Forest min seeks bar on 417 coal blocks, coal min says choose 49

The coal ministry wants mining to be allowed till river boundaries, leaving just 15 metres of protected area

A worker sprays water over piles of coal at Mundra Port Coal Terminal in Gujarat. Photo: Reuters

A worker sprays water over piles of coal at Mundra Port Coal Terminal in Gujarat. Photo: Reuters

New Delhi
Of the 835 coal blocks surveyed, the environment ministry’s Forest Survey of India (FSI) has found that mining would have to be partly restricted in 417 to safeguard the rivers. The coal ministry has objected to this and asked that the partial ban of mining should be limited to only 49 coal blocks.

In order to pare down the list of restricted coal blocks, the coal ministry has asked the environment ministry to once again dilute the inviolate forest area policy, which has been in the works since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)  government came to power.

This time, the coal ministry wants mining to be allowed till river boundaries, leaving just 15 metres of protected area. It has asked that protection of waterways be limited to first order streams and not the larger streams and rivers. First order streams are the primary set of waterways in upper reaches of mountains that join as tributaries to make larger rivers and streams. It has asked that existing operational mines be left out of the purview of such restrictions.

  • Forest Survey of India (FSI) surveyed 835 coal blocks
  • Says partial restriction on mining required in 417 coal blocks to protect rivers
  • Coal ministry wants only 49 of these to face partial restrictions
  • The coal ministry also wants mining to be allowed till river boundaries, leaving just 15 metres of protected area

Business Standard reviewed correspondence between the environment ministry, the coal ministry, the Forest Survey of India and the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute Limited (CMPDIL) on the proposed dilutions. One such round of dilutions took place earlier and was reported in media.

The concept of inviolate forest area policy took root during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, as a revised version of the erstwhile ‘No-go’ forest policy.

The inviolate forest policy requires that green areas, which are too dense or valuable for biodiversity and those that are important for maintaining the health of Indian rivers, be kept safe from mining activities. These areas are to be identified through a scientific mapping exercise, based on fixed parameters like forest density, biodiversity values and hydrological values of forests. According to the policy, a full ban is to be imposed on coal blocks that largely fall inside these areas and for other blocks, that fall only partially in the inviolate forest areas, restrictions are to be imposed in the overlapping parts.

However, during the exercise to identify the forests — towards the end of the UPA regime and beginning of the NDA rule — the environment ministry began holding meetings to dilute the criteria. This was done by constantly reviewing the impact of tweaking of criteria on the coal blocks that would face restrictions. The coal ministry was kept in the loop, documents reveal.

To begin with, the government did not consider the hydrological value of forests — a critical parameter initially listed in the inviolate forest policy. The water resources ministry claimed that mapped data did not exist to identify streams and rivers to the accuracy that the exercise required. Such modifications of parameters ensured that only 49 coal blocks fell completely in the inviolate forest areas, where mining would have to be banned entirely. The original study during the UPA’s regime had noted that more than 200 coal blocks would have to be classified as inviolate. But, later on, when the Forest Survey of India took into account the importance of forests for maintaining rivers, it put on record that 417 coal blocks would be at least partially impacted. Business Standard has learnt that this list was also shared with the coal ministry.

The coal secretary wrote back saying that eight of the 49 originally identified fully-inviolate coal blocks were already in operation and would have to be taken out of the list. That’s not all. He suggested that another eight blocks should be removed from the list. Reacting to the 417 blocks, which require partial restrictions to protect the rivers, the coal secretary told CMPIDL to review the entire list. The government’s coal planning institute suggested further dilutions, asking that only 49 out of the 417 blocks should face partial restrictions.

It said protection should not be given to second and third order water streams, which the coal miners anyway divert during excavation. It also said that mining should be allowed till as close as 15 metres from the river banks. At the moment, the inviolate forest policy bans mining up to 250 metres from the river banks. It has also said that changes in boundaries of 256 coal blocks could protect larger chunks of the coal bearing area from the restrictions. It has noted that 120 of the 417 coal blocks are already operational and these should be allowed to mine without any restrictions.

While this back-and-forth has continued between the coal and environment ministries, along with their expert institutions, the environment ministry has continued to give clearances to coal blocks on a piece-meal basis.

When asked in May 2016 about the status of inviolate forest policy, Union environment and forests minister Prakash Javadekar had told Business Standard: “I can’t say at this time. If say, you are getting Uranium from some forest then what will you do? We will come out with what is violating, what is not violating, or use some other words to make it clearer. We will definitely come out with it in proper time.”

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First Published: Jun 3 2016 | 0:41 AM IST

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