While the government has allocated 14 of the 17 coal blocks up for auction last week to public sector units, a Greenpeace India report points out that at least eight of them are in dense forest areas with tribal villages, endangered species, rivers and other water bodies.

According to the report, these 14 coal blocks could impact 4,200 hectares of forest, including 2,200 hectares of dense forest. Besides affecting 17 villages, this will have an adverse effect on elephants, tigers and leopards in nine blocks. The report pointed out that these auctions come at a time when the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) is still in the process of making the criteria for “inviolate” forests areas and demarcate certain forests to be kept out of bounds for coal mining.

Jagori Dhar of Greenpeace said that public money is going to be held up in these projects and one of the coal blocks cleared in 2006 has not yet got environmental clearance. According to the Greenpeace analysis based on data acquired from the MoEF, coal available within forest areas is only 18,448.36 million tonnes, while more than double (955,218.83 million tonnes) can be mined outside these areas.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee report on coal blocks allocation revealed that out of the 195 coal blocks allocated between 1993 and 2008, production had begun in only 30 blocks. It said that while a majority of these blocks, 160, were allotted by the UPA government between 2004 and 2008, so far production has begun only in two. Greenpeace India questioned the government on the need to auction new mines when they failed to develop the ones which were already allotted.

It is for the first time after 2008 that the government has gone for auction and it notified the blocks in December 2012. In its analysis of all 17 coal blocks, Greenpeace India found as many as 11 were in heavily forested areas. For instance, the Jilga-Barpali, Mandraigarh coalfield falls in a known elephant migration route according to the Wildlife Institute of India’s report in 2011. In Kente Extension, Hasdeo-Arand coalfield, Chhattisgarh, nearly 80 per cent of this block is above moderate density forest. The Tara, Parsa East and Kante Basan blocks were given Stage 1 Forest Clearance in 2011 by former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh on the condition that there would not be any further clearances sought by the state government in Hasdeo-Arand. Stage 2 clearances given for Parsa East and Kante Basan are currently being challenged before the National Green Tribunal.

In the Kerwa, Korba coalfield, Chhattisgarh, approximately 70 per cent is forested, with two seasonal rivers –Bendo and Bajnai. It is located close to the Hasdeo-Arand coalfield and is contiguous with the proposed Lemru Elephant Reserve. Half of the Kudanali-Luburi, Talcher coalfield, Odisha is covered by forest, and it is adjacent to a corridor connecting the Satkosia Tiger Reserve and Simlipal Tiger Reserve, the report said.

All these aspects will make environment and forest clearance processes lengthy and contentious, with the possibility of outright rejection, legal challenges and community opposition, threatening any investments made, Greenpeace India said. The 17 blocks will destroy a total of 5,200 hectares of forest, of which over 2,700 hectares is dense forest.

To operationalise these coal blocks, clearance will be required under the Forest Conservation Act, Forest Rights Act, consent of the village gram sabhas and approval from the National Board for Wildlife, National Tiger Conservation Authority and Project Elephant in some cases.

Greenpeace said the process to determine which areas should be kept off-limits to coal mining must proceed in a transparent manner. This will streamline planning, reduce the risk of stranded investments and prevent proposals from surfacing in good forest areas. At the same time, the provisions of the Forest Rights Act and Forest Conservation Act must be strictly enforced for all projects. It called for a halt to all allocation/auctioning of coal blocks until the MoEF completes the inviolate criteria process to determine areas where mining should not be allowed. It said the MoEF should cease granting permission for exploratory drilling in high quality forest areas, ecologically sensitive areas, wildlife corridors and within 10 km. of Protected Areas.

These 14 coal blocks have been allocated to state run power companies and are expected to assist in generating 31,800 MW with an investment of Rs 1,60,000 crore.

More In: National | News