Is India going to opt for a carbon intensive development path?

The tussle between coal mining and nature conservation has been long standing. But things have risen to a new level with the GoM (Group of Ministers) set up to consider the various issues around coal mining. They have recently written to all Chief Secretaries of coal-bearing states asking them to reapply for permissions to mine in very dense forests that were earlier rejected.

Both private and public mining companies are overjoyed with this circular, and are now hoping to be able to speed up environmental clearances and access India's underground coal reserves. The 12th Plan calls for an increase of 100 Gigawatts of electricity generation in the country, to meet the huge power shortage. Seventy per cent of this power is scheduled to come from coal fired thermal power plants, since coal is touted as being the cheapest form of energy, especially in comparison to the various renewable energy options at hand.

The concept of GO and NO GO forests was initially floated by the Coal Ministry, as a means of fast-tracking forest clearances in areas that did not have dense forests or were in the ‘GO' zone. But once this was taken up by the Ministry of Environments and Forests (MoEF) and maps were compiled of all the very dense forests, almost 50 per cent of coal bearing regions came under NO GO zones. Both the Coal and Energy Ministries objected. So, a process to review this classification of forests was initiated, resulting in the GoM finally deciding to do away with the classification altogether.

Yet environmental scientists and civil society groups worry about the GoM's decision to dilute the environmental safeguards currently in place and open up all forests to mining. They argue there is an important need for some mechanism to be put in place that recognises some forests in the country as being critical. And therefore not open to mining.

Their first argument for forests is the various “ecosystem services” that humans derive from these forests. Hydrological, nutrient and nitrogen cycles help plants and food crops to grow. Carbon cycles regulate global climate. These cannot be replaced by afforestation programmes and artificial forests. Ecological scientists have estimated the net value of some of the more easily quantifiable ecosystem services to be around US$ 33 trillion a year, more than twice the global GDP. They argue than any industrial projects that involve the destruction of forests must also factor in these ecological costs.

Current concern

Another concern is the large number of tribals and other forest dwellers who directly depend on forests for their livelihood. The current resettlement and rehabilitation policy for such people, in Madhya Pradesh for example, consists of one-tenth of an acre of land and the promise of one member of the household being employed in the mining project or thermal power plant after its completion. A body of work by Michael Cernea and the World Bank has highlighted the inadequacy of most of these rehabilitation packages, and have argued that real costs of displacing people are considerably more. And must be factored into the “real” costs of large development projects.

Non Government Organisations and activists across the board all accept the urgent need for India to produce more energy. But they express serious reservations about India locking itself into a carbon intense development path. Vinuta Gopal, the climate and energy campaign manager at Greenpeace India, argues that if the true cost of coal is actually factored into the debate, it is likely to cost considerably more than most renewable energy options. She also questions the huge carbon emissions from coal based power plants, and how this sits with India's global commitments to mitigate climate change. Also relevant is that India's coal is of an extremely poor quality, producing very little energy in comparison to imported coal.

Pune-based energy think-tank PRAYAS recently published a study highlighting energy inefficiency and losses in large industries and India's transmission systems. They argue that a significant percentage of India's energy shortfall could be met by tackling these issues, and should be higher on the priority list than opening up new areas to mining.

There's a growing global investment in renewable energy forms and a general shrinking in the conventional and polluting coal fired power plants. This has evident in the sharply declining costs of solar and wind technologies, and an equally sharp increase in the cost of coal and other fossil fuels. So the GoM's decision to open up forests for mining appears, at best, to be somewhat short-sighted.

However, a small window of opportunity is still open. In the GoM's 5th meeting, the Minister of Environment and Forests suggested that some irreplaceable forests should be protected from mining activity. This was supported by the Home and Finance Ministers, and accepted by the GoM. It was decided that a committee would be constituted to identify such forests. The question is whether India is going to lock itself into a carbon intensive and arguably unsustainable development path? Or is the focus going to be more on innovative and long term greener solutions that don't involve the destruction of the country's forests. How this pans out in the months to come will be interesting. The world is watching.

The writer is a member of the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environmental Association.