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Government panel approves mining on non-forest land without lease clearance

According to minutes of a FAC meeting dated October 28, which was uploaded on the ministry’s Parivesh website earlier this month and seen by HT, the committee approved commencing of mining in non-forest land but also imposed certain conditions.
The panel ruled that plans for mining in non-forest areas of a coal block will not involve any forest area (Agencies/Representative use.)
Updated on Nov 20, 2021 03:36 AM IST
ByJayashree Nandi, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

The Union environment ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) has decided to approve mining in non-forest land even before forest clearance is granted to allow the activity in contiguous forest land in blocks where mining involves both types of lands, people familiar with the matter said.

According to minutes of a FAC meeting dated October 28, which was uploaded on the ministry’s Parivesh website earlier this month and seen by HT, the committee approved commencing of mining in non-forest land but also imposed certain conditions.

The panel ruled that plans for mining in non-forest areas of a coal block will not involve any forest area; no component of mining activity in the non-forest land shall have any dependency in the forest area of the same block; such permission in the non-forest area shall not create any obligation or fait accompli with regard to clearances for the forest land involved; and if mining is intended in the forest area of the coal block, no reference of mining already taken up in non-forest area shall be made in such proposals.

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In case of any violation over forest area, the matter shall be dealt with as per provisions in the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, the panel added.

“The minutes are self-explanatory, so I do not want to comment on them,” a FAC member said, seeking anonymity.

Experts believe that permitting mining in non-forest land before prior clearance to contiguous forest land could set a wrong precedent.

“Mineral extraction and greater privatisation of mining operations, including that of coal, has been at the front and centre of the government’s economic priorities. These policy decisions are neither assessed for their ecological or social justice outcomes, nor are they evaluated for they may exacerbate global climate justice concerns. The changes to environment regulation mirrors this outlook. The present decision needs to be understood as another legal subsidy offered to the mining sector. The mitigation measures and conditions offered legitimise the overturning of precaution which were built in forest diversion procedures. The FAC’s final advice falls short of its own caution. Eventually, this decision, despite all the caveats, will allow for fragmentation of habitats and put undue pressure on regulators to approve forest diversion to protect the investments already carried out,” Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research, said.

HT in July had reported that the environment ministry is considering requests by the coal ministry to allow mining in non-forest areas where clearance has not been granted for the entire lease area, which includes forest land. To avoid “fait accompli” situations where mining begins before requisite permissions are granted, the FAC had directed the environment ministry’s regional office to prepare a briefing paper on the inter-dependency of forest and non-forest land where mining involves both land types.

The ministry, in its guidelines, says that work on non-forest land should not be started till the final forest clearance (Stage-II approval) of the Centre is granted. In light of the FAC decision, these guidelines are likely to be changed.

Environment ministry’s secretary, RP Gupta, however did not agree with FAC’s caution on preventing a ‘fait accompli’ situation. “I don’t agree with the recommendation of FAC. Even though lease area may include forest area, we are under no obligation to grant forest clearance. There can be no fait-accompli. If a project proponent undertakes mining operations in non-forest areas, it is none of our business to stop it and certainly casts no obligation on us to grant forest clearance. If some expenditure of the project proponent becomes infructuous, so be it,” he said.

Following the secretary’s observations, the FAC had directed the regional office of Bhopal to prepare a comprehensive briefing paper on an all-India basis on the matter.

The regional office recommended that in case of violations, the mining company should forgo a bank guarantee which may be prescribed, for such cases; relevant State Forest Act/Indian Forest Act whatever is relevant for such violation may be made applicable; and a penal compensation provision for violation of guidelines may be prescribed. The office had also recommended that the mining company give an undertaking that it will not claim a fait accompli plea in case of rejection of forest area for diversion.

These views were taken into consideration by the FAC before deciding on the matter.

At the Glasgow climate change conference earlier this month, India had objected to a draft text of the COP26 decision on phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies, suggesting that dependence on coal and fossil fuel subsidies be gradually reduced in line with national circumstances and recognising the need for support towards a just transition.

“We are dependent on coal, we probably have to enhance it and we are giving subsidies to poor people to help them have a basic subsistence level. To compare that with general utilisation, 20 times of the kind of energy (used) in some developed countries, is unfair,” a senior government official said.

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