Amid a tussle between ministries of coal and environment over mining issues, the Cabinet on Thursday decided to constitute a group of ministers (GoM) to look into the issue of 'no-go' mining areas.
The decision of the Union Cabinet is aimed at finding a pragmatic and balanced approach towards the issue of environmental clearances to mining areas, while ensuring ecology is not hurt, sources said.
Talking to PTI, coal minister Sriprakash Jaiswal said: "the Cabinet Committee of Infrastructure (CCI) today referred the matter to a Group of Ministers for discussions on the issue".
He, however, added that "members of the panel will be decided by the Prime minister Manmohan Singh soon and we are waiting for the further guidelines".
The coal ministry has been pressing for lifting the ban but the environment ministry has refused to relent. As a result, the matter reached the Prime minister's Office which is keen to find a solution, sources said.
The GoM is likely to be headed by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and would include senior ministers -- home minister P Chidambaram, Jaiswal, environment minister Jairam Ramesh, mines minister B K Handique and Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the sources added.
Last year, environment ministry had defined 'no-go' areas for mining as those that have over 30% gross forest cover or over 10% weighted forest cover.
As per the guidelines, the mining is allowed only in the 'go' areas.
The 'no-go' classification has brought 206 coal blocks involving a production potential of 660 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) under its ambit.
"The issue is not percentage, our view is that a pragmatic approach should be followed which does not hamper the growth of the country and we are hopeful that the GoM will precisely achieve that," source in coal ministry said.
Earlier, the coal ministry had vehemently opposed 'no-go' classification, by saying that not permitting coal mining in 206 blocks would affect about 1,30,000 MW potential power generation capacity.
These coal blocks are spread across 4,039 sq km in nine coalfields.
The sources said an attempt is being made to find a balance between exploitation of the coal reserves and protection of the environment.
In this direction, an idea is being mooted under which mining in a forest area could be undertaken in phases, the sources said.
As per the idea, one part of a block could be opened for mining at a time and after all its reserves are extracted, it would be afforested again while mining would move to the second part and so on, they said.
Noting that average time of mining a block takes around 40 years, the sources said that by the time the fourth part of a block is opened for mining, the three earlier ones would have been afforested, possibly more densely than earlier.
Jaiswal had said earlier that such classification would further widen the demand-supply gap of coal, as India would be importing about 83 million tonnes in 2010-11.
He had also said that the country could see a coal shortage of 500 million tonnes in the next few years on account of such a classification.
Ahluwalia had also voiced his concerns over the issue and had called for a 'sensible' and 'flexible' definition of 'no-go' mining areas.
"The criteria that we use, to establish what is 'no-go' should be very carefully defined and should be based on some scientific considerations".
Categorisation of 206 coal blocks as 'no-go' mining areas has also put several existing and upcoming coal mining operations, including captive mines of two ultra mega power projects on bidding in Chhattisgarh and Orissa, under 'no-go' besides affecting Coal India's operations.
The GoM will formulate a strategy to find a solution to the issue and delve into all these issues.