The coal rush and after

E. A. S. Sarma | Updated on March 13, 2018

Rampant greed and crony capitalism have caused this precarious situation. — Ritu Raj Konwar

The way we’re mining coal, the reserves may not last 60 years. We should move to renewables.

The recent Coalgate exposés, one after the other in quick succession, have revealed the ugly side of corruption, sleaze and crony capitalism, which not only rob the people of their resources and human dignity but also destroy the environment and distort democratic processes.

Non-coking coal has been the dominant fuel for electricity generation in India for the last several decades. During 1950-2010, more than 10,000 million tonnes (mt) of coal had been mined and exploited, leaving another 73,668 mt of proven deposits underground.

Electricity has indeed played an important role in furthering the progress of the country over the years. However, in our case, there are systemic inefficiencies in conversion of coal into electricity and its conveyance in turn to the consumer for lighting, heating, cooling and motive power. Every new MW of generation capacity added to the grid has benefited the urban elite more than the rural communities. On the other hand, both coal mining and coal-based power generation have left indelible scars of destruction in rural areas and in tribal tracts, both in terms of human misery and environmental degradation. No wonder, it is those at the receiving end of this misery who have strongly resisted both coal mining and coal-based power projects.

In the Mirzapur-Siddhi area in UP-MP border, around the Singrauli region, where large-scale coal mining and power generation projects were taken up in the past, land-owning families underwent multiple displacement during the last few decades. Uprooted from their land and habitat, they were forced to become daily wage workers in nearby towns and cities. Agricultural lands stood degraded.

The fly ash from power generation contaminated both surface and ground water sources. It polluted the surroundings with a range of toxic pollutants such as sulphur, lead, mercury, copper, zinc, cadmium, arsenic and radioactive isotopes of uranium and thorium. Scientific studies have revealed the presence of mercury in the blood samples of residents in the area. Those affected thus are perhaps condemned to suffer carcinogenic diseases, genetic disorders, and so on.

Disturbing numbers

This is the case with most other power projects in the country. The existing Environment Impact Appraisal procedures of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) have remained ineffective in dealing with this problem. The continuing official apathy is truly distressing. What is more disturbing at this moment is the sudden ‘coal rush’, driven by crony capitalism of the worst kind.

A Pune-based NGO, Prayas, found in August, 2011 that, since 2004, the MoEF had either cleared or about to clear coal-based power projects, mostly private, of more than 5,80,000 MW capacity, a figure that is twice the capacity projected by the Planning Commission as the requirement up to 2032! The regional concentration of this capacity is more disturbing.

At least 15 districts in the country will have 10,000 MW or more of new generation capacity. Janjgir-Champa and Raigarh districts in Chhattisgarh will have 30,470 MW and 24,380 MW of new capacity respectively, converting those areas into virulent hot spots of toxic pollution.

Grabbing blocks

At a breakneck speed, during 2005-12, the MoEF had also cleared more than 160 coal blocks, many privately owned. By now, it is widely known how the Coal Ministry had allotted a corresponding number of captive coal blocks to private parties through questionable procedures. When the Ministry tried to show the red flag in the name of forest laws, the entire Government came down heavily to suppress its sane advice and allow the kith and kin of political leaders, several of them fly-by-night operators, to grab the coal blocks even in the “no go” areas.

Coming to the deposits still remaining underground, some of it would have already come under the rapidly expanding urban cover and a large part of it situated under the country's dwindling forest cover.

Considering that the existing annual demand for coal is around 770 mt and that the Planning Commission, in its “efficiency” scenario, has projected an annual demand of 1540 mt by 2032, one could adopt an average annual requirement of 1,200 mt during the next two decades.

At that level, even assuming that all the 73,668 mt of the coal deposits will be available, at best, they will last for the next 60 years! This is obviously an optimistic projection. Clearly, we will soon deplete the remnants of coal and the scarce forest resources that lie above them.

At least 18,450 mt, if not more, of the remaining coal deposits lie in the “no go” blocks. Mining such blocks will therefore destroy dense forests.

The much-touted norm of “compensatory afforestation” has remained illusory and it does not envisage compensating loss of biodiversity. No wonder, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 has failed to maintain, if not increase, forest cover, as we have continued to lose 15,000 hectares of forests every year after 1980. A meaningful social cost-benefit appraisal of coal mining vis-a-vis forest conservation will surely tilt the balance of decision making in favour of the latter.

Respect people’s rights

Both the coal deposits and the forests are largely located in the areas notified under the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution where the tribals enjoy special rights over all minerals, including coal. The tribals have a say in coal mining under 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 (FRA).

Any attempt to take up mining of coal in those areas without respecting the rights of the tribals would amount to violating the law of the land.

Clearly, it is time for us to halt coal mining to pre-empt further human misery and environmental degradation. We need to shift the direction of electricity development towards a more efficient trajectory, based less on coal and more on renewable sources, especially solar and wind.

A more fundamental aspect that we should explore in this connection is about the true demand for energy in relation to a threshold level of quality of life. As a society, we can survive in the long run, only when our development paradigm is based on “need” rather than “greed”.

(The author is former Union Power Secretary.)

Published on May 29, 2013

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