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Go, no-go; lets GO

India is a study in contrasts and policy confusions. At any given time there are several voices on any given issue. Curiously the same is common not only in the cabinet, the highest executive body of the nation but even carried inside the smaller committee of ministers—- Group of Ministers or GoM — created to arrive at a solution to such contrasting opinions.

This confusion has been raging for now more than a year on the burning issue of coal mining affecting the growth prospect of the economy. At the centre of such drama is India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh.

A case in point is the recent meeting on the issue of “go, no go” in the forest land and the views expressed by Minister Jairam Ramesh. What was supposed to be deliberated in the confines of selected ministers in the cabinet was splashed in the media. This defies the entire purpose of coming to a well considered conclusion.
By bringing in the external pressures and issues which are not relevant the environment ministry has not acted its role to the nation's best interest. However, this is a matter to be decided by the head of the GoM, Pranab Mukherjee or the Prime Minister of India.

Coming back to the issue of ‘go, no go’, the point to note is that minister Ramesh has consented to increase the go area to 71 per cent of the forest land against 53 per cent earlier. This is said to be the result of an intervention by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Ramesh has agreed to free 71 per cent of the forestland in nine coalfields as against 53 per cent envisaged earlier. In return, he wants the coal sector to improve its environment report card.

“MoEF is prepared to consider revised ‘go, no go’ approach that frees 71 per cent of the area in nine coalfields as opposed to original insistence of 53 per cent. This is a huge compromise keeping in view PM’s instructions,” he said, in his presentation to the GoM.

Any area having plant density of more than 10 per cent is defined as a forest. This includes what is known as “jangaljhari” — land mostly fallow, covered with shrubs and used for gazing.

By definition of the environment ministry this might be forest but nowhere in the dictionary of human civilization such lands are equated with what common sense definition of forest is.

In India, of the 6.48 lakh hectares of forestland surveyed, 3.44 lakh was under the category of no go areas. On PM’s insistence, the area was first increased to 56 per cent and then finally to 71 per cent or 4.62 lakh hectares.

Minister Veerappan Moily, a member of the GoM and Law Minister of the nation, pointed out that the very fact that there had been such tweaking of figures of ‘go, no go’ forests illustrated that the numbers were fixed arbitrarily without any careful consideration. Minister Ramesh cannot escape such observation.

Perhaps Ramesh was aware of the weakness of his ministry’s stand. Therefore in the same presentation, he wanted the GoM to ask Coal India why it had failed to meet production targets despite having two lakh hectares of land, including 55,000 hectares of forestland, in its possession.

He also challenged the coal mining strategy by saying it was harsh on ecology and demonstrated some facts to showcase his claim.

“One-third of coal mines are running with one type of violation or other and irrespective of whether environmental and forestry clearance are available or not,” he said. Ramesh said no land had been returned to any state government despite being in Coal India’s possession for 45 years. There is no systematic time-bound reclamation plan of mined out areas.
He concluded, “As a result, forest given to coal companies is lost forever. Plantations are no substitute for natural forests,” he said taking a dig at the Coal India’s massive plantation drives in the mining areas.

Ramesh believes in natural forests without human intervention. He laments that as much as one million hectares of forestland has been lost because of projects approved in the forest areas.

Minister Ramesh did not stop at the issue of forest. He even criticized Coal India for its very poor record in relief and rehabilitation of people affected by mining and its poor compliance of meeting the provisions of the Forest Rights Act for getting forestry clearance.
Interesting point to note is that Coal India mines did not face any production loss due to labour trouble or trouble from the natives of the mining land. Even in areas where Naxals are powerful Coal India mines never have to stop work due to strikes called by the extremists. The facts contradict source from where minister Ramesh receives his inputs.
Ramesh felt that CIL’s poor track record on resettlement and rehabilitation led to the refusal of the district magistrates to issue no-objection certificates for revenue land for afforestation and delays in Forests Rights Act compliance.
This also led to acrimony in public hearings for environmental clearances, he said. That such issues are galore in case of iron ore mining not in case of PSU dominated coal sector did not matter to the minister.

Jairam’s allegations were part of the presentation he was asked to make on the issue in the earlier meeting of a group of ministers in February. Ministers in charge of infrastructure sectors, including coal minister Sri Prakash Jaiswal, power minister Sushilkumar Shinde, steel minister BP Verma and road transport minister CP Joshi, had made their concerns known to finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, who heads the ministerial panel.

Refuting Jairam’s allegations, coal secretary C Balakrishnan informed the panel of CIL’s efforts to improve its track record in resettlement and rehabilitation.
He argued the entire 2 lakh hectare of land allotted to CIL was not minable at any point in time, since land use for a mining project was spread over 25-30 years.
He said coal mining is the only industry in which afforestation of mine-out areas is done simultaneously with mining operations.

Coal Secretary also pointed out even as the environment ministry lifted its moratorium from one of the coalfields, it could still impact the production plan for the current financial year, as precious time would be lost in securing clearances.
Coal India wants to produce 457 Mt of coal this financial year. This coming at a time when China has been busy restructuring its coal mines stopping production will mean use of costly imported coal for generation of power. No wonder Power minister Shinde is worried.

He raised concerns over the utilisation of the power capacity added in the last two years and for the current financial year, due to reduced coal production at the back of environment hurdles.

Whether minister Ramesh can finally be tamed on his zeal over forests or not will depend on the final verdict coming from the GoM. Meanwhile the economy has to suffer from shortages and higher cost of power. There are times when a nation must address issues on the basis of priorities not theoretical arguments of certain ‘do gooders’.

Luckily not all members of the GoM buy the 'no go' argument without looking at the larger picture.

Bringing coal from overseas: CIL Effort

Coal India, the world’s single largest coal producer, expects its two coal blocks in Mozambique to start production in first half of 2014. The CIL was awarded the blocks in March 2009.

The Maharatna company is eyeing an output of 15 million tonnes a year from its Mozambique unit, once it starts operation, NC Jha, acting chairman of CIL told media in Kolkata.

“We have been allotted two exploratory coal blocks, spread over 224 sq km in Mozambique, but we have not explored it fully. So it is not possible to comment how much coal we will be getting, but we can safely assume production upto 15 million tonne a year,” said the CIL chief.

Of late, CIL has been trying to acquire overseas coal assets. Besides Mozambique, the company was looking for properties in Indonesia, Australia, South Africa and the US.

Recently, an Indonesian minister said, CIL would invest $3 billion in the island nation to acquire a coal block, to fund a steel plant and a sea port, according to news agency reports. But CIL chief Jha denied any such engagement by his company.
The race for acquisition of overseas coal assets was gaining momentum in view of the burgeoning coal demand in India. The domestic coal demand is currently estimated at 730 million tonnes a year, while domestic firms produce about 520 million tonne per year. CIL plans to produce 475 million tone of the domestic coal production.

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