Following an intervention by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, environment minister Jairam Ramesh has agreed to free 71% of the forestland in nine coalfields as against 53 % envisaged earlier. In return, he wants the coal sector to improve its environment report card.
Ramesh made the offer at the recent Group of Ministers meeting on environmental issues headed by finance minister Pranab Mukerjee after facing brickbats from his colleagues on promoting environment at the cost of economic growth.
“MoEF is prepared to consider revised “go no go” approach that frees 71% of the area in nine coalfields as opposed to original insistence of 53%. This is a huge compromise keeping in view PM’s instructions,” Ramesh said, in his presentation to the GoM.
Any area having crop density of more than 10% is defined as a forest. Of the 6.48 lakh hectares of forestland surveyed, 3.44 lakh was under the category of no go areas. On PMO insistence, the area was first increased to 56% and then finally to 71% or 4.62 lakh hectares.
But, in the same presentation, he wanted the GoM to ask Coal India Limited why it has failed to meet production targets despite having two lakh hectares of land, including 55,000 hectares of forestland, in its possession.
The minister also challenged the coal mining strategy by saying it was harsh on ecology and demonstrated some facts to showcase his claim. “One-third of coal mines are running with one type of violation or other and irrespective of whether environmental and forestry clearance are available or not,” he said.
On behalf of the state governments, Ramesh said no land has been returned back to any state government despite being in Coal India’s possession for 45 years. There is no systematic time-bound reclamation plan of mined out areas.
“As a result, forest given to coal companies is lost for ever. Plantations are no substitute for natural forests,” he said. As much as one million hectares of forestland has been lost because of projects approved in the forest areas.
For the slow pace of forestry clearance for coal projects, Ramesh has blamed Coal India by saying that it has very poor record in relief and rehabilitation of people affected by mining and its poor compliance of meeting the provisions of the Forest Rights Act for getting forestry clearance.
The ministry, on its part, has given approval for maximum production capacity to avoid periodic approvals and Coal India has been allowed to carry out compensatory afforestation in open, degraded forestland in Jharkhand.
The GoM is likely to take a call on environmental issues in the coal sector at its next meeting slated after results of assembly elections in five states are announced on May 13.