It is meant for use of Essar and Hindalco plants

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has refused to issue forest clearance to the Mahan coal block in the Singrauli field of Madhya Pradesh, meant for the use of Essar and Hindalco power plants.

However, this is not the final rejection. Instead, Mr. Ramesh has merely washed his hands of on the issue and passed the buck to a Group of Ministers to take a final decision. However, he has recommended that an alternative coal linkage in the Sohagpur coalfields be provided for the two power plants instead.

This is the first such move after the compromise deal that Mr. Ramesh made with the GoM last month, when he agreed that he would not be the final decision-maker in controversial cases of coal blocks located in “no-go” zones, or heavily forested areas. Instead, the wider Group of Ministers — chaired by the Finance Minister, and including the Coal and Power Ministers — will take the final call.

In his order on Friday, Mr. Ramesh noted that coal from Mahan would meet the power plant requirements for only 14 years. There is no coal linkage identified for the next 10 to 15 years of the plants' life. A Ministry committee also found that the quality of forest and tree cover is much higher than that being claimed by the companies and the State government.

“I am not entirely clear why such a good quality forest area should be broken up for such a partial requirement,” said Mr. Ramesh. While he has been under pressure to clear the project since Rs. 3,600 crore had been invested in the plants, he pointed out that work should not have been started before forest clearances were granted, complaining that “fait accompli has become far too common.”

Mining at Mahan would impact biodiversity, threaten the Rihand reservoir and open the door for other coal blocks nearby. The plants are also relatively small, without the low carbon emissions advantage of super-critical units.

Complex issue

The order details the five-year saga of events since the Coal Ministry allocated the Mahan block to Essar and Hindalco.

The Environment Ministry's Forest Advisory Committee considered the proposal four times — between July 2008 and December 2009 — but found the issue too complex to reach a decision.

Mr. Ramesh also lists the pressure exerted for a clearance, by industrialists behind the power plants — Shashi Ruia and Kumaramangalam Birla — as well as the Madhya Pradesh government.

The Prime Minister was also petitioned in this regard. With the case being referred to the GoM, the pressure points could now move away from Mr. Ramesh and his Ministry to a larger forum.

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