In the noise over the irregularities in allocation of natural resources, the huge environmental and related costs of exploiting these have been forgotten

How much really is Rs.1.86 lakh crore? This is the loss the nation has reportedly incurred because of the corruption in the allocation of coals blocks in different parts of the country. This is the figure at the centre of a huge churning that is taking place in the political establishment and in the media. There is an outrage at what looks like a loot of unprecedented proportions.

Even as political parties slug it out, as skeletons keep tumbling out of corporate cupboards, as the electronic media finds juicy bits to occupy airtime and many column inches of newspaper space get consumed by Coalgate, there is a more fundamental question that has just not been asked — what is it really that we are losing? The Rs.1.86 lakh crore is an evaluation of one facet, in one metric; it’s the manifestation of only one world view — unitary, monetary, unidimensional. It is a computation of the loss in Indian National Rupees that has been incurred to the national treasury because a whole set of people (almost) successfully ducked the system. It is the alleged illegality, the cheating of the system where the real money for the coal was not paid.

Greenpeace report

But what if we assume for a moment that the game would be played by the book, that there would be competitive bidding, that the “correct” price would be paid? The state would earn the Rs.1.86 lakh crore but would anything else change? To answer that question, even if as a partial counterpoint, one has to look at Greenpeace India’s most recent report “How coal mining is thrashing tigerland” available at (http://www.greenpeace.org/india/en/publications/How-coal-mining-is-trashing-tigerland/). It’s an irony that the report was released just about the time that Coalgate was breaking upon us.

Over 1.1 million hectares of forest, mostly dense, is at risk from coal mining in just 13 coalfields in central India that the report analyses; there are 40 other coalfields which still remain to be evaluated. Almost all these coalfields, the report notes, overlap with endangered species habitat — over 1,85,000 ha. are inhabited by the tiger, over 2,70,000 ha. are leopard habitat and over 55,000 ha. are roamed by elephants. These forests are not just home to a diverse range of flora and fauna; they are the carbon sinks that we want to exploit and market in international fora; and these are the lands that are home to thousands of adivasi communities who have lived here for generations. The Rs.1.86 lakh crore is only the notional value of a single resource that lies buried deep; it does not include the value of anything else even if such a valuation was indeed possible.

The mining, when and where it will happen or where it has already happened, cares neither for the estimated economic losses nor the legality. The way the land is scarred bears no suggestion of who made that money finally. The coal is the same, the processes are the same and the outcomes are same. Forests will be ripped apart, watersheds will be destroyed, rivers and streams poisoned, livelihoods and cultures of the adivasi communities sacrificed at the altar of development. It doesn’t matter that these people bear the lightest footprint on the planet in these times of a climate change crisis and neither will it matter that many of these forests are adjacent to tiger reserves or are part of corridors linking one tiger and elephant habitat to another.The question of electricity and power that the country needs, one would argue, is at the heart of all this. If one goes by estimates of the Planning Commission, a GDP growth of eight to nine per cent will need between 1,475 and 1,659 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) of coal for electricity generation in two decades from now. This is more than twice India’s current coal consumption of approximately 650 mtpa and it is clear how the dice will roll. And we are not even talking about the other millions of tons of iron ore, bauxite, limestone and uranium. What we have today is an “there is no alternative” (TINA) chorus. We need the growth, there is no alternative; we need the electricity, there is no alternative; so we need the coal, there is no alternative. What we haven’t realised yet is that today’s Coalgate is built into this mindless “there is no alternative” narrative. We also haven’t realised that the Rs.1.86 lakh crore that has had all of us so worked up, is only a fraction of the cost that we will be forced to pay.

Coalgate could be an eye-opener, but only if we understood the real value.

(Pankaj Sekhsaria is editor of the Protected Area Update, a bimonthly newsletter on wildlife and conservation published by Kalpavriksh. Email: psekhsaria@gmail.com)

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