Coal blocks within dense forests find place in latest auction list
Experts are concerned that loss of these primary forests will be a blow to the rich biodiversity in central India’s forests.
The government’s latest list of commercial coal mines up for auction includes at least two coal blocks in central India with dense forest cover, critical for biodiversity and wildlife in the region, according to people familiar with the matter.
On March 29, the Centre announced the 7th round of its coal mine auction, which has 101 mines, including Tara block in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand forests and Mahan coal block in Madhya Pradesh. Tara has a forest cover of 81%, of which very dense forest (VDF) cover is about 15.96sq km (1,596 ha) of the block; Mahan has a forest cover of 97% with very dense forests covering 3.72sq km (372 ha) of the block.
Both Tara and Mahan fall in the category of “inviolate” areas for mining as per an exercise undertaken by the Union environment ministry in 2012 to identify sites that are significant for conservation of biodiversity and forest types that are ecologically important.
The environment ministry through an order on March 30, 2012 constituted a committee under the chairmanship of then secretary, MoEF, to formulate parameters for identification of pristine forests where non-forestry activity would lead to irreversible damage. These were to be conserved for the larger objective of long-term conservation of forests in India and were informally termed no-go areas.
According to a list dated December 5, 2014 reviewed by HT, 32 coal blocks, including Mahan and Tara , were in the inviolate category. The decision on keeping these blocks in the “inviolate” category was not finalised thereafter according to government officials who asked not to be named.
According to the summary of coal mines available on MSTC Limited , the company which facilitates auctions of coal mines, less than 1% area (approx. 0.2sq km) of Tara block is overlapping with Lemru Elephant Reserve in the south-western boundary. Stage 1 forest clearance was granted to the mine through an MoEF letter dated July 5, 2011 and its mining capacity is 6 million tonnes per year (as per the approved mining plan). Mahan is approximately 15.7km to the Sanjay Dubri WLS from the western boundary and 24.5km to the Guru Ghasi Das Sanjay National Park from the southern boundary. Stage 2 or final forest clearance was granted to the mine through an MoEFCC letter dated February 12, 2014.
Experts are concerned that loss of these primary forests will be a blow to the rich biodiversity in central India’s forests. “We must be extra careful when considering diversion of natural forest there, as this region is not only unique because of the climate, the landscape and biodiversity. This region has a great history of nature-dependent lifestyle and a larger part of the population are tribal people living in very close association with forests. There has already been massive irreversible damage to this region from mining, thermal power and damming of rivers with very few patches left with good forests and clean rivers,” said Debadityo Sinha, Lead- Climate & Ecosystems, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.
In response to why coal blocks with such dense forest cover have been put up for auction, the coal ministry said in a statement: “The Tara mine was cleared for open cast mining based in Biodiversity study of Hasdeo Arand coal field prepared by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE). Secondly, Mahan mine has been proposed as an underground mine considering the high forest area. After the auction, the required forest and environmental clearances would have to be obtained by a successful bidder.”
The ministry of coal on March 29 launched the process for the 7th round of commercial coal mines auction with a total of 106 coal blocks on offer. The mines offered are a mix of coal mines under Coal Mines Special Provisions (CMSP) Act and Mines and Minerals (MMDR) Act. Out of 106 coal mines, 101 are being put up for auction under the 17th/ 7th Tranche under CMSP/ MMDR Act and 5 coal mines are being offered under the second attempt of 16th/ 6th Tranche.
During the launch, coal minister Pralhad Joshi said coal production is expected to touch a record figure of 880 million tonnes this fiscal . Coal production exclusively from captive /commercial mines has crossed 100 million tonnes for the first time, he added.
“Coal sector is fully geared to meet the growing demand. All efforts are on to further enhance production and export of thermal coal by the year 2025-2026,” he added in a statement issued by the ministry.
Hasdeo Arand is one of the largest contiguous stretches of very dense forest in central India spanning 170,000 ha and has 22 coal blocks underneath. In 2009, the environment ministry categorised Hasdeo Arand a “no go” area for mining because of its rich forest cover but opened it again for mining as this policy of inviolate zones was never finalised.