On June 18, the government initiated the auction of 41 coal blocks that can produce 225 million tonnes of coal per year. Allowing 100% foreign direct investment, global companies can also participate in the auctions.
This is expected to generate employment, reduce the import bill, and make India self-reliant.
Interestingly enough, only a week after the auction launch, in a virtual press conference, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said–
“There is no reason for any country to include coal in their COVID-19 recovery plans, and investments should instead be made in non-polluting energy sources.
We cannot go back to the way it was and simply recreate the systems that have aggravated the crisis. We need to build back better with more sustainable, inclusive, gender-equal societies and economies.“
Even experts have said that this was a misplaced priority. The coal sector is costly, debt-ridden, and highly polluting. The global energy landscape is evolving, but the government has proven that they support mining and coal use.
Let’s dive deeper into this.
Problems with Commercial Mining and Its Implementation:
- Dilution of Laws: There are no end-use or pricing restrictions. Private firms can choose to gasify or export coal or any other minerals. Allowing even firms with no prior experience in coal mining, the government has done away with all eligibility criteria – except for an upfront payment. The coal ministry will also help corporations in acquiring statutory environment and other approvals in 30 rather than 90 days. Even a media report shows how Dr. Harshvardhan and Prakash Javadekar have diluted India’s Green Law.
‘The messaging of the auction process signals that the government sees these places as mere coal-bearing areas, from where projects interested in commercial coal mining will extract for private profit.’ – Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research
- Governance Failure of Washeries and Why India is the Second-Largest Importer: On May 21, the environment ministry withdrew the January 2014 notification that required Thermal Power Plants (TPPs) to use coal with less than 34% ash content. No public inputs were taken.
Indian coal contains 30-50% ash. So, a manufacturing or power-producing unit has to burn more coal, which generates ash, noxious gases, particulate matter, and carbon emissions. Therefore, coal washeries are required to improve the quality and efficiency of low-grade, high-ash Indian coal. Now, the government has also diluted the regulation that requires power plants to use washed coal, calling it an ‘unnecessary cost on coal users’.
India has the world’s fifth-largest coal reserves, yet it’s the world’s second-largest importer. It imports almost all the coking coal needed for its steel industry, which can be provided by washed coal. It is the governance failure of washeries that has caused the wasteful use of India’s coal reserves, loss of foreign exchange, and colossal environmental and social impacts.
- Unregulated TTPs: TTPs generate the worst form of waste, called fly ash. They can pollute farmlands and water bodies on a large scale. There is enough evidence to show that fly ash management by TPPs has failed, and the environment ministry has no regard for implementing emission standards. They have shown no intention to comply with existing environmental laws, neither have a sense of social responsibility. Profits are their only concern.
- No Forged Clearance: Mines up for auction on the website of state-run MSTC Ltd showed several do not have the required forest clearance and are located amidst protected forests. A government inquiry found that gram sabha consent needed for any mining activity was forged, and therefore null and void.
- Impact on Forest and Water Bodies: Mining will decimate 55% of the forest area near Jharkhand’s Chakla mine, 50% in Choritand Tilaiya, and 44% in Seregarha. Madanpur North in Chhattisgarh and Morga II are 85-90% forest land and are within the drainage of Hasdeo River, a major tributary of the Mahanadi river. Madhya Pradesh’s Gotitoria East coal block is 80% forest and acts as drainage for the Sitarewa river. There are several other blocks among the 41 where operations will involve massive forest loss.
‘The mining will pollute the Hasdeo river and impact the home of elephants in Hansdeo Arand and its catchment area.’ – Sudeip Shrivastava, Environment Lawyer and Activist of Chhattisgarh
- Displacement of Villages and Tribal Population: In each state, ~10000 families will get displaced, and around ~30 lakh trees would be uprooted. Alok Shukla of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, who has been working for tribal rights for the last 10 years, also gave similar figures. This is a blatant disregard of Constitutional provision that requires the state to safeguard the rights of tribal population under the Fifth Schedule.
‘It is unfortunate that when the communities are already grappling with the COVID-19 crisis, they are faced with the uncertainty and threat of displacement. It is these natural resources that make us independent, and money or any other form of compensation can’t substitute that in any sense.’ – Devsay, Sarpanch of Madanpur village in Korba district, Chhattisgarh
It beats me how the government was ignorant of these issues, and appeals by local authorities and experts. They seem to have only the capitalistic needs of businessmen at the center, and even Chief Minister of Jharkhand, Hemant Soren called it out. *cough* Ambanis and Adanis *cough*
Terming the mining as a ‘triple disaster’, former environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, wrote to Prakash Javadekar. He accused the minister and PM, rightly so, of lying about fighting global warming.
‘The Prime Minister had compared coal to diamonds yesterday. This is the language of 1970s and early 1980s. Nobody concerned with global warming and climate change would have made such a statement.’ – Former Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh
Coal mining would adversely impact country’s natural ecosystems
Let this sink in: Our country, without fail, tops the list of disaster displacement in Asia and is the third-largest emitter of climate change-inducing carbon dioxide, after China and the USA.
Ministry of Earth Science released a climate report on June 14 warning that coal is among the biggest contributors to climate change.
Increasingly hot temperatures and pollution are likely to raise the energy demand for air conditioning, purifiers, and other cooling systems. If this demand is met by thermal power, it would only add to greenhouse gas emissions, and in turn, global warming.
The environmental damage has already triggered heatwaves, droughts, cyclones, floods, and erratic rainfall. Coal mining would adversely impact the country’s natural ecosystems, agricultural output, and freshwater resources, while also damaging infrastructure (*cough* Taj Mahal *cough*), it says.
‘We are already facing the perils of coal mining by Coal India in Talcher. There is already a rising number of cancer cases and several respiratory diseases in the district due to coal mining. Once 8 blocks in Chhendipada are mined, the area would literally be hell.’ – Smita Patnaik, Head of NGO Nari Suraksha Manch in Odisha’s Angul district
This is a typical case of a growing consumerist society addicted to cheap power. It keeps mineral-rich states poor with low and often unpaid royalties, and hazardous living conditions.
The government is, clearly, incompetent, and/or unwilling to regulate these private companies. The companies themselves have no regard for environmental or labor laws. It’s nothing but an attack on the right to food, work, and life of people in the coal regions.
Have we learned nothing from the pandemic? Coronavirus has shown us that we have abused the environment. We absolutely cannot go back to the “normal”. We shouldn’t rely on fossil fuels and open up our ecologically-sensitive areas for industrial projects.
What we do need is long-term planning for a sustainable economy. The natural resources of India are our lifeline, and we have to put them at the center of our politics.
In conclusion, message from a Gen-Z: Sorry, but we don’t need your capitalistic idea of development packaged as Atma Nirbhar Bharat.
(The views expressed in the article are the author’s own. Let Me Breathe neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)