Green tribunal questions MoEF's approval to the mining project in a “no-go” area which happens to be an elephant corridor
The National Green Tribunal has asked the Chhattisgarh government to stop all work in an open cast coal mine owned by the Adani group and the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RVUNL) in Surguja district of Chattisgarh.
On Monday, NGT's principal bench pulled up the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) for ignoring the advice of its forest advisory committee (FAC) and its own classification of “no-go” and “go” areas. In 2011, the Ministry headed by Jairam Ramesh, approved mining in two captive coal blocks, Parsa East and Kante Basan (PEKB), leading to diversion of 1,899 hectares of dense forests for mining; the forests happen to be a elephant corridor.
The five-member bench headed by Justice (retd) Swatanter Kumar has asked MoEF to seek fresh directions from FAC on the nature of the forests and possible impact of forest diversion. The petition was filed by a Bilaspur-based advocate in Chhattisgarh, Sudiep Srivastava, who had challenged the state government approval to the mining project in 2012. The state government had acted on final environmental clearance granted by MoEF.
PEKB is a part of the Hasdeo-Aran Coal fields in Chhattisgarh, with a reserve of 450 million tonnes of coal. In 2007, the Union Ministry of Coal had allocated the block to the RVUNL, which chose Adani Mining, as the mine-developer and operator (MDO). According to Srivastava, Adani now owns 74 per stake in the joint venture mining project with RVUNL. While mining started in April 2013, at present Adani Mining has been extracting coal from 100 hectares of forestland diverted by MoEF for the project. Mining was planned in two phases for a period of 30 years. In the first phase, the developer would have to complete mining in 760 hectares of forest in a period of 15 years. According to the NGT order, about 368,000 trees from the mining lease granted to RVUNL.
The tribunal stated that Surguja acts as a wildlife corridor for elephants travelling between Korba and Surguja forests. The petitioner has said that due to increase in the human activity, elephant-human conflict has intensified, leading to 16 human deaths in the area. According to South Surguja forest division, as many as 1,200 houses were damaged by elephants, while 5,103 cases of crop damages have been recorded in the area. Although the region is not highly populated, the coal project has displaced three villages inhabited by about 800-odd people.
The tribunal in its judgement said it failed to understand how the then environment minister, Ramesh, approved the project despite having most of the Hasdeo-Aran Coal field under “no-go area” in 2011. The tribunal noted that the ministry refused to grant approval to a similar project, Tara Coal mines, in the vicinity of PEKP, stating the area was rich in biodiversity. “The very minister previously entertained an opinion in response to the FAC's view as regards to ... neighbouring Tara Coal Block on August 2, 2010. From the record it is not very well understood as to what made his mind change overnight,” states the order passed by the tribunal.
Ramesh on his part had given six reasons to overrule FAC's recommendations in order to approve PEKB coal mining project. These included meeting electricity needs of the country; the minister also stated that the project was on the fringe of the biodiversity-rich area in the region. However, the tribunal said: “mere expression of the fanciful reasons relating to environmental concerns without any basis in actual situation, scientific study or past experience would not render the advice of the FAC—a body of experts—inconsequential.” Further, the tribunal said the minister rejecting the recommendation of such expert body must bear in mind that he is countering an expert opinion and in doing so he must meet it with such opinion or viewpoint which it would outweigh both by content and quality.
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