After Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra oppose the Centre’s auction of 41 coal blocks for commercial mining

Recently the Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the auction of 41 coal mines for commercial mining in the country. Jharkand has already approached the Supreme Court opposing this move. Now, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra governments have written to the Union environment minister opposing the auction to protect its forests, a tiger reserve and a proposed elephant reserve

Nidhi Jamwal
Deputy Managing Editor| Updated: June 22nd, 2020

Photo: flickr

Three days after the Jharkhand government approached the Supreme Court of India challenging the Centre’s approval of the auction of 41 coal mines for commercial mining in the country, Maharashtra’s environment minister, Aaditya Thackeray, has written to the Union environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, opposing the proposed auction, as the mine site is located near Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in Chandrapur district of the state.

At the same time, the Chhattisgarh environment minister, Mohammad Akbar, has also approached Javadekar seeking removal of five coal blocks from the auction list. In his letter dated June 20, he has informed that due to the rising human-elephant conflict in the region, the state government has proposed 1,995 square km in Hasdeo Aranya forests as the Lemru elephant reserve. Any further destruction of the forests will increase the conflict, and hence auction of coal blocks in and around Hasdeo Aranya and Mand river should be cancelled. In the past, this area was identified as a ‘no-go area’ to preserve its rich biodiversity.

Through his Twitter handle, Thackeray informed that “twice before, once in 1999 and then around 2011, the auction has been scrapped after evaluation”; and the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh “had got the area surveyed and reports suggest that the mine site is not suitable at all.” He went on to say “why once again must we waste time and energy over a futile process when we know that it will destroy the wildlife corridor of Tadoba and Andhari”, and urgent the Union environment minister to protect the said area.

Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in Chandrapur. Photo: flickr

It was on June 18, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the auction of 41 blocks of coal for commercial mining in the country. while launching the auction process, Modi called it a “big step” and a “win-win situation for every stakeholder. The market for coal is now open. It will help all sectors.”

The commercial mining of these coal blocks is expected to generate approximately Rs 33,000 crore of capital investment in the country over the next five to seven years. These blocks, spread across Odisha (9), Jharkhand (9), Madhya Pradesh (11), Maharashtra (3) and Chhattisgarh (9), are expected to provide employment to 2.8 lakh people and contribute Rs 20,000 crore revenue annually to the state governments.

But, the very next day, Jharkhand government approached the Supreme Court of India and filed a write petition challenging the decision of the Central government to go ahead with the coal blocks auction. Among other things, the petition stresses on the “need for fair assessment of the social and environmental impact on the huge tribal population and vast tracks of forest lands of the State and its residents which are likely to be adversely affected”.

It goes on to note the “negative global investment climate prevailing due to COVID-19 which is unlikely to fetch reasonable returns proportionate to the value of the scarce natural resource through the impugned auctions for commercial coal mining”. The petition also reminds about the “limitations of Schedule V of the Constitution viz-a-viz Schedule Areas falling under the State”.

Mining in Jharkhand. Photo: flickr

Lashing at the Centre’s approval of the auction process, Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren said “the decision by the Union coal ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office to go ahead with commercial mining and coal block auctions without acknowledging our concerns around the potential socio-economic, environmental costs and the impact on our forests and tribal population is blatant disregard of co-operative federalism”.

It must be noted earlier this month, on June 10, Soren had written to the Union minister of coal, mines & parliamentary affairs, Prahlad Joshi, seeking “a moratorium on the proposed mineral auction process for six to nine months for ensuring competitive auction process that would ensure sustainable mineral development” in the state.

In his letter, Soren had mentioned “coal and iron ore are the two most significant minerals that would come up for competitive auction. However, both these minerals are found in districts that have significant forest cover and host a large proportion of population belonging to Schedule Tribe and Backward Community”. He clarified that the state government was “not averse to the proposed competitive and level playing field in the auction process”, but it would be “extremely important to minimise the adverse impact of mining activities on our forest wealth”, and “the subsequent distribution of wealth arising from such economic activities reaches even the most marginalised sections of our society”.

The chief minister had also raised a concern around the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and coal block auction. “Due to COVID-19 pandemic and national/international travel restrictions, many domestic/foreign players may not be able to participate in the proposed auction process… many domestic enterprises are facing financial liquidity crunch in the current scenario of slowed down economy”.

Many tribal people work in these coal mines. Photo: flickr

However, ignoring the demand for a moratorium, the Central government launched the auction process for commercial mining of 41 coal blocks in the country. The matter is now before the Supreme Court of India.

“Jharkhand has raised a very important issues of federalism, environmental protection and tribal rights. We can’t do mining without taking state governments into confidence or without a social license to operate from the affected communities,” Chandra Bhushan, president and chief executive officer the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology (iFOREST) told Gaon Connection. Bhushan, a well known environmentalist, has been tracking the mining sector for over two decades now.

Meanwhile, a number of organisations working with the tribal communities in the country have opposed the recent coal mine auction by the Centre. For instance, Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha, a coalition of progressive organisations, has welcomed the state government’s move to challenge the central government’s decision in the Supreme Court. “We hope that the state government will not allow commercial coal mining and implement the laws and legislation that protect people’s rights to natural resources and self-governance,” it said.

Several villages in Chhattisgarh have also opposed the Centre’s recent move. One June 15, there days before he announced the coal blocks auction, nine village heads wrote to Modi to remove five coal blocks in the state from the auction list. They informed 20 gram panchayats in the area, through their gram sabhas, have protested against the proposed mining and demanded protection of the forests. A total of nine coal blocks in Chhattisgarh are listed for auction.

In Maharashtra also, with three coal blocks listed for auction, protests have erupted against the auction of Bander coal block situated near the Navegaon and Kolara gates on the periphery of Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in Chandrapur. The said area has been demarcated as a ‘no-go’ zone.

“The most worrying part about the recent move of the Centre is that some of these coal blocks were classified as ‘no-go’ areas mutually by the coal and the environment ministry because of their very high ecological value. Nothing has changed on the ground to remove them from the ‘no-go’ classification,” said Bhushan.

“The recent announcement of coal blocks auction by the Prime Minister has nothing to do with the energy needs of the country. It is only about corporate profits,” alleged Alok Shukla, Convenor of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, Raipur. “Hasdeo area has thick forests and is a catchment area for rivers. The Central government has no concern for the environment, or the rights of the tribal communities, which are protected by the Constitution,” he told Gaon Connection.

Thus, of the total five states in which the 41 coal blocks are proposed for commercial mining — Odisha, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, three states have already raised their objections. This is likely to put a spanner in the Centre’s move for commercial mining in the country.