Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan successfully lobbied the Central government to overrule environmental objections against mining at Mahan, one of the fields at stake in the spiralling coal allocations scandal, documents obtained by The Hindu show.

Correspondence between the then Union Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, and the Empowered Group of Ministers on Coal (EGoM) reveals Mr. Chauhan lobbied for the Mahan coal block being granted environmental clearance, enabling Essar Power and Hindalco to start work.

The documents do not suggest Mr. Chauhan was in any way involved in the coal allocation scandal, but do demonstrate how pressure was mounted by the State government for rapid clearance of the controversial project despite serious ecological concerns.

“The Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister has personally spoken to me twice on clearing the proposal [most recently on June 30, 2011] on the grounds that it would boost economic activity in the State,” Mr. Ramesh had written to the EGoM.

Mr. Chauhan had also sat on a fast in February last, protesting against the Centre's delay in clearing the Mahan block, which was identified by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) as a no-go area.

The fast was called off just 20-minutes after it was started, following an assurance from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. A release issued by the State government on June 30, 2011, acknowledges that Mr. Chauhan did push for faster clearance to the Mahan block.

However, the documents The Hindushow Mahan was not the only block for which Mr. Chauhan had urged the Centre to intervene. In November 2007, he reportedly requested Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to allow Reliance Power Ltd. to use surplus coal from the captive blocks of the Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project being set up by the company in Chitrangi tehsil of Singrauli district.

The PMO had referred the matter to the EGoM, which recommended that the company be allowed to use surplus coal. Thereafter, permission was granted.

While Mr. Ramesh refused to comment on the issue, phone calls to Mr. Chauhan's office were not answered.

MoEF opposes the proposal

The correspondence also reveals that the MoEF was against granting Stage-I clearance to the Mahan block as it would “open the doors for other coal blocks to be mined and would fragment an area very rich in forest cover.”

The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), after visiting the Mahan forest area and considering the proposal four times, stressed the need for further detailed environmental impact assessment studies.

In particular, the FAC found the quality of forest and tree cover much higher than claimed by Essar/Hindalco and the State government. Moreover, it also found that the “Mahan coal block was located in the catchment area of the Rihand reservoir and that there was a high degree of probability of excessive siltation due to denudation of the slopes and hills when they are mined for coal.”

In 2010, the Mahan forest area was identified as a “no-go” zone based on a joint exercise carried out by the MoEF and the Central Mine Planning and Development Institute Ltd. of the Ministry of Coal.

In his letter, Mr. Ramesh argued against clearing the Mahan block as it was a “biodiversity rich area and would destroy good natural forest cover and interfere with wildlife habitats.”

He further pointed out that Essar and Hidalco’s power plants (to which the coal block would be linked) were not supercritical units that generate 5-8 per cent lesser carbon dioxide emissions and were only subcritical ones.

Mr. Ramesh said he was “not entirely clear why such a good quality forest area should be cleared for such a partial requirement,” since “by Essar’s own admission, the Mahan coal block will meet the requirements of the two 600 MW for 14 years only.”

Mr. Ramesh suggested the Sohagpur coalfield in Shahdol district as an alternative linkage to the two power projects.

However, the EGoM granted the clearance in May.