment and Foest (MoEF) had earlier imposed a temporary moratorium on proposed mining areas, based on surveys conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and IIT-Delhi. According to the survey, Singrauli was a critically polluted area with a score of 81.73 on the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index. However, amid the debate about “go” and “no-go” areas (areas where mining can and cannot be permitted) between MoEF and Ministry of Coal, large tracts of forestland have been given “go” status in Singrauli for mining in a span of one year. This was preceded by lifting of the moratorium in less than six months. The Right to Information replies received by Greenpeace, revealed in the report Singrauli: A Coal Curse released last week, shows that of the 222 coal blocks in central and eastern coalfields in the country where mining approvals were withheld, the number of coal blocks on the “go/no go” list came down to 153 in one year.

'No go' becomes 'go'

The report further states that in Singrauli itself, Mahan, Chhatrasal, Amelia and Dongri Tal II forest blocks were earlier categorised as “no go” because of the high density forest cover of up to 93 per cent. But these are now awaiting approval from the Group of Ministers, allegedly due to pressure from the coal ministry, the prime minister’s office and the power industry.

It has been alleged that the GoM headed by finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, which is now looking into allocation of forestland to Mahan Coal Ltd, a 50:50 joint venture between Hindalco and Essar Power, is under immense pressure to grant clearance for these projects. Earlier, the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh had denied access to the Mahaan coal block stating that good quality plantation (forest area in Mahan) should not be broken up for a partial coal requirement, lasting only 14 years. Moreover, as Ramesh pointed out, both Essar and Hindalco plants are sub-critical, at 600 MW and 125 MW each.

Meanwhile, at ground zero, in coal-rich Singrauli region spread across 2,200 sq km shared by Sidhi district of Madhya Pradesh and Sonebhadra district of Uttar Pradesh, adivasis as well as other communities have been facing displacement for the past several years, according to the report. Increasingly forest areas are going to big coal mining companies. As estimated by the Greenpeace report, 5,872.18 hectares (ha) of forest from the Singrauli region have been diverted for non-forest use since the Forest Conservation Act came into force in 1980. According to the Singrauli District Forest Office in Madhya Pradesh, another 3,229 ha are proposed for forest diversion this year.

Coal's curse

Retired Justice Suresh Hosbet, a part of the fact finding team consisting of sociologist and legal researcher Kalpana Kannabiran and journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, that went to Singrauli in July 2011 to prepare the Greenpeace Report, stated while releasing the report: “At Singrauli, we met entire communities living in the shadow of coal mine overburdens, with coal dust everywhere. They have given up their land for power that doesn’t reach them, and now have no reliable livelihood and their health has been ruined. This cannot be called development. We cannot continue to ignore the impacts of such large-scale ravaging of the land and people without addressing their rights and imposing limits to the environmental degradation we are causing.”

Similarly, CPCB, while asking the industries and state pollution control boards to lower the CEPI score to below 60 last year, expressed grave concern over the future of the region vis-a-vis its proposed development. “Thus, by the end of 11th five year plan (ending 2012), the total electricity installed capacity will be more than 22,000 MW. The addition in electricity generation will also lead increase in coal production in NCL (National Coal Limited) mining area covering both states. Hence, increase in power generation and coal production will further deteriorate environment of the area.”

One of the important recommendations made by CPCB to both the state governments was to conduct a health survey. Till date, no such surveys have been conducted in Singrauli region, according to the Greenpeace report. Incidentally, one of the prime sources of water in the region, Rihand Dam’s reservoir faces mercury pollution as ascertained by CPCB. “Mercury concentration is also marginally higher than average natural value in almost all parts of the reservoir except in the intermediate part. However, a very high mercury pollution of the sediments was observed close to the dam where Dongia nala meets in the reservoir. The high concentration of mercury is due to discharge of the Kanoria chemical’s chloro-alkali plants in Dongia nala,” states the CPCB report on measures to lower CEPI score of the region.

While NCL Hospital’s doctors did not have any data about the diseases prevalent in the Singrauli area, a senior medical officer from a district hospital in Sonebhadra stated in the report that there are “increased incidents of allergy, asthma, bronchitis, typhoid, amoebiasis, diarrhoea, tuberculosis, silicosis and chronic skin diseases such as atopic dermatitis, psoriasis and fungal infections”.

Policy Officer of Greenpeace, Priya Pillai, who compiled the report says NCL, a government-owned PSU which was supposed to conduct environment study of the region, found pollution to be marginal in the area, contradicting the CPCB study which places Singrauli ninth among the critically polluted clusters. “The surveys were conducted by one its subsidiaries, Ranchi-based Central Mine Planning and Design Limited. It is clear that the survey would not go against its sister concern,” she says.

Forest rights bypassed

Similarly, community forest rights of the people residing in the region has to be restored. The district administration of Sonebhadra, according to the report, has got only 64 applications for community rights over forests under the Forest Rights Act as compared to 4,000 people who have got individual land holdings. The district administration says that there was very low levels awareness among the people to understand various provisions of Forest Rights Act.

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