Coal Allocation: The full story

Coal mines in India are being opened for commercial mining for the very first time. While launching the auction process, the Prime Minister said coal mining will pave the way for development in the tribal-dominated areas. But many experts believe that it will lead to natural calamities, displacement, and pollution

Rohin Kumar
| Updated: June 23rd, 2020

The process of the auction of 41 coal mines in India has commenced as part of the Centre’s Atmanirbhar (self-reliant) India campaign on June 18. It is for the first time that coal mines in India are being opened for commercial mining. While launching the auction process, the Prime Minister said coal mining will pave the way for development in tribal-dominated areas. Employment opportunities will be created. He also added that the government will ensure that the allocation of coal mines does not make any difference to India’s environmental commitments.

In the light of the coal scam in September 2014, the Supreme Court had decided to cancel 204 coal block allocations out of the 218 done between 1993 and 2011. The court said there was a lack of transparency in the allocations of all these coal blocks. Out of the 14 blocks which were not cancelled, 12 were ultra mega power projects and two belonged to the NTPC and SAIL.

However, in October 2014, the next month, the government brought out an ordinance on coal mine allocation. The then finance minister supported the government’s decision by stating that there is a dire need for fuel in the fields of cement, steel and energy. He assured the country that priority will be given to the public sector companies in allocation. Private companies will have to pay a fixed ‘levy’ (a fixed amount) by the Supreme Court. He also stressed on the need to take care of the interests of Coal India.

For the first time, a provision for commercial mining had been made by the NDA government in the Coal Mines (Special Provision) Act, 2015. It is not that 31 coal mines have been allocated from 2014 to 2020. But the major change under the Minerals Act (Amendment) Bill, 2020 is that, so far, the “end-use” limit was applicable to private companies. The “end-use” means that companies could only use coal for consumption during their production such as electricity, cement, etc. Now, they have also been given the flexibility to sell coal in the market.

Now companies without “end-use” limits will also be able to participate in the auction. Photo: PIB

But why did the government need the Mineral Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2020? What was the government’s projection for increasing coal consumption for which commercial mining had to be approved? Areas under the “no-go zones” had to be opened up for mining? What would be the impact of coal mining in the large parts of the forests of central India? Yet another government embarks upon the process of auctioning mines in the country that has already faced scams of coal mine allocation known as “Coalgate”. Can the government assure the citizens that the mines will be auctioned in a transparent manner? What would be its impact on India’s climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement? When there is a general economic slowdown, which companies are showing interest in coal, which is not considered as a favourable deal?

The pros and cons of commercial mining

It is not that the intervention of private companies in the coal sector would begin with the approval for commercial mining. Rather, private companies have already been functioning as mine developers cum operators). A book titled ‘Commercial Coal Mining and MDO: The New Way of Corporate Loot has talked in detail about the MDO model. According to this book, it is alleged that the entire development and operation of coal mines is being entrusted to the close corporate houses of the government from the back door in connivance with the government companies through the MDO model and the transparent auction process of allocation is being distorted.

The government companies that were allotted the coal mines had appointed private companies as the MDOs. The mine developer-cum-operator is responsible for the development and operation of the coal mine. The MDO is responsible for taking all the environmental clearances, acquiring land, appointment of other contractors for operation of mine, coal transportation etc. The Union Coal and Mines Minister Prahlad Joshi has enumerated several benefits of the commercial mining and hailed it as an important step towards a self-reliant India.

Coal and mines minister Prahlad Joshi in an article argued that due to the captive mining (end-use) limit, private companies had kept away from investing in the coal sector. The government has worked continuously for the last six years to improve the situation. Now, global companies will also have the opportunity to invest in India’s coal sector. This would aid the Indian industry in improving its production capacity.

Pond near NTPC power plant in Korba. Photo: Rohin Kumar

In areas where the process of auction of coal blocks has been initiated, the local people and the experts working on coal-related issues do not agree with the words of the Union Minister. In connection with the approval of commercial mining, Priyanshu Gupta, an IIM Kolkata scholar and an expert on coal-related affairs, said: “Coal India has estimated in its Coal Vision report 2030 (released in 2018) that the number of coal mines they have in terms of the current growth rate is capable of meeting India’s energy needs. The same report also says that with as many mines that Coal India has, India’s energy requirements for a decade can be met.”

When Coal India has already projected self-sufficiency and is poised for its projected target, what self-sufficiency is targeted through commercial mining? “About 90 coal mines have been auctioned and allotted since 2015. Out of these, 31 have been allocated and only 28 mines are operational among these 31 too. It means that about 62 mines are still non-operational. It has been five years and we have not been able to start mining there yet,” he said.

“One of the reasons for this has been that so far there was the restriction of end-use. Coal could be used only for power generation and in iron and steel industry. On the other hand, since there is no demand for coal in India, out of the 31 allocated mines, eight private companies have scrapped their contracts. This clearly means that these large-scale coal allocations are not taking into account the domestic energy consumption of the country in the least,” Priyanshu told Gaon Connection.

According to the coal secretary, Anil Jain, coal production was estimated at 602.14 million tonnes in the year 2019-20. Coal production is estimated at 700 million tonnes in the year 2020-21. Coal India is moving towards the target of annual coal production of one billion tonnes by the year 2024. Besides, India imports 235 million tonnes of coal every year. About half of it is given to thermal power plants for power generation. According to Jain, the government wants to reduce its coal imports by reducing the remaining half. The target of reduction in imports will be met by increasing domestic production.

Elephant in Ongna village in Dharmajaygarh of ​​Chhattisgarh died due to lightning. Due to the decrease in the forest area, elephants damage large-scale farming in this area. Photo: Subrata Biswas / Greenpeace India.

Whether it is Coal India’s estimate or India’s global commitment to climate change, it is not a right time to invest in coal in both the situations. After all, in whose interest is such self-sufficiency? We get an idea of this in the Prime Minister’s address on June 18. “India will turn Covid-19 crisis into an opportunity. This calamity has inspired us to become self-reliant. Being self-sufficient means that India will have to reduce its dependence on imports and save upon the foreign exchange spent on imports. We will have to increase production by using local resources and this would mean that the things we have been importing so far, we’d have to lead in their exports.

However, Priyanshu does not agree with the Prime Minister. He said: “Is it in the interest of the country to export coal? Is it not only coal exports but also imports of natural disaster, displacement and pollution?”

Tribal society, displacement and environment

Coal production has been presented by every government in an appealing manner. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also did the same. “The improvement in the coal sector will enable development in the tribal areas of the East and central India,” he said. There are a large number of aspirational districts in these areas where voluntary development and prosperity could not reach. There are 16 aspirational districts in our country where coal is available in abundance, but the people there have not been able to reap any benefit. The people of these places have to migrate to far-flung cities for employment.”

Alok Shukla, associated with the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, disagrees with the Prime Minister. He questions the Prime Minister or the government about how the development has taken place in the areas where coal mining is already undertaken. “The Prime Minister should tell about one area in the country where coal mining has not led to environmental hazard. He should quote one model village where mining has not led to displacement and the displaced people have received adequate rehabilitation,” he said.

Part of the Prime Minister’s address to the nation. Photo: PIB

Many of the 41 coal blocks which have been taken up for auction process, have been biodiversity areas of the central India. The region comprises the densest forests of Hasdeo forest spread over about 1.7 lakh hectares. Also, environment clearance has not been taken before opening of several of these areas for coal mine allocation. For example, Morga-II in Hasdeo forest coal block in Korba district of Chhattisgarh. The area is spread over 26.64 sq km. About 85-90% of the land belongs to the forest. A part of the Hasdeo River (tributary of Mahanadi) falls in this area. Similarly, 50% of the Chakla and Pilatund Tilaiya coal block in Jharkhand is forest area.

Avinash Chanchal, author of Singrauli Files and an environmental activist, has been associated with the coal fields’ issue of Chhattisgarh. He also does not see any point in the Prime Minister’s claims. He said: “Whether it is the power plant located in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh or Tamil Nadu, local people have to be displaced. The local communities, whose livelihood resources are these forests, are being evicted from there. They are also not being provided with any alternative source of income. Coal allocation is a conspiracy to wipe out an entire civilization based upon forests.”

In fact, in the past, the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Coal had together agreed that dense forests and the environmentally-sensitive areas should be protected from coal mining. It was then termed “go/no go study” of coal mines. In 2009, the Ministry of Environment included 396 coal blocks out of 602 coal blocks in the “go zone” where mining could be sanctioned. Two-hundrend and six coal blocks were included in the “no-go zone”. On identification of a large number of coal mines as “no-go”, the PMO constituted a committee under the chairmanship of the then Planning Commission member BK Chaturvedi. Later, 53 more coal blocks were included in the “go-zone”. After the Coal Mines (Special Provision) Act, 2015, the Forest Survey of India identified coal mines as “violate” and “inviolate” instead of go/no- go.

People in Korba are suffering skin diseases because of the polluted air and water in the region. Photo: Rohin Kumar

Despite this, the Ministry of Coal did not exempt the Hasdeo forest region from coal mining. In the last five years, the coal mines in Parsa, Madanpur South, Kente Extension, Paturia and Gidhmuri within Hasdeo forest region have been allocated to government companies.

The Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan has demanded that coal blocks which were included in the “no-go zone” should not be put up for auction. Nine gram sabhas of Hasdeo forest region have appealed to the Prime Minister to stop the auction of coal mines. In a letter to the Prime Minister, the gram sabhas have underscored the importance of Hasdeo forest region. It is written, “Hasdeo is a resourceful forest, the habitat area of a wide variety of wildlife, including elephant and is full of biodiversity. It is the most environmentally important area not only in Chhattisgarh but also in the entire central India. For these reasons, this area is also known as the “lungs of Chhattisgarh”. If mining is done in this area, not only will the entire region be ruined, but India’s fight against climate change will also receive an unsurmountable setback.”

“The elephant-human conflicts have increased in areas like Parsa and Paturia,” said Jaynandan Singh Portey, the sarpanch of village Ghatbarra, District Sarguja, in a conversation with Gaon Connection. “It will be tragic for the wildlife, if the forests were destroyed in this area.”

The Chhattisgarh Environment Minister Mohammad Akbar has also written to Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar appealing for a ban on mining activities in the Hasdeo forest region. Akbar’s letter mentions: “In view of the continuous rise in the elephant population in the state of Chhattisgarh, increasing incidents of human-elephant conflict and the need for elephant habitat, it has been decided to declare 1995 sq km area adjoining the Hasdeo River as the Lemaru Elephant Reserve. In whose compliance the proceedings for publication of notification are in progress. Prevention of future mining activities in the said area is very essential for protection of forest and environment of the state and effective control of future human elephant conflict incidents.”

Mohammad Akbar, environment minister Chhattisgarh, writes letter to Prakash Javadekar, union minister of environment

The Gram Sabhas have also questioned the government’s Atmanirbhar India campaign. “On one hand, you [the Prime Minister] are talking about self-sufficiency, on the other hand, promoting a process detrimental to self-sufficiency, livelihood, culture and lifestyle. Our area is entirely dependent on the forest, the destruction of which shall endanger the very existence of its people.” The gram sabhas have also questioned India’s commitment against climate change.

India and climate change commitment

According to the Paris Agreement 2015, India has to reduce its carbon emissions by 2.5-3 billion tonnes by 2030. A reduction in carbon emissions will be possible only by increasing the forest cover. As per the State of Forest Report 2017, 24% of India’s geographical area is forest cover. India has talked on the global platform about its aim to enhance the forest cover in the country by at least 33%. The National Forest Policy 2018 has also shown its committment to developing forest cover upon one-third of the geographical area of the country.

On the other hand, the Government of India has set itself a target of 175 GW (100 GW of solar and 60 GW of wind energy) renewable energy by 2022. The government’s ambition is to produce 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030. The Universal Ecological Fund’s report “The Truth Behind Climate Plays” stated that if India is to fulfil its commitments as per the Paris Agreement, it will have to double its existing forest area. However, the report pointed out that India is progressing somewhat in line with the Paris Agreement. In its studies, the organization found India’s past per person carbon emission to be less than two tonnes, which is lower than any other industrial nation.

Seven cities of India have already made it to the list of the ten most polluted cities of the world. The average temperature in the country is rising. The number of natural calamities and the amount of damage caused by them is increasing every year. Should then an environmentally-sensitive country like India encourage such kind of development in the coal sector under pretext of self-sufficiency?

Children forced to wear masks even on normal days due to the air pollution. Photo: Rohin Kumar

“The environment ministry should have been absolutely concerned about this issue. It should have ensured no allocation of coal mines risking biodiversity. Sadly, our environment ministry has forsaken environment to focus upon development. It is giving out environment clearances,” said Alok Shukla of the Chhattisgarh Bachao andolan.

Avinash Chanchal speaks about the damage caused to the environment due to coal mining. “There is air pollution, water pollution in these areas. When such polluted water is used for irrigation in the fields, it also creates a precarious situation for land and food security. These areas are witnessing outbreaks of various mysterious diseases. Therefore, opening up of Hansdev forest like areas for coal mining activities is definitely an infringement of the rights of local communities,” he said.

Former coal secretary Anil Swarup had lauded the allocation of coal in his article in the New Indian Express. He questioned the figures in the Coalgate scam of former CAG Vinod Rai and wrote that since that incident, there developed a hesitation within bureaucracy to handle coal issues. Gaon Connection has dispatched him a list of questions. There hasn’t been any response despite two days having passed since. The story will be updated upon his response.

In the coming days, the issue of coal allocation seems to be gaining momentum. 50 trade unions opposing the coal allocation at Dhanbad have been booked. The Jharkhand government has filed a petition to stop the auction of coal mines in the Supreme Court.