All projects can be considered, final decision for Cabinet: Jairam Ramesh

In a compromise that effectively destroys the divide between “go” and “no go” areas with regard to coal mining in forested land, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has offered to let his Ministry consider clearance applications from both “go” and “no go” categories, and send the rejected projects to the Cabinet for a final decision.

At the meeting of the Group of Ministers which discussed the issue on Thursday, Mr. Ramesh made a presentation that offered to reduce the “no go” zone from 53 per cent to 71 per cent of the total area being considered. He also offered that all projects which had been given a Stage-I forest clearance would not be considered under the “no go” categorisation at all.

In a third compromise, Mr. Ramesh offered to let all projects be considered for a clearance by his Ministry's Forest Advisory Committee (FAC). Those in “no go” zones would be “subject to strict scrutiny, and if possible, a compromise [will be] arrived at.” The example given was the case of IFFCO (Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative Limited) in Chhattisgarh, where dense forest area diversion was reduced by 61 per cent.

The original purpose of the categorisation was that coal projects in the heavily forested “no go” zones should not be considered for clearance at all.

Finally, in “no go” cases where the FAC was unable to find any possible compromise, “the Ministry of Environmental Affairs was prepared to bring them to [the consideration of] the Union Cabinet along with its recommendation for rejection.”

This would allow Mr. Ramesh and his Ministry to wash their hands off of controversial cases and leave the final decision — along with any resulting brickbats — to the Union Cabinet.

“Yes, I am making a compromise,” Mr. Ramesh told The Hindu. “I cannot be a fundamentalist in these issues.”

However, it was not sufficient for Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal, who reportedly stuck to his stand at the meeting, insisting that the entire categorisation be scrapped. Ironically, the categorisation was the result of a joint survey of nine major coal fields carried out jointly last February by the Coal and Environment Ministries, which superimposed forest maps onto coal maps to identify “go” and “no go” zones. After the GoM meeting, Mr. Jaiswal told reporters that the government was trying to find a “middle path” so that both environment and power needs were taken care of.

On its part, the Power Ministry told the GoM that a fast-track decision on coal mining projects was important as any delay could jeopardise the commissioning of plants having a generation capacity of around 24,000 MW over the next two years. In a note, it warned that the coal shortage would become acute in 2011-12 as State-run Coal India could supply only 331 million tonnes as against a requirement of 426 MT. The immediate impact means that plants commissioned in 2009-10, generating a total of 5,593 MW would operate at just 42 per cent of their stipulated Plant Load Factor.

The Environment Minister hit back at such warnings, pointing out that Coal India already had 200,000 hectares of land in its possession. “The GoM should ask why production targets cannot be met from this area,” said Mr. Ramesh in his presentation. He listed at least five mines — Hingula II, Kulda, Garjanbahal, Bharatpur and Bhubaneshwari — which were producing coal at levels well below their permitted amounts. The Coal Ministry reportedly accepted that under-production was largely due to internal problems relating to rehabilitation and resettlement, land acquisition and equipments.