Jairam loses “no-go” battle, allows coal mining in forested Hasdeo Arand

Blocks not actually within the biodiversity-rich region, he says

June 24, 2011 02:02 am | Updated November 17, 2021 01:21 am IST - NEW DELHI:

The bastion of Hasdeo-Arand has finally been broken.

One year after saying that the coalfields of this heavily-forested, mineral rich region of Chhattisgarh would never be open to miners, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has finally granted a stage-I forest clearance to three blocks in the region: Tara, Parsa East and Kante Basan.

“Yes, these are the first Hasdeo-Arand blocks to be opened up,” Mr. Ramesh told The Hindu , adding that the blocks are “clearly on the fringe” and not actually within the biodiversity-rich region. He had declared the region a “no-go” zone last year.

“But they are the first and the last,” he vowed.

Minister's assurance

The approval is contingent on the Chhattisgarh government not coming up with fresh applications for opening up the main Hasdeo-Arand area, and the Chhattisgarh Chief Minister has reportedly given such an assurance. In return, Mr. Ramesh is proposing a “green bonus” – either in cash or electricity – to be given to the State as compensation for not developing the coal-rich area.

The approval is also contingent on full compliance with the Forest Rights Act, which means that any dwellers in the area must have their forest land rights settled, and accept the mining projects.

Mr. Ramesh over-ruled the recommendations of his own Forest Advisory Committee to grant the approval. He had rejected the proposals three times – in January, July and October 2010 – but came under intense pressure from other Ministries, the State governments involved, and the Prime Minister's Office this time around, according to sources in his Ministry.

The decision comes after an 18 month-long battle waged between the Coal and Power Ministries on the one hand, and the Environment Ministry on the other. While the underlying debate revolved around the key issues of industrial development and growth versus environment and sustainability, the immediate battlefield was the “go” and “no-go” zones devised to prevent coal-mining in the heavily forested regions of Central India.

Hasdeo-Arand was a poster case. Below the thick forest cover lie billions of tonnes of coal reserves, much of which has already been allotted to various private and government applicants by the Coal Ministry. However, without the Environment Ministry's nod, in accordance with the Forest Conservation Act [FCA], none of the applicants can actually start mining their blocks.

For months, Mr. Ramesh has held that the FCA's provisions do not allow a clearance for Hasdeo-Arand. He now says he has changed his mind based on a set of reasons.

The first is that these blocks are “in the fringe” of the area, separated by a hilly ridge, creating a different watershed. He also acknowledged compromises made by the miners in order to reduce the number of trees cut and the number of years of mining operations, and to protect wildlife. “When the project proponent is prepared to demonstrate some flexibility to accommodate our concerns, I think we should also reciprocate,” he said.

Mr. Ramesh also invoked the “broader developmental picture,” and argued that since the coal-blocks are linked to supercritical thermal power plants – which emit less greenhouse gases to produce more power than their smaller counterparts – they should be approved.

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