Industry and the environment

Coal auctions in the time of COVID

Print edition : July 03, 2020

An excavator loading soil onto a truck at an open castcoal mine near Mahagama, Jharkhand, on April 5, 2019. Photo: XAVIER GALIANA/AFP

Ten-month-old cubs at the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) in Maharashtra on September 6, 2018. The Bander coal block in the State is part of the wildlife corridor animals use to move from the TATR to the Ghodazari Wildlife Sanctuary, also in Chandrapur district, to the Bor Tiger Reserve in the neighbouring district of Wardha and then to the Melghat Tiger Reserve in Amravati district. It is the only corridor connecting Tadoba to Melghat and is of vital importance to tigers. Photo: Bryan Denton/The New York Times

A Google satellite hybrid map of eastern Maharashtra showing the Bander coalfield bordering the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, which is India’s premier tiger reserve with more than 100 tigers. If the coalfield is developed, it will severely disrupt wildlife movement by cutting into existing wildlife corridors that allow for the free and safe movement of animals.

The Central government’s latest plan to auction off 41 coal blocks in the forest areas of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh poses a threat to these eco-sensitive areas, and especially in Maharashtra it threatens one of India’s premier tiger reserves and a crucial wildlife corridor.

THE Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has been in top gear during the pandemic lockdown and has shown an unseemly eagerness to clear projects at a time when restrictions have prevented field visits and other due processes from being carried out. In this period, the Ministry attempted to dilute the process of environmental impact assessment, ensured that the National Board for Wildlife issued a host of clearances, proposed the denotification of the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary near Chennai, cleared the construction of the Hubballi-Ankola railway line through the Western Ghats and, in its latest move, worked on the auction of coal blocks in forest areas.

On June 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the process of auctioning 41 coal blocks of coking and non-coking coal reserves for commercial mining. The blocks are in the forest areas of Madhya Pradesh (11 blocks), Maharashtra (3), Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh (9 each). The 41 prospective mines, seven of which are totally new blocks, hold about 16,980 million tonnes of coal and are expected to bring in Rs.33,000 crore of capital investment for India over a period of five to seven years. The government claims that 2.8 lakh people will be employed across these blocks and that States will also benefit because of a total expected revenue of Rs.20,000 crore annually.

Modi said: “Mineral-rich regions have not prospered as they should have [and] reforms and investment in the coal sector will bring ease to living in remote areas.” He also promised that environmental matters would be looked after. He described the plan as a “big step” and a “win-win situation [which will] help all sectors”.

Despite the token mention of the environment, it is clear that it will be the private players who bid for the blocks that will benefit. An easy path has been laid out to entice investors. This is the first time that coal blocks will be auctioned through the newly created market-determined revenue-sharing model, which sets aside the old model in which there was a fixed fee per tonne. The other attraction of this auction is that there are no end-use restrictions, which means investors can trade the coal in the market and will not be restricted to using it for a government-designated purpose. The government has also not insisted that bidders have any prior experience in this sector. As a further lure, the government has initiated the land acquisition process and has already acquired land in 12 cases.

The day after the auction was launched, the Jharkhand government petitioned the Supreme Court challenging the Centre’s decision to proceed with the auction. And three days after that, the governments of Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra also raised objections.

The three coal blocks in Maharashtra are Bander, Marki-Mangli-II and Takli-Jena-Bellora North and South in the forests in Chandrapur and Yavatmal districts in the eastern part of the State. The Bander coal block is the most crucial one since it is located on the border of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR), a no-go zone that means no mining. If the mines are allowed here, then a crucial wildlife corridor will be destroyed.

Aaditya Thackeray, Maharashtra’s Minister for Tourism and Environment, wrote to his Union counterpart, Prakash Javadekar, opposing the auction and informing him of the work former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh did in getting the area surveyed and in finding that “reports suggest that the mine site is not suitable at all”.

A November 12, 2010, report of the National Tiger Conservation Authority shows that the fight for this region has a history. A committee was set up to appraise sites of coal sector proposals vis-a-vis the buffer/corridor areas of tiger reserves. The report made the following points:

“The area is rich in wildlife and has recorded heavy human-wildlife conflict… [there is] the fear of this increasing in the future if we do not address the issue of land use management.”

“…the area hosts a good population of tiger, leopard, sambar… 2 men and 1 woman died…in an attack by a tiger… the locations are merely 4 kms from the proposed mine area.”

“The coal block is situated at a distance of…8 kms from Chimur… close to the Khadsangi gate of TATR.”

“The project proponent has stated that the aerial distance of open cast mine is merely 0.5 kms from the TATR and the same for the underground mine is 7.5 kms from TATR and both sites fall in the proposed Eco Sensitive Area.”

These observations from 2010 still hold good.

While official declaration of the auction results is awaited, the only hope now is that the State government will refuse to give the necessary wildlife and environmental clearances, which are its prerogative to issue.

In terms of its population of about 100 tigers and the density of tigers, the TATR is a premier reserve of the country. If mining is allowed here, more than 1,200 hectares of a rich biodiverse forest will be lost. Bandar is part of the wildlife corridor that animals use to move from the TATR to the Ghodazari Wildlife Sanctuary, also in Chandrapur district, to the Bor Tiger Reserve in the neighbouring district of Wardha and then to the Melghat Tiger Reserve in Amravati district. In fact, it is the only corridor connecting Tadoba to Melghat and is of vital importance to tigers.

The coal blocks are ostensibly being auctioned in an attempt to cut coal import costs, but it is also to lure players into what the government hopes will be a profitable coal market.

Kishor Rithe, former Member, National Board for Wildlife, and founder of the Satpuda Foundation, which is involved in conservation work in the region, is a loud voice for the use of renewable energy. In an article on the occasion of World Environment Day, he wrote: “In 2012, the energy demand was more than the installed capacity in India and many parts of our country were facing load shedding problems. Many players were applying for coal mining leases and thermal power plants. However, the energy sector has changed in the last 8 years. The power demand is 40% of the total installed capacity today. On 24th March 2020, while the industries were operating, the power demand was 146 GW [gigawatt] against the installed capacity of 369 GW. This includes 198 GW from thermal power plants, 88 GW from renewable energy sources (RE) and 83 GW from other sources like biofuel, etc. This shows that the country can progress with RE and other energy sources than the coal based thermal power plants. So, … high time when we should phase out the thermal power in next four years and reduce the pollution level in the country. Same time the RE plants to be set up in the same districts to accommodate the employees. This can be done by providing incentives to RE projects and withdrawing support to coal fired power projects.”

Thackeray tweeted: “why once again must we waste time and energy over a futile process when we know that it will destroy the wildlife corridor of Tadoba and Andhari… twice before, once in 1999 and then around 2011, the auction has been scrapped after evaluation.”

But perhaps the most telling fact on the future of coal is that global mining giants such as Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Glencore have not, so far, shown any enthusiasm for India’s coal auction even though the government now allows 100 per cent foreign direct investment in coal mining.

People of the region have had to constantly fend off mining threats and have, by and large, managed to retain the environmental integrity of the area. It remains to be seen whether or not the resistance is successful this time too.

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