In a setback to the environment lobby, a Group of Ministers (GoM) on Tuesday scrapped the environment ministry's policy categorizing mining and non-mining forest areas, known as 'go-no-go' saying it had no "legal basis".
But, upholding the basic idea behind the policy -- to preserve bio-diversity rich forests -- the GoM headed by finance minister Pranab Mukerjee asked the Forest Survey of India (FSI) to "scientifically" demarcate pristine forests.
"These forests would be the one which cannot be humanly rejuvenated and where no mining will be allowed," a senior government official said, adding that the demarcation should be done on scientifically agreed norms.
Once the FSI identify the rich forest areas, the GoM decided the environment ministry will notify them as no mining zones.
Till the new notification is issued, the environment ministry's Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) will consider the held up coal projects on case to case basis. The FAC is a statutory body to allow diversion of forestland for projects of any nature.
The FAC since 2010 -- when go no go policy was enforced -- had refused examination of coal projects falling in no go area in 209 coal blocks. Initially, the no go area was 44% which was reduced to 29% following an intervention by the Prime Minister's Office.
Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh had defended the policy but coal minister Shriprakash Jaiswal convinced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to get the policy reviewed by a ministerial group.
The GoM's decision is seen as a reprieve to the coal sector, which had blamed the policy for reducing the coal production target for 2011-12 from 680 million tonnes to 554 million tonnes.
Environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan, who blamed coal sector for falling production at the GoM, reportedly opposed the move to open entire forestland for mining, saying blanket clearance would be violation of environmental laws.
She was supported by Mukerjee and home minister P Chidambaram, who suggested a new survey that can be a legal basis for identifying no mining zones.
The GoM also rejected a proposal to restrict mandate of the gram sabha (village body) under Forest Rights Act (FRA) to give consent to the projects following a view that powers of gram sabha cannot be ignored.
Tribal affairs minister Kishore Chandra Deo and Chidambaram spoke against the proposal.
The GoM also did not agree with suggestion of coal and power ministries to allow automatic forest clearance for up to 25% expansion of the on going projects.