Even as the country reels under severe drought, information secured by Greenpeace suggests that India's coal-hungry government is willing to overlook policy meant to protect the country's pristine forests, wildlife and the fresh-water sources.
The information accessed by Greenpeace India under the Right to Information (RTI) from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) reveals that as many as 417 out of 825 current and future coal blocks should be categorised as inviolate areas as per hydrological parameters.
Last year, the Forest Survey of India (FSI) assessed 825 coal blocks based on the draft parameters for identification of inviolate forest areas. For applying the hydrology parameter, the from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has recommended excluding 250 m on either side of a first order stream while marking the boundaries of coal blocks. Taking this criteria into consideration, a whopping 50.5 percent of the coal blocks are rendered as 'partially inviolate'.
"It's been close to four years since the exercise to identify inviolate areas started and the MoEFCC (Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change) is still dragging its feet on this policy while the Coal Ministry is going ahead with auctioning and allotting these precious forest areas," said Nandikesh Sivalingam, senior campaigner, Greenpeace India.
"The MoEFCC's silence gives tacit go-ahead to the government's coal-dependent energy policy. In effect, it allows the greed for coal to take precedence over everything else, including the inevitable consequence of coal mining destroying sensitive forest areas and freshwater sources in our drought-afflicted country," he added.
Sivalingam said mining in the forests even beyond the 250m of the river banks often has a dramatic detrimental impact on the catchment, including water pollution, erosion and worsening water scarcity during dry season.
He added that if all the streams (second and third order) in the river basins are to be taken into consideration, the impact on central India's water sources could be much higher.
Besides the hydrological parameters, the RTI data accessed by Greenpeace India shows that currently the list of inviolate coal blocks stand at a mere 49, covering an area of 1271.43 Sq Km as per four parameters: forest cover, forest type, biological richness and landscape integrity.
Reports show that the government has started applying the inviolate policy partially. However, it is not clear how they include or exclude coal blocks from this list. At the same time, coal blocks listed as inviolate are being auctioned/allotted to mining companies.
"What is worrying is the callousness that the MoEFCC has towards protecting the country's pristine natural resources. It's no longer only about forests, it's clear that mining in the central Indian forest could also have serious impacts on water sources," said Sivalingam.
Lack of information in the public domain, on what the current inviolate regions are, is putting our forests and water resources at risk. Biodiverse land that should otherwise be left untouched is being auctioned for coal mining.
Greenpeace India has demanded that the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change fix a deadline to finalise, publicise and enforce the inviolate policy; publish the forest areas/coal blocks that are inviolate along with the geo-referenced maps, for all the concerned stakeholders - including affected forest communities - to be consulted before the land is considered for mining.
Apart from hydrological parameters, the other most important parameter that MoEFCC has neglected is the wildlife value. With close to 688 tigers present in Central and Eastern Ghats landscape according to government's own report (Status of Tigers, Co predators & amp; prey in India, 2014) coal mining poses a further threat to the distribution and connectivity of the species since many coal fields overlap with forests occupied by the tigers and their migratory corridors.
Besides this, 49 coal blocks fall under inviolate areas on the basis of the first four of the draft parameters forest cover, forest type, biological richness and landscape integrity.
Wildlife value and hydrological values are other two criterias that were part of the draft inviolate criteria. Wildlife value was later dropped from the list without any scientific basis.
Stream order is a measure of the relative size of streams. The smallest tributaries are referred to as first-order streams, while the largest river in the world, the Amazon, is a twelfth-order waterway. First- through third-order streams are called headwater streams.
The draft inviolate parameters were prepared by MoEF: Originally known as 'Go-No Go' policy, the idea of 'Inviolate Forests' came into place at the request of Coal India and the Ministry of Coal way back in 2009. The objective was to have certainty on which forests area will be permitted for mining and which will be not allowed for mining coal. But over the years, Inviolate' policy, has been watered down to a great extent.