– globalbihari bureau
New Delhi: Relaxing the earlier condition that the bidder can use the coal only for a pre-specified captive use, the Ministry of Coal has identified 41 coal blocks (11 in MP, 9 each in Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Odisha and 3 in Maharashtra) for auction.
In other words, the end-use of the coal has now become open-ended for the first time.
Taking a serious note of the government decision, environmental and water organisations under the umbrella of The National Water Community (NWC) — a federation of 1570 organisations with 7800 members — on Saturday had a detailed discussion on aspects of coal auction and have written to Prime Minister to address their concerns as mentioned in the following paragraphs.
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These auctions are being held at a time when the nation is in the midst of a serious health crisis caused by COVID19. The bidders who are largely domestic players, some of whom are perhaps in default of bank loan repayments, may approach the Public Sector Undertaking banks, already burdened with heavy Non Performing Assets, for additional loan assistance. If the private players fail to deliver coal, as it happened in the past, the ultimate burden will fall on PSU banks.
Apparently, the Ministry’s justification for holding these auctions at this juncture is that India is presently forced to import about 200 tonnes of coal for the existing power plants. Production from new coal blocks will free India from imports. Facing a resource crunch, the government also expects private investments to fill the gap. Coal auctions are expected to yield additional revenue for the Centre and the States. More than all these reasons, the government seems to feel that the private sector enhances efficiency of coal mining, compared to the public sector.
The blocks under question are located in dense forests, rich in wildlife and biodiversity. They host the catchments of several rivers and streams that constitute the lifeline of the communities downstream. Some of these blocks overlap the tribal tracts notified under the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution that confers special rights on the tribal communities. A comprehensive appraisal of the environmental impact of mining in such blocks is yet to be made. On the other hand, the Union Environment Ministry is rushing through amendments that will dilute the environment impact appraisal procedures to the detriment of transparency and public accountability. While coal mining by private players may bring some limited revenue for the government, its long-term impact on the human, the social and the environmental fronts needs to be carefully assessed. Such an assessment does not seem to have been attempted.
Hence there are some very serious concerns —
- Impact on the lives of the tribals: Under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution which is applicable to a significant portion of the area covered by these blocks, there are two important Central laws, namely, the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act,1996 (PESA) and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (known popularly as the Forest Rights Act). Both these Acts confer special authority on the tribal Gram Sabhas. Under PESA, no project can be taken up without the prior consent of the local Gram Sabha. In Civil Appeal No 4601-2/1997 (Samatha vs State Of Andhra Pradesh And Ors), the apex court pronounced an Order on 11-7-1997 reiterating the Constitutional concept that private agencies cannot be entrusted with the extraction of any mineral in the Scheduled Areas and such mining can be carried out exclusively by tribal cooperatives or public sector agencies. In WP (C) No. 180/2011 (Orissa Mining Corporation vs Ministry of Environment & Others), the apex court pronounced an Order on 18-4-2013, reiterating the legal obligation cast upon the government to seek the local tribal Gram Sabha’s concurrence prior to either taking up mining or entrusting that mining activity to a private player. It is possible that the proposed coal block auctions will become a subject of judicial scrutiny, should any tribal group choose to question its legality. Considering the fact that coal mining in the tribal tracts will disrupt the tribals’ lives, livelihoods and their culture, the government ought to have sought the views of the local Gram Sabhas before taking a decision on auctioning the coal blocks. Failure to do so would not only constitute an illegality but also run counter to the spirit of democracy.
- Impact on the environment: The area covered by the blocks comprises largely of dense forests of rich biodiversity including a wide range of wildlife. In the past, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC) had notified around 6,00,000 hectares overlapping these blocks as “No-Go” area for industrial activity. If one were to assess the value of these bio-resources in terms of their social benefits, it would far outweigh the meagre revenue that private mining would yield to the public exchequer. Coal, once depleted, cannot be replaced whereas these bio-resources are regenerative. Apparently, such a comparative valuation of coal vs bio-resources had not been done before the decision to auction the blocks was taken. In WP (C) No. 171/96, (T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad vs Union Of India & Ors), the apex court pronounced an Order on 12-12-1996 laying down the principle of “Compensatory Afforestation” according to which no forest land should be diverted for a non-forest purpose and, if for some unavoidable reason, such diversion is deemed necessary, for every one acre of forest land so diverted, two acres of non-forest land should be allocated for raising alternate forest resources. Though this principle has become a part of MoEFCC’s policy, according to a report of Comptroller and Auditor General, it stands violated in many States. It is doubtful whether the government has considered complying with this principle in the case of the latest private coal mining proposal. To find twice the area of each coal block for raising new forest cover is not going to be easy.
- Impact on water: Most of the area covered by the 41 blocks falls within the catchment of several major and minor rivers that sustain the people’s lives downstream. Mining activity will damage the aquifers, adversely affect the water flows into these water courses and cause toxic pollution to the water, which in turn will cause immeasurable harm to the people’s health and their lives. Considering that water is a scarce natural resource, it will be highly imprudent to allow mining upstream, knowing well its adverse impact on water supplies to the downstream population. For example, among the 41 blocks to be auctioned, three are in the catchment of the Hasdeo Anand river that feeds into Mahanadi flowing through Odisha. Depletion of the water flows in Hasdeo Anand and its pollution will thus affect supplies for drinking water and water for irrigation in both Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
- Coal mining causes pollution: Both coal mining activity and its end-uses generate highly toxic pollutants that include heavy metals like Zinc, Cadmium, Arsenic, Lead and Mercury and radioactive isotopes of Uranium and Thorium. In the existing coal mining areas, several studies have shown how the health of the local communities has got severely affected. A hastily conducted environmental impact assessment as is the usual case these days does not fully capture the social cost of coal mining. No mining activity should be taken up without evaluating its health impacts. The social cost of coal mining taking into account its health impact may be far higher than the limited revenues gained by the government. How much of additional coal is need by the economy? According to a detailed study carried out by a Pune-based NGO sometime ago, the successive governments had sanctioned private coal-based power projects in such an indiscriminate manner that their cumulative capacity in the pipeline would be thrice that projected by the then Planning Commission as required by 2030. At present, the electricity generation mix in the country is already heavily tilted in favour of coal-based capacity and most coal-based power plants are operating at less than 50% capacity utilisation. Adding more coal-based generation would only skew the imbalance further and add to the unit cost of electricity for the consumer. Coal India Ltd. (CIL), a PSU can fully meet the coal needs of electricity and the power industry which is the dominant user of coal would not require more coal. While coal mining and its use will adversely impact the local environment, coal burning will also lead to global warming. Its use is therefore being discouraged to contain the global warming trend. Having taken a lead in this at the global level, India cannot afford to embark on increasing domestic coal mining and use. Instead, India should give a boost to renewable energy sources.
- Coal nationalisation versus privatisation: Coal mining was in the hands of private players till the early seventies. Since the private players had adopted unscientific coal mining practices, followed regressive labour policies and displayed reluctance to partner the government’s efforts towards economic development, the then government nationalised the industry in 1973. Considering the track record of most of the private players in coal mining during the last few years, it is doubtful whether the there has been any significant change in the factors that prompted the government to nationalise the industry in 1973. Coal like many other natural resources like iron ore, bauxite etc., is a scarce, nonrenewable resource, which we cannot afford to fritter away without a well thought out strategy. In WP (C) No. 435/2012 (Goa Foundation vs Union of India & Ors.), the apex court, while dwelling on this aspect, pronounced an Order dated 21-4-2014 laying down norms for ensuring sustainability in mining iron ore in Goa.
The available coal resources in India are severely limited, measured in terms of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate (UNFCC) classification that takes into account various parameters such the depth of the coal seam, the technological complexity of mining it and its cost vis-a vis what the consumer can bear. The royalty and the other revenues that accrue to the public exchequer from private coal companies is usually several times lower than the profits they earn.
Entrusting coal mining to private companies will thus amount to allowing them to profiteer to the detriment of the public interest. It runs counter to Article 39(b) of the Constitution (“the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good;”) Time and again, the apex court has reiterated the concept that all natural resources belong to the people at large and the government, being a public trustee for such resources, cannot unilaterally take decisions to alienate them to private agencies.